The recent article regarding the relationship between Halifax and Mencap has brought to the fore a number of issues that are the result of what Paul Agaard rightly describes as “a very bad example of a partnership”.
There is more to modern cause marketing than creating the perception of integrity. Unless the fundamental principles of the charitable organisation are echoed by the business integrity of its partner, breakdown is inevitable. Marketers seek alliance with a charity for the very simple reason that it gives them easier access to a special-interest group and, of course, ethical positioning in the market as a whole. Their enhanced turnover must be upheld by the understanding that any hint of hypocrisy will undoubtedly swing the pendulum in the equal and opposite direction.
Cause-related marketing is, in effect, a positioning tool to enable more open demonstrations of good corporate citizenship. However, all too often once the benefits having been accrued, the obligation is forgotten. The corporate obligation here is one of ethics and when a charity whose core value is mostly made up of its ethical position is involved, it must ardently police its corporate relationships. Both parties should remember that in cause marketing you are only as good as your present and any hint of misbehaviour can bring a strong emotional backlash from the consumer public; witness Shell and Greenpeace’s public relations dÃ©bÃ¢cle two summers ago.
Unfortunately, there are wider issues at stake. Poorly-positioned cause marketing initiatives not only damage the relationship of those involved, but undermine the credibility of future beneficial arrangements between the charitable and corporate sectors, by the scepticism such behaviour introduces to the consumer.
The central thrust of cause marketing should be a simple desire to “do the right thing” by all parties concerned. Selfish marketing, seeking a cheaply-derived commercial advantage, is almost certain to miss the spot and when problems in the relationship arise. Those involved would be best served by remembering that the particular relationship was built by a desire to express good ethical positioning.
It is imperative as these two worlds merge that the consumer recognises that the integrity of the core business must not be waylaid by the peripheral issues which are often journalistic smoke and mirrors. Undoubtedly Halifax’s refusal to compensate disadvantaged members is a core issue, while Sainsbury’s support for the National Childbirth Trust, while still selling own-label powdered breast milk substitute, is more open to interpretation.
Should Mencap ultimately choose to reach a compromise agreement with the Halifax it will damage its hard-won reputation and deny other companies the opportunity to replace Halifax’s financial contributions in a new initiative built on the integrity and core values of both partners. In this climate of ethical positioning, it will be interesting to see whether or not Mencap will enjoy the support of the other partners to the Halifax Affinity Card as, undoubtedly, Halifax’s position reflects on the integrity of all concerned.
Essentially cause marketing is a new vehicle and, like most high-performance machinery, is best serviced by highly-trained specialised technicians, whose knowledge is deeper than the nearest DIY manual. It is difficult now to believe that the inept and amateurish handling of this issue will not have caused long-term damage all round. Not all clouds have a silver lining!