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Ending a Cause Marketing Relationship

Normally, when it comes to cause marketing I would say that longer relationships are better for sponsor and charity. Think Rolling Stones and U2 not Cream or Soft Cell. That’s because cause marketing is a form of co-branding and like any branding endeavor it takes years to for brands to achieve high customer awareness. Frequently changing partners confuses your customers and stakeholders.

For instance, I guarantee you that even after more than 15 years or so of deep association, in a test of unaided recall few people would be able to identify that Subway Sandwiches and the American Heart Association are co-branded partners.

I’ve written before that lasting corporate-cause relationships are like marriages that require constant maintenance. Or like bank accounts whereto you must make frequent deposits to cover the inevitable withdrawals.

But there are times when it makes sense to end cause marketing relationships.

For causes it’s probably more so a dollars and cents issue than it is even for sponsoring companies.

In the United States and Canada where charities are granted tax exempt status by the IRS and Canada Revenue Agency and in England and Scotland with the status conferred to Registered Charities, it’s all but immoral for charities to remain involved with a campaign that costs the charity more than it generates. And any charity that remains in a relationship that is “unprofitable” will be rightly second-guessed by its board, the press, and the public.

But there are other reasons for charities or sponsors to “break up the band.”
  • Scandal. When news emerged about the nature of the deal between the American Medical Association and Sunbeam, members of the AMA demanded that the deal be scotched even though doing so eventually cost the AMA some $16 million in court judgments and legal expenses (Sunbeam successfuly sued for breach of contract). The cost of scandal resulting from a bad deal, the AMA's board determined, was greater than the cost of the money.
  • Bankruptcy. If you’ve got a sponsor that has declared bankruptcy it’s potentially an opportunity for a nonprofit partner. After all, in bankruptcy cost-cutting is only one-half of the way out. Companies must also sell their way out and cause marketing may have a role to play in such a scenario. But when a sponsor declares bankruptcy the responsible thing for the charity to do is to go to the sponsor and offer to let them out of their contract.
  • Doesn’t work. What if you try every sort of permutation and still the campaign or relationship doesn’t work? Chances are it’s a bad fit (see below) but even if it just doesn’t work, you may need to end the deal.
  • Bad match. Sometimes customers respond in ways you can’t predict and what seemed like a good fit really isn’t. For instance, it may seem like good deal linking a BBQ grill company with a safety charity. But if customers don’t get the connection, or the cause doesn’t, by itself, have enough affinity to overcome the disconnect, you may have a bad match.
  • Colliding cultures. The sponsor might be too bleeding edge and the charity too staid. Or vice versa. I’ve seen both. Regardless, if the cultures of sponsors and charity don’t share some common ground, then the relationship may be doomed.

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