Why charity schemes need a delicate touch

Consumers are highly sceptical of companies running cause-related schemes, but rewards are high if handled well.

Companies have to tread a fine line between promoting their charity links and appearing boastful, because consumers are suspicious of both things.

If they don’t say enough about their charity links consumers believe the companies are hiding something and if they say too much they believe charities are being exploited by the big corporations. It makes the promotion of such schemes one of the most delicate jobs in marketing. Go too far one way and consumers believe you are using the charity, go the other and they will not even know of your involvement.

That is one of the findings of qualitative consumer research into people’s attitudes to company involvement in what has now entered the lexicon as “cause-related marketing”. The Game Plan is the third part of a study from Business in the Community – part one investigated the corporate view of such marketing and part two consisted of a quantitative study of consumer attitudes – designed to promote links, as the name suggests, between business and the community.

There has been a traditional reticence from business to promoting such links for fear of being accused of abusing the relationship with the charity or cause. But the scope of some of the more successful deals, ranging from Tesco’s Computers for Schools scheme, in its sixth year, to the Cadbury’s Strollerthon which principally benefits Save the Children, plus Nivea’s campaign against breast cancer, suggest there are lessons to be learned by other companies.

Conducted in September, the research asked detailed questions of 100 shoppers at a Tesco store in Pitsea, who were selected after choosing a product from a cause-related product range. There were a further six focus group discussions with consumers in Bristol, Leeds and London. It followed earlier research that showed 86 per cent of consumers would, if price and quality were equal, be more likely to switch to a brand which had a cause-related marketing benefit.

Although there is a strong groundswell of support for such schemes that unite the interests of both charity and commerce there remains a high level of scepticism. “I am very suspicious… my own opinion is that ‘promotionism’ is terrible and it cashes in on everything – probably Diana’s death too,” was the comment of one consumer at the Tesco store.

“Consumers start from a base of being indifferent and cynical,” admits Business in the Community director Sue Adkins, the author of The Game Plan. “The consumer does not want the company to boast about its involvement – that could go very badly.

“At the other extreme, many companies are still not saying enough about what they are doing and consumers start to think if companies are not bold about their involvement, are they trying to exploit the charity? Or are companies nervous and therefore trying to get away with doing little? But if a company gets it right and communicates with integrity it can convert the consumers into ambassadors.”

Certainly lack of awareness of the schemes, as revealed in the research, is huge – only 14 per cent of those who bought products with charity links in the store did so consciously. This suggests that those companies which are serious about the schemes need to improve their promotion.

The report says: “It was felt that business appeared to be reticent about promoting links to a charity or cause. This led to concerns that they are missing an opportunity to develop the partnership and its potential benefits both to the business and the charity or cause.” It also recommends that: “The promotion must be clear, visible, simple and take the minimum amount of time to understand.”

The lesson of The Game Plan research for companies is that those involved in progressive cause-related programmes need to market their in-volvement more clearly. Both to gain extra advantage from the programme but also to overcome the cynicism of consumers who question their involvement in the first place.

What the punters think

“In this day and age we all go to the supermarket and are given the chance to donate to charity through that… Perhaps 20, 30, 40 years ago everyone went to church and gave to charity through that, whereas people don’t go to church now, they go the supermarket.” Focus group Leeds, on consumerism as religion.

“When you think that shopping in a supermarket is likely to give you a coronary anyway you haven’t got time to stand there and think, ‘let’s see what it’s all about’.” Focus group Bristol, pleading for greater promotion of schemes.

“I think it looks like copying. It’s not very original.” Focus group Bristol, on a sports equipment voucher scheme. A sentiment echoed 250 miles away in Leeds by a frustrated consumer: “We collected vouchers for sports equipment and we collected hundreds and hundreds and got half a dozen spongy balls.”

Several consumers demanded longevity and more transparency in the dealings between companies and charities. “If they were doing it year on year, have a genuine commitment, published charities accounts and actually showed something tangible at the end of it, it would be better.” Focus group Leeds. “If it’s short-lived then I think it is just a marketing ploy.” Focus group London.

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