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Democratized Cause Marketing That I Don't Totally Hate

King’s Hawaiian, which makes those fat loaves of pillowy-sweet bread is doing one of those democratized cause marketing efforts that I love to hate. Only I don’t exactly hate this one from my Hawaiian ‘ohana’ as much.

You know what I mean when I say democratized cause marketing; the cause that gets the most votes takes home the biggest check. A second characteristic is that much of activation occurs via the standard social networks. American Express did it with its Members Project. Pepsi infamously did it with Pepsi Refresh. Redwood Creek, a wine brand, does one as well. And there are more.

What I hate about these efforts is that they pit charities against each other in ways that I find unseemly. All of us want to see charities cooperating for the greater good, not elbowing out their perceived competitors at the trough.These kinds of promotions can bring out the worst in causes.

Also, there’s a frequently a strong Matthew Effect at work in these efforts; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is, charities with bigger lists or a greater skill at social media tend to do better.

Part of Pepsi Refresh’s problem was that it got gamed by unscrupulous operators. I’ve been told that the second-place finisher in a recent democratized cause marketing campaign from Target hired a political advocacy group to boost its votes. The first place finisher was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, with whom Target has had a long-standing relationship. The second-place charity had no traditional relationship with Target.

King’s Hawaiian’s effort, called Project Mahalo, mitigates one of my complaints. There’s a defined universe of charities to vote for; Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, Family Caregiver Alliance, Meals on Wheels Association of America, and, One Warm Coat. With no self-nomination procedure you largely eliminate the kind of shady gamesmanship you saw with Pepsi Refresh.

King’s Hawaiian could get around some of the inherent Matthew Effect in this promotion by guaranteeing all the participants a minimum donation of perhaps $5,000 to $10,000. 

But that still leaves the charity arm-wrestling contest for the prize, in this case $25,000. What I’d love to see is a sponsor say, in effect is, “here’s a fat prize for several charities that can work together to tackle a daunting challenge. Best plan wins.”

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