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Spin on Cause Marketing Strategy Stirs Controversy

June 26, 2008

Photo by Brave New Films

There’s certainly no shortage of topics that can fuel controversy these days, and sometimes it can come up in unexpected ways. Especially when you ask for opinions about subjects that people are passionate about. You never know what kind of nerve you might hit!

I came across a recent article at BusinessWeek‘s website titled “Meet the Antipreneurs“. The article highlighted businesses that target a growing consumer niche that is jaded about corporate business and big-brand advertising. They primarily promote their products by relying on word of mouth advertising from their customers.

As a former radio guy, I was drawn in by the story of Bill Goldsmith, who runs a successful listener supported internet radio station with a passionate following. What I found intriguing about him and the others in the article, is that they have made a strong emotional connection with a constituency that resonates with their message. According to the BizWeek article, “their marketing strategy is targeted toward consumers who have grown cynical about buying products and services from larger companies, whose methods they deem irresponsible.” I have found that this cynicism is a growing trend, especially among young people, and is influencing buying decisions.

A recent study by the American Marketing Association found that:

  • One out of every three consumers said they would be more likely to buy a product or service if they knew that a certain amount of the purchase price was being donated directly to a cause or campaign.
  • Young people age 18-24 and women are most likely to buy a product or service connected to cause-related marketing.
  • 40% of women versus 30% of men were more likely to buy a product or service if they knew that a certain amount of the purchase price was being donated directly to a cause or campaign.
  • 46% of respondents age 18-24 versus 31% of respondents 45-64 were more likely to buy a product or service if they knew that a certain amount of the purchase price was being donated directly to a cause or campaign.

The Pot Gets Stirred

Having that as a background, I floated a link to the article on Twitter and asked people to share their thoughts about the topic. What I found was that he term “antipreneur” seems to be a goad that pricked the sensibilities of most folks. A couple of Twitterbuds were especially bothered by what they felt was BizWeek’s cluelessness and hypocrisy about small business and entrepreneurism. And judging from the comments on the BizWeek article, others were not too thrilled either.

Walt Goshert, of The Marketing Caddy, wrote a scathing blog post lambasting BizWeek, the reporter, the article, and the business owners who were the subject of the article. On Twitter, he deemed the article shallow and too politically correct and wondered if the business owners cared more about the customers or the cause.

I got a similar response on Twitter from J.P. Micek of Tribal Seduction. J.P., along with his wife Deborah Micek, also writes about New Media Marketing at Entrepreneur Magazine’s blog network. He labeled BizWeek a rag, the business owners “anti-capitalist” and zeroed in on the “antipreneur” tag saying the article’s main trope was based on a faulty definition. Micek believes that BizWeek thinks entrepreneurs equal big corporations, but in reality, an entrepreneur is an individual who recognizes an opportunity and acts to profit from it.

I was a little surprised by such a strong reaction, though I do agree that the “antipreneur” label inflames the issues unnecessarily. However, it is precisely this strong reaction that indicates these businesses are doing something right with their marketing strategy. Why? Because the passion that surrounds a cause that you believe in makes for a strong emotional connection with your constituency.

Though I highly respect both Walt and J.P.’s opinions and achievements as marketers and business owners, I think the passion of their politics, fueled by BizWeek’s use of “antipreneur” blinded them in this instance to see the opportunity and viability of a marketing strategy that is cause related. That also applies to the commenters at BizWeek’s article. Personally, I just ignored the “antipreneur” nonsense and the politics of it all to focus on what works as a marketing strategy, period. Let’s just say that it is certain that none of the critics are the target market of the businesses featured in that article!

Transparency, Authenticity and Making an Emotional Connection

The need to be transparent and authentic in your business practices in the new media age is more vital than ever before. People do business with those they know, like and trust. They want to associate with those who have common interests and values. This is true regardless if you are an environmentally conscience vegan who likes granola and hiking in non-leather boots in the wilderness, or a card-carrying N.R.A. member who likes venison and hunting in a 4-wheel drive. One wants to protect Bambi’s right to peaceful coexistence with man and nature, and the other wants to protect the right to bear arms and hunt Bambi down to stock his freezer and fill his belly.

The point is, a message that resonates and forms a strong emotional connection with your constituency is a powerful marketing strategy. If you have a mission driven message that resonates with your customers, you will make a connection that has long term value. As Dr. Seuss once said, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

So what do you think? Is this type of marketing hypocritical and disingenuous or transparent and genuine. Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2008 6:12 am


    Excellent response and solid perspective.

    You’re right, as a marketer championing the entrepreneur, Business Week is not on my “subscribe” list. JP was kind when he called it a “rag”.

    Why the passionate, emotional response from me and JP? We are both passionate, transparent, and authentic about helping entrepreneurs. Business Week? Not so much. ALL they care about is selling advertising.

    And they have the gall to run an anti-advertising article on the backs of cause-driven small business owners. Pathetic.

    As to the profiled businesses, while I may not be in their ‘sweet spot” personally, I have no qualms with their cause-based approach… as long as they can “walk their walk.”

    Here’s my point.

    The radio guy stated: “I Hate Advertising!”

    So, guess that rules out a reprint of the BizWeek article and repackaging it as a direct mail piece to drive more subscribers?

    It’s one thing to fool people up-front with highly-charged emotional causes. It’s another to deliver transparent, authentic value… for the long-haul.

  2. June 27, 2008 12:25 pm

    Good post.

    As one who has spent the last five years trying to start a non-profit from scratch in Colorado Springs, this resonated with me. While I don’t have time right now to read the Business Week article, a couple of phrases popped out at me: authentic, word-of-mouth, emotional-connection, to name a few.

    One of my goals in the Springs was to establish good DNA from the start. To do this, I was reticent to attract any Tom, Diane, or Hussein that walked in the door. I was looking for leaders. I wanted solid people to build the foundation.

    The problem is, funding is tight and if you don’t build quickly enough to solidify the funding, all great dreams of authenticity fail. It is difficult to be totally altruistic – for we do live in a capitalistic society.

    Also, I believe, that some marketers say they are anti-brand, but they’re just using that sentiment to sell. When some do this, it puts pressure on those who truly seek to be authentic – and everyone falls under the hypocrite umbrella.

    Capitalism is a good system – it pays the bills. The challenge is finding the balance between transparent authenticity and good funding sources.

  3. June 27, 2008 1:25 pm

    Hi Dave,
    First, thanks for nod to the Dr. Seuss. Really, who cares what anyone else has to say – he’s already said it all.

    The whole “antipreneur” label aside (a new label will spring up soon I’m sure), it’s worth considering whether word of mouth can fly solo for all organizations. My best guess is that it’s not possible. While WOM is increasingly relevant for activist-minded younger audience (and others, not to generalize), it is most successful when supplemented by other marketing tactics. Even cause marketing needs strategic tentacles that cross-cut earned media/PR and advertising.

    Last time I checked, media relations is still impacting consumers via sheer visability/crediblity. And advertising, too, lends credibility to messages. eMarketer has great stats on this – I can’t keep up with all the data though.

    As someone who works to undergird organic word of mouth for clients with social media, PR and marketing, I definitely encourage strategic ad buys, whether its keyword marketing, text ads, or the 1/2 pager in a targeted publication. Full court press!

    But hats off to groups who can swing it with WOM alone. That’s a beautiful, rare thing. Thanks again for your great post, and I look forward to reading your blog more.

  4. June 27, 2008 2:09 pm

    Great post! Your conclusion says it all

    “The point is, a message that resonates and forms a strong emotional connection with your constituency is a powerful marketing strategy. If you have a mission driven message that resonates with your customers, you will make a connection that has long term value.”

  5. Dave Webb permalink*
    June 27, 2008 2:49 pm

    Walt – Thanks for fueling the fire on this topic. I appreciate your willingness to put the “real you” out there. I fully agree that walking the talk with consistency is paramount.

    Gary – I appreciate your nonprofit perspective and how you have put a high premium on establishing solid relationships from the get-go. Building on your transparency and authenticity, including your need for funding, is the right way to go.

    Qui – I like that you said, “Even cause marketing needs strategic tentacles that cross-cut earned media/PR and advertising.” I believe ALL marketing needs to be strategic, which you all at Livingston Communications also strongly believe. I agree that advertising done right can be part of that mix and you don’t have to sell-out to do it.

    Beth – As a social media consultant to nonprofits, I really appreciate your input on this. It’s always great to hear your viewpoint!

  6. June 27, 2008 4:01 pm

    Aloha Dave,

    Thanks for the mention. Just wanted to make one minor correction. I never said “the business owners anti-capitalist.”

    I merely stated that BizWeek’s preposition in the article and their central trope was seriously flawed. If they based the term “anti-preneur” on the correct definition of Entrepreneur (instead of their own mis-guided one,) it would indite the people featured in the article since they’d be fighting themselves.

    They ARE entrepreneurs capitalizing on emotional currents in the market to sell more of their products or services. They ARE providing a solution, wrapping it in emotion and profiting. No different than what corporations do, and definitely what successful entrepreneurs do.

    The subjects of the article (and BizWeek themselves) ARE capitalists. They are who they’re actually fighting against.

    I’d find the entire concept put forth in the article quite humorous, if their juvenile veil of political postering were not so offensive.

    Of course, thats all IMHBAO.


  7. Dave Webb permalink*
    June 27, 2008 4:26 pm

    JP – Duly noted. Thanks for the clarification and your contribution to the conversation.

  8. June 28, 2008 1:52 pm

    Dave, thanks for pointing me to this discussion! What I find really funny about the whole hoo-ha, and what many commenters on the article are reacting against, is that this type of cause-related “anti-marketing” marketing, is just another kind of marketing. I think you are right that the “anti-preneur” label is misleading and is actually irrelevant to the subject, which is using causes or politics to sell something. This can fall under what Rohit Bhargava calls “un-whatever marketing” (positioning your brand as the opposite of something else) OR “karmic marketing” (doing good with your brand), but it’s all marketing. When it works, it’s because it’s genuinely motivated. If not, the web 2.0 world will see right through it. Personally, I see it all as a very Gen-X style of doing things, where you can have different layers of meaning to what you are doing – i.e. selling something, building a business, making money, advancing a cause, bettering the world. For associations and non-profits, this is actually a very good model because non-profits are actually NOT not-for-profit, they have to make a living and stay in business like everybody else, but they are uncomfortable with that paradox.

  9. June 28, 2008 2:19 pm

    I thought the article was right on. However, it is difficult to be authentic. So many small businesses work under the pressure of having to put groceries on the table today that they will seldom tell their “Real Story.” But also more amazing is that typically when small business and even nonprofits look back on the previous 12 months they can find a common thread that attracted their best customers to them. That is how I explain their hook or their authenticity.

    Without checking sources, but often looking to Dr. Seuss for inspiration, did he not have a book on “I want to be somebody different.”

  10. Dave Webb permalink*
    June 28, 2008 8:45 pm

    Maddie – “It’s all marketing. When it works, it’s because it’s genuinely motivated. If not, the web 2.0 world will see right through it.” I think you make a good point here. If a business uses an “anti-marketing” marketing strategy to make a strong emotional connection to their target market, they’ve given them what they want in their relationship building experience, and ultimately, their buying experience.Today’s marketplace is not stupid. They’ll know if you’re not real and they may even realize your “anti-marketing” message really is marketing. But they won’t care if you market to them if they identify with the message you are putting out there.

    Excellent insights from a fresh voice – just what I hoped for (and expected) when I pointed you here! 🙂

    Joe – It’s true that it can be difficult to be authentic, but that “common thread” that tells the “Real Story” is what organizations need to be focusing on in the new networked economy. Good products and services that provide good value are not enough for an organization to cut through the clutter these days. People are bone-weary from the burden of sifting through the thousands of marketing messages they are exposed to every day. Making that emotional connection on something they are already passionate about may just be the energy drink they’ve been looking for.

  11. June 30, 2008 4:40 am

    Hi Dave,

    One key point of marketing is to identify who your target audience is. If your target audience is not young people (primarily in the millennial generation), then this article is not going to resonate very well.

    In general, the millennial generation is influenced by a desire to support worthy causes. They steer away from large corporations and traditional advertising. They also are very mobile and “networked.” I don’t care for the term antipreneur, but getting upset over the message in the article is not going to change the new generation. We’re going to have to understand what is important to them and market to using terms and communication channels where they can be reached.

    I did not feel the article was “anti-marketing” as much as it was addressing “new marketing.”

  12. Dave Webb permalink*
    June 30, 2008 5:31 pm

    Roger – I agree with your observation about the millennials. A younger demographic often expects a more edgy, in-your-face approach to marketing and will respond if you connect with them.

    Thanks for your insights & contribution to the conversation!

  13. Gloria Holmes Cooper permalink
    January 23, 2009 4:24 pm

    I agree with Maddie in that regardless of the label it is still marketing to a target audience. I think sometimes the new millennnials have simply found a new hook by calling it cause driven. I don’t mean to knock the altuistic sounding handles but as Joe said, even non- profits have to put the groceries on the table.
    The big corporations have so finely honed target advertising to specific demographics that we often feel almost spied upon! I think maybe that is the real issue with anti-preneurs, that of feeling manipulated. I think the real appeal of cause driven marketing is feeling the opportunity and freedom to choose to identify with a common cause (maybe even containing a certain nobility to it) even when they know they are being solicited for business.

  14. October 28, 2009 9:14 am

    I agree that some people completely missed the real value of the conversation and that is that value-driven marketing is a powerful and successful marketing strategy. It is also much easier for a small business to implement this kind of strategy than for a large corporation.

    A coffee shop owner who donates a certain portion of their profits to breast cancer research and participates in fund-raisers will be perceived as much more genuine than if Ecolabs did the same thing.

    However, there are ways around the “anti-big corporation” attitudes. McDonalds opened Chipotle as quietly as they could and the stores took off like a rocket because very few people realized this was a McDonalds business until it was too late. They were hooked on the convenience, the quality, the prices and the “cool” marketing.

    What if Barnes & Noble quietly started a chain of small, intimate “neighborhood” bookstores as franchises, owned and operated by locals, but backed by the corporate efficiencies and marketing muscle of B & N? Would there be an anti-Walmart style backlash?


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