Erase the Line Between Cause and Marketing

The need to keep corporate-social-responsibility efforts distinct from pure promotion may be vanishing.

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By Derek Newton

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Cause marketing isn't new. It's been around, up and down and reviewed many times as a tactic.

But something is new on the cause-marketing front and big companies and entrepreneurs alike would be wise to notice -- and employ. There's experimentation in doing the sort of thing that might have once been part of cause marketing as overt marketing. The result may be good for businesses and communities alike.

For the unfamiliar, when a company invests in a charity or goodwill project then buys ads to tell you about its good work, that's cause marketing. It doesn't undermine the contribution or commitment to the cause.

Related: Has Your Company's Charitable Giving Become an Empty Ritual?

And many, many nonprofit organizations doing amazing things rely on corporate generosity and philanthropy to fulfill their missions. The nonprofit that employs me, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, is just one such example.

It's doubtful that companies, especially big ones, give out money merely to add their corporate logo to a nonprofit's website. It's unlikely that a startup such as JackPack is solely calculating the impact on customers when it decides to dedicate to Vitamin Angels a portion of each purchase of its Pretty Fit product, a curated selection of fitness materials for women.

Companies big and small do good things simply because they are good things.

"I was inspired by TOMS [managers] and how they give a pair of shoes out for every pair they sell and also Warby Parker's glasses distribution," JackPack founder Zak Tanjeloff tells me. "Obviously we couldn't be giving out product -- pre-workout boxes -- to those who may need them. But basic nutrients and vitamins are unfortunately in high demand in vulnerable parts of the world and we wanted to do our part."

Related: Don't Let These 3 Myths Stop You From Launching a Cause-Marketing Campaign

Nonetheless, it's hard to deny the benefits -- in taxes, goodwill and marketing -- that companies can reap for noble efforts. Indeed, the line between corporate social responsibility and pure marketing has long been a tad fuzzy.

And at least one big company is experimenting.

Microsoft, for example, has hired Education Funding Partners to literally give away its products in schools. Business observers would expect that such a matter would be handled by Microsoft's corporate social responsibility people. But EFP's Freeman is clear: His firm is a marketing company and doesn't get involved with corporate social responsibility work. And a Microsoft spokeswoman confirms that indeed the project is funding from the company's marketing budget.

And Microsoft is "leveraging this new marketing platform to invest in schools and help students learn," Mickey Freeman, CEO of EFP, tells me by email. "It's smart to build socially responsible marketing relationships with parents, teachers, and students on the path to a lifetime of brand engagement."

Related: 4 Ways to Rewire the Corporate Brain to Compete in the 21st Century

It may be. But the truth is consumers aren't likely to know, distinguish or care which part of a company is paying for the good deeds. It sure won't matter if you're the parent of a student receiving free software. And, at least at the big companies, the marketing teams probably wield larger budgets and can work faster than the philanthropic arms, which can be good for everyone.

The lesson here is that there's no need to view corporate social responsibility and marketing as different anymore. With a big name like Microsoft out in front of this trend, even startups and small businesses may be able to do good things with their marketing money.

If moving marketing money into good causes helps the community and your bottom line, why not become involved? The line as has been so murky for so long, it's time that people just erased it.

Related: How Giving Could Become Your Default Weapon of Choice

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated with a statement from a Microsoft spokeswoman.

Derek Newton

NYC based communications and public relations professional

Derek Newton is a communications expert and writer based in New York City. He has been working in nonprofit, political and policy communications for more than 20 years and helped launch several startups. 

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