The Shadow Side of Cause Marketing (and How to Do It Well)

The Shadow Side of Cause Marketing (and How to Do It Well)

By Celina Jimenez


In 2006, Apple partnered with (RED) in their mission to eradicate the HIV/AIDS epidemic in perhaps one of the decade’s most recognizable examples of cause marketing. The mission was simple, yet profoundly impactful – Apple would release exclusive PRODUCT(RED) electronics, with a portion of the sales going directly towards international treatment programs. Since then, Apple has donated nearly $250 million to fund HIV/AIDS treatment programs.

An initiative like this sounds like the perfect solution for powerful companies committed to funding causes that need it most – and in many ways, it really is. But cause-driven consumerism (also referred to as “cause marketing” or “consumption philanthropy”) cannot be discussed without also considering the long-term efficacy and sincerity of it all. Is cause marketing all good, or can it be done improperly?

An article in Stanford Social Innovation Review suggested there are consequences to mixing business with philanthropy – and these consequences often have negative long-term effects, even in the face of positive and successful short-term impacts. 


A word of caution about cause marketing

The concept that business and philanthropy shouldn’t be mixed implies that the two inherently clash and aren’t ethically and morally harmonious, so to speak. Some scholars argue that when a consumer purchases an item from a company that promises to send a portion of proceeds to a certain cause, the consumer isn’t really exercising their “moral core” – they’re simply going about their usual shopping and indirectly supporting a cause. 

Moreover, cause marketing can deter people from acknowledging that the market itself may be a root cause of the very charity they’re supporting. For example, say you go to a store and buy a limited-edition doll that helps fight childhood cancer. While the donation itself is helping the cause, the processes and materials that go into creating this doll may in fact be creating the same toxins potentially causing cancer. 

While there are more conscious approaches to cause marketing that can and should be implemented, philanthropy has to start from within each and every organization. Sincere philanthropy is an effort to do better for all – so if a company isn’t taking care of their employees, environment and community, the donations can come across as a smoke screen disguising underlying needs that aren’t being met. 

For instance, do these same companies donating thousands of dollars to charity pay their employees a living wage? Do they have protections in place to prevent workplace accidents? Are their production practices environmentally-friendly, and are they supporting their local community as much as global charities? Before large-scale cause marketing efforts are planned and implemented, these internal issues need to be addressed. 

Does this mean organizations should avoid cause marketing efforts altogether? Absolutely not! Even in the examples stated above, the positive impact of these efforts can’t be overlooked. Charitable donations and partnerships with nonprofits are inherently meaningful efforts that can raise substantial amounts of money for great causes  – the key is to make these decisions consciously and intentionally. Organizations of any size can instigate philanthropic initiatives that are truly authentic and meaningful without neglecting underlying needs or enabling long-term issues. 


What is the foundation for a meaningful cause marketing campaign?

The demand for cause marketing certainly exists – according to a study by SalesFuel, 70 percent of consumers are more likely to support brands that show long-term support for a cause. 

BrandWatch suggests an important starting point for developing a cause marketing strategy is to partner directly with the non-profit you’re supporting and collaborate with them to maximize efficacy and reach of your efforts. And remember, money isn’t the only thing companies can contribute to a charity organization – donations of time and services can be just as meaningful and advance their cause in a different, but equally significant way. For example, agencies can offer branding or social media services to promote a charity’s efforts or special events. 

In fact, consumers agree money isn’t enough – 64 percent of those surveyed say they need to see brands implementing social good into their business practices on top of donating money. 

In addition to supporting global and local charities, brands can also leverage cause marketing tactics to align themselves with certain social causes and movements – though, again, this must be done tactfully and sincerely so as not to come across as performative. The key is to understand your consumer and take a bold stance that aligns with morals and views you already know exist within that consumer base.

Take Lush Cosmetics, for example. In 2018, their UK offices took a risk by executing a campaign in response to the scandal of undercover police officers tracking and spying on activists. Displays touting “police have crossed the line” dotted storefronts, and those who disagreed with Lush’s “anti-cop sentiments” vowed to never shop there again.

The end result? A 13 percent increase in sales. 


The bottom line

At the end of the day, what is the solution to performative and incomplete cause marketing efforts, and how can companies take an authentic approach that uplifts causes from the inside out? How can brands align their products with a cause in a thoughtful, inclusive way that isn’t merely putting a bandage over an underlying issue that they may be reinforcing?

Ultimately, change needs to start from the inside. True philanthropy may require more time and effort than simply creating a marketing strategy and promising to donate proceeds – but therein lies an opportunity for companies to truly embody the message they’re hoping to send through these partnerships.

The surge of social justice protests that occurred in the summer of 2020 led to a massive call for brands to make their stances known and be transparent about their ethics and commitment to racial equality within their communities. Studies by Engage for Good confirmed that consumers vowed to make future buying decisions based on actions taken by companies, and 85 percent of Americans expect the companies they support to address racial inequality.  

This is a prime example of the importance of inside-out philanthropy and moral alignment – it isn’t enough for companies to simply issue an anti-racist statement on social media, donate to Black Lives Matter and call it a day. People of color need to see that these same brands are also employing a diverse pool of people and making anti-racism and equality a part of their daily movements and aspirations. 

If a company wants to align themselves with a particular cause or movement, they must start by looking within. Only then can they create cause marketing efforts that not only reap benefits in the short-term, but empower global long-term efforts to make our communities a safer, healthier and stronger place for all.


Celina Jiménez is a copywriter by day and a poet by night. She is passionate about uplifting underrepresented voices and empowering her community through her work, and is currently based in Phoenix, Arizona. You can reach her on her personal website, Twitter or Instagram.

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