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Transactional Cause Marketing Versus Lump Sum Charitable Donations

Been thinking a lot about the topic of transactional cause marketing versus publicized corporate charitable donations. Cone’s most recent Cause Evolution study found that people are only slightly more favorably inclined towards companies employing transactional cause marketing (53%) than to lump sum charitable donations (47%).

Transactional cause marketing is when the sponsor ties its donation to a purchase.

Cone’s survey comes on the heals of a small study highlighted in the 2008 book, “Yes: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive,” by Goldstein, Martin, Cialdini.

In this instance, the authors test what amounts to a cause marketing approach to persuade guests in a hotel to reuse the towels in their room. They test a transactional cause marketing approach: “reuse their towels and the hotel will make a donation to an environmental cause.” But they found it no more effective than the card left in the room simply asking people to reuse their towels for the sake of the environment.

The authors then hypothesize that there’s a strong incentive to repay the favor of a donation that’s already occurred. So, they test the idea that the hotels offer the donation with no string attached by leaving a card in the room that says that a donation has already been made on behalf of its guests. The result? 45% more reused their towels than those who got the transactional cause marketing message.

I’m still processing this but I wonder what happens if the charitable donation is in-kind? Does the company’s halo shine just as brightly as if they donated cash? What if the in-kind donation comes in the form of shared ad space?

How well does that move the needle?

There’s an ad in the Alden Keene Cause marketing Database for vitamin D supplements from GNC and in support of the Melanoma Research Alliance. The Alliance funds research into melanoma, which kills right around 9,000 Americans every year. The late great Bob Marley died of melanoma at the tender age of 36. GNC sells supplements and nutritional products at mall stores.

The ad was in the November 2010 issue of Real Simple magazine. The copy is about supplementing your diet with vitamin D, a vitamin vital to good health. There’s plenty of vitamin D available to all of us. Our body synthesizes vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight.

But nowadays, under the advice of dermatologists, many Americans tend to cover up in sunscreen before going outside, thereby inhibiting the body's ability to produce vitamin D. GNC sells vitamin D supplements, so they’ve got a dog in this fight.

While GNC has engaged in numerous corporate charitable donations and cause marketing campaigns, it doesn’t seem to be donating money to the Melanoma Research Alliance. Here’s how the MRA’s President Wendy K.D. Selig positioned their relationship in an open letter dated October 15, 2010.

"I am pleased to announce that MRA has joined with General Nutrition Center (GNC) in working to generate resources and increase awareness to fight melanoma. Jointly we will be delivering an important message to the public: you don’t need to put yourself at risk of deadly skin cancer to get an adequate supply of vitamin D. We are teaming up to educate the public about melanoma and ways to reduce risk, including avoiding dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays (from the sun and from indoor tanning), and knowing and regularly examining your skin. Through online tools, print publications and other outreach efforts, we expect to reach millions of people with this important information."

It’s an important message, to be sure. But does sharing space in magazine ads with a cause stimulate the same kind of good will towards a sponsor that a good ole’ transactional cause marketing campaign does?

Next logical question is: how would you know if it did?

With transactional cause marketing, when all is said and done you can compare sales figures against a logical cohort and get a sense of correlation, maybe even causation, based on what’s different

But with pre-donations, who can say? Moreover, it’s pretty easy to reach hotel guests with a table-top card on the desk in the room. But if you’re Procter and Gamble reaching customers is a different story.

If you’re an active cause marketer, I think it’s worth trying this non-transactional cause marketing approach out with a discrete population. But I’d be reluctant to roll out this approach in a bigger way until more questions are answered.

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