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Open Source Cause Marketing

At left is a thermometer that displays the ambient room temperature on its maker’s computer screen. It was built by a friend using an Arduino circuit board. Arduino is an open source hardware control unit. He could plug in a humidity sensor and do a little more programming and his display would show the humidity in the room. He could add an altimeter, or a GPS sensor to display latitude and longitude. He could set up a website to put on view the temperature of the room where he works. He could add an accelerometer to signal earthquake activity (or theft of the device). He could have the unit send him text if the temperature in the room rose above 80 degrees. Etc., etc.

By now business people, even those outside of IT, are sort of inured to the idea of ‘open source’ anything. But open source cause marketers still offers cause marketers countless opportunities.

Two examples of open source cause marketing leap to mind.

General Mills’ Box Tops for Education campaign is an open source cause marketing campaign. I realized this several years back when I walked into Sam’s Club and was handed a handbill that detailed a small promotion for earning bonus Box Tops.

On the backside were listed 33 items available in Sam’s Club that participate in Boxtops for Education. But here’s the kicker, they weren’t all General Mills products. As I’ve noted before, General Mills opened up Box Tops to non-competing brands in 2006.

In effect, General Mills has opened up its “source code” to non-competing brands, including Scott paper towels, Huggies baby wipes, Hefty disposable plates, plus at various times retailers including J.C. Penney, Land’s End, and, to a degree, Sam’s Club.

Why does General Mills do this?
  • In software coding you do it for several reasons none the least of which is that many hands make light work.
  • Certainly the change has boosted the campaign. It took Box Tops from its founding in 1996 to 2004 to reach its first $100 million in donations to America’s schools. By 2007, they crossed the $200 million mark. Now in 2012 total giving is north of $475 million.
  • Relatedly, after all its brands were in the program, General Mills had only two ways to grow the campaign: organically or by bringing in other outside brands.
  • General Mills probably gets some sort of fee from the other participants for administering the campaign.
  • Plus, there’s broader competitive reasons. Retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, Kroger and others all sell house brands that compete with General Mills, Kimberly-Clark, Ziploc and others. Oftentimes those house brands represent a retailer’s richest profit margins. Consumers are buying more and more of these of these house brands. Box Tops for Education represents a way for manufacturers to stem that tide.
A second prominent open source cause marketing effort is the pink ribbon campaign, which signifies breast cancer awareness.

In the United States no one ‘owns’ the pink ribbon, although Susan G. Komen for the Cure has trademarked the terms ‘pink ribbon regatta,’ ‘pink ribbon golf tourney,’ and ‘pink ribbon celebration.’ And the National Breast Cancer Foundation trademarked ‘pink ribbon challenge.' Komen also owns a stylized version of the ribbon that is associated with the charity’s walk and race events.

But pink ribbons by themselves are not trademarked Stateside and, at this point, probably couldn’t be. Pink ribbons therefore are, in effect, an ‘open-source charity icon.' Any of the breast cancer charities can use pink ribbons anyway they want. So can for-profit entities.

Of course this leads to abuses that tick off people But despite the potential for abuse, it is because no one owns the pink ribbon that it’s as valuable as it is.

That’s the paradox and promise of open source cause marketing.


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