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Finding a Marketing Shoe That Fits

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We live in the age of awareness. The world feels smaller, its problems are clearer, and its solutions—so they seem—are more manageable. No longer do I picture Africa as a distant place with insurmountable, unimaginable trials. I just see a $10 mosquito net. Creative framing and ingenious invitations have made getting involved a snap. And the sheer number of opportunities provides even the tiniest niche of people with something to do.

Since folks are in the market for buying causes, marketers are in the business of selling them. But not all cause marketing is created equal. Sometimes it misses, and sometimes the shoe fits just right. Here are three variations of cause marketing and why it matters that we know the difference:

    1. Make the cause secondary
    2. Make the cause solitary
    3. Make the cause primary

(RED): Make the cause secondary

According to their website, “(RED) is a simple idea that transforms our incredible collective power as consumers into a financial force to help others in need. (RED) is where desire meets virtue."

Huge brands like Dell and Gap have partnered with (RED), and they claim to have helped 2.5 million lives so far. I like this. What I don’t like is making the cause secondary to the allure of becoming a celebrity.

Bob Garfield, Advertising Age ad critic, makes the following comment about Dell’s 2008 Super Bowl commercial: “The Dell commercial doesn't even try to sell people on charitable giving. It turns the (RED) laptop into a sort of chic magnet . . ., the aids crisis turned into an Axe commercial.”

This approach misses the mark.

15 BELOW JACKET: Make the cause solitary

You can't read the small text in that image, but here's what it says: "EMERGENCY BLANKET: An oversized (40" x 60") poster, printed on newsprint, is sent out to homeless shelters with each 15 Below jacket. As the poster unfolds, one side shows how the coat works with simple illustrations and instructions printed in multiple languages. The other side of the poster features a large image of a blanket. The idea is to tear the poster into strips and stuff it into the multiple pockets of the 15 Below jacket to act as insulation. Stuffed with newspaper, this jacket will insulate the body, helping to ensure survival through the night. In this sense, the medium is more than the message. For someone living on the street, it could be a lifeline."

In this very different example, the cause isn’t the secondary point or even the primary pointit’s the only point: Help the homeless. I don’t believe altruism exists, so I’d guess there are other reasons for this campaign. Nonetheless, it comes undeniably close to acting like Jesus and I like it. Marketing firm, TAXI, made this super cool, highly practical, well-made, necessary coat for the homeless. That’s it. No need to buy anything to get one. You can’t even buy one for yourself.

The campaign inspires me to be hopeful: “Then the King will say to the advertising agency on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For. . . I needed clothes and you clothed me . . .’ ” (From Matthew 25:34, 36).

TOMS SHOES: Make the cause primary

My third example shifts away from the selfish desires of the first and the more purely philanthropic nature of the second. TOMS Shoes, a for-profit shoe company, sells a product. But it makes a cause primary. Just read their blog. The cause fueled “Chief Shoe Giver,” Blake Mycoskie, to begin this venture, and it fuels his entire global team of employees, interns, and vagabonds. Their cause: “For every pair purchased, TOMS will give a pair of shoes to a child in need. One for One."

Like the (RED) example, TOMS relies upon our consumer power. Unlike (RED), however, it doesn’t depend upon our desire for stuff. It doesn’t make charity a residual effect to shopping. Rather, it comes first. Yes, you get your own pair of shoes, but more as a Thank You and not as an incentive.

I like this model because it shows a decent relationship between Jesus’ call to care and the room God makes for marketing in the created order. I don’t know how well Blake Mycoskie knows Jesus, but we can appreciate the way he’s found a marketing shoe that fits. And we can applaud his social media marketing agency for doing such a good job with the concept.

As your awareness grows, pick a cause (or causes) to stand on. Just don’t settle for anything. Bad shoes hurt.

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Sam Van Eman is the author of On Earth as It Is in Advertising and the blog New Breed of Advertisers. He is a very active member of HighCallingBlogs.com, an online community that focuses on work and God.

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