Philanthropic Marketing and How to Stay Authentic

It is no secret that COVID-19 has led to the reallocation of resources into pandemic-related operations/causes, with corporate giants like PepsiCo, Facebook and many others putting millions into their COVID-19 response.

In the latest news, Budweiser announced that for the first time in 37 years, it will not be running an in-game Super Bowl ad. Rather, parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev will be reallocating this money to support COVID-19 access and vaccine awareness. The ad launched on YouTube with over one million views and an overwhelming like to dislike ratio. Overall, the ad has been well-received by consumers.

However, cynical consumers may question ulterior motives.

Four years ago, Budweiser ran an advertisement estimated to cost $5 million, about how they donated 2 million cans of water to communities impacted by hurricanes, flooding, or wildfires. Some Twitter users speculated that the actual cost of this water was about 100 thousand dollars worth. Though they failed to account for the costs associated with logistics and distribution (which is an important factor) the contrast between the cost to run the advertisement and the philanthropic contribution is staggering.

So it begs the question: to what degree are corporations participating in social initiatives as an advertising tactic?

Of course, corporations have complex relationships with stakeholders, many of whom depend on a bottom line. It’s a safe bet to assume that corporations are active in social issues for marketing purposes just as much as they’re in it for philanthropic generosity.

If so, can corporations ever win in the era of anti-big-brand?

The answer is: yes, but with strong investment into a number of factors:

Transparency: Avoid vague language. For example, When JA Apparel Corp. (parent company of Nordstrom) and Doctors Without Borders teamed up following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, they promised that “a portion of our sales at Nordstrom will be donated.” The phrase is open-ended and ambiguous in its intention, causing the overall message to fall flat.

Appropriate Fit: Make sure that the general mission between cause and company are aligned. In the above example, it’s easy to see the ill-fitting contrast between luxury suits and charitable efforts in impoverished areas within Haiti.

True Necessity: Ensure that the cause is genuinely fixing the problem it is intending to solve. TOMS shoes ran into this issue with their original business model of a one-for-one offer: purchase a pair of TOMS and the company would also donate a pair to a child living in poverty, improving their quality of life. However, critics found that shoes were a superficial solution to the much more complicated factors of poverty. A study even suggested that receiving the shoes caused children to spend a bit less time on homework and become a bit more dependent on outside aid. This also spotlights the consequential impact on the native economy.

TOMS has since eliminated their one-for-one model in favor of new portfolios and philanthropy. This includes one-third of net profits being contributed to its giving fund and a birth kit to address the issues of birthing conditions. They are still donating shoes but are now sourcing from local producers.

360-Degree Integration: Philanthropy is not a campaign strategy or a budget item, it is a 360-degree integration into operations, training and all other business activities. Ben & Jerry’s is a strong example of this, integrating philanthropy in their supply chain with local sourcing, hiring with employee initiatives, and grassroots action to push for systematic change.

Ultimately, corporations have the power to make true, systematic changes through well-thought-out initiatives. Anything less may be perceived as cosmetic and inauthentic marketing.