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Compassion, Inc.

How Corporate America Blurs the Line between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help

Mara Einstein (Author)

Available worldwide
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Hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN: 9780520266520
April 2012
$31.95, £21.95
Pink ribbons, red dresses, and greenwashing—American corporations are scrambling to tug at consumer heartstrings through cause-related marketing, corporate social responsibility, and ethical branding, tactics that can increase sales by as much as 74%. Harmless? Marketing insider Mara Einstein demonstrates in this penetrating analysis why the answer is a resounding “No!” In Compassion, Inc. she outlines how cause-related marketing desensitizes the public by putting a pleasant face on complex problems. She takes us through the unseen ways in which large sums of consumer dollars go into corporate coffers rather than helping the less fortunate. She also discusses companies that truly do make the world a better place, and those that just pretend to.
Preface

1 Value Brands . . . They Ain’t What They Used to Be
2 How Corporations Co-Opt Caring: Strategic Philanthropy, Cause-Related Marketing, and Corporate Social Responsibility
3 The Birth of the Hypercharity and the Rise of “Charitainment”
4 The Consequences of Co-Opting Compassion
5 Shopping Is Not Philanthropy. Period.
6 Can Companies Make a Difference?
7 We Are Not Consumers

Notes
Index
Mara Einstein is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Queens College. She is the author of Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. She has worked as a senior marketing executive in both broadcast and cable television as well as at major advertising agencies.
“”Einstein has the unenviable task of reminding us that shopping is not philanthropy. The consumer marketplace is increasingly becoming the mechanism for funding organizations that do charitable work, thus tying the fates of charities to the whims of the market, Einstein warns. It is also enabling governments to further abdicate problem-solving, with the result that the causes we care so much about are not genuinely helped.”—Laura Orlando Ms Magazine
“Einstein’s message is especially powerful because she is not cynically hostile to corporate America or the free market; this book is not, by any stretch about bashing corporate America. . . . Given the effectiveness of cause-related marketing, we’re likely only to see more of it. Einstein’s book is a powerful call to be more attentive to whether we’re letting ourselves try to be philanthropic on the cheap by “giving” to others when we’re really just getting something for ourselves.”—Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill Philanthropy Daily
“A highly worthwhile read with prescriptive examples for authentic sustainability and social justice initiatives at companies—not all about the brand, the celebrity or corporate self-interest.”—Rebecca Aguilar Book Kvetch Blog
“On our must-read list. . . . Books like Compassion, Inc. can help us remember the importance of thinking deeply and critically about they ways in which we work to create a better world for all.”—Humane Connection
“Marketing campaigns associated with philanthropy . . . may sound magnanimous, but when Einstein shines a lens on the practice, she finds considerable cracks in the veneer.”—Laura Orlando Ms Magazine
"Provocative."—Rance Crain Advertising Age
"Eminently readable. . . . Few have questioned whether [corporate charitable giving] strategies are good for anyone but corporations. Mara Einstein is one of the brave few."—Billie Sandberg International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR)
“Mara Einstein once again brings a clear head and discerning eye to one of our culture's most energetically promoted yet ambiguously motivated sectors. Whether you want to do real good for the world - or simply ridicule those who have been fooled into thinking they are - this book will show you the light.” -Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back

"Mara Einstein pulls back the curtain on some of the most important marketing developments of our day with a nuanced analysis that is both penetrating and fair minded." -Joseph Turow, author of The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your World

Compassion, Inc challenges us as human beings to look at the true effects of our attempts to "purchase for positive social change." Einstein clearly articulates how we are too often creating the very same problems we are trying to solve. In this smart and well-researched look at the oxymoron of sustainable consumption, Einstein shows us that there is indeed another way, and how we can be more effective as consumers, but most importantly as citizens.” -Courtney Hull, Hull Family Foundation

1

Value Brands ... They Ain't What They Used to Be

Do you have a yellow Livestrong bracelet on your wrist? Okay, probably not on your wrist anymore, but maybe hidden in a drawer somewhere? And maybe it's not a yellow bracelet. Maybe it's a pink one for breast cancer or a red one for AIDS. You probably donated a buck or two to get it.

Acquiring something in return for a donation has been a staple of philanthropic giving for decades, be it personalized address labels or a red ribbon with a safety pin. But in 2004, Livestrong bracelets changed the charitable fund-raising game in two fundamental ways. First, Livestrong combined a charity with a superstar athlete-Lance Armstrong-and a marketing powerhouse-Nike-to promote a cause based on Armstrong's personal experience. Nike created the yellow band, and subsequently a full line of related yellow products. Livestrong takes the spotlight and reaps the profits (tens of millions of bracelets were sold in the first year alone). Even though Nike loses money on this on-going campaign, it continues to support the cause because of the goodwill it confers. Second, and more important for our discussion, this was the first step in moving donations from charitable giving to charitable purchasing-a subtle shift in emphasis from receiver to giver.

This change occurred because Livestrong is not simply a charity; it's a marketing program. Marketing, at its base, is the act of understanding consumers' wants and needs. Once marketers understand these underlying desires, they create products that fill those needs. The need being filled might be simple-I'm thirsty, so I buy a bottle of water-or it may be more complex, as in the case of Livestrong-I am a caring person and I want to show that to people I meet. To serve that need, Livestrong's marketers created a readily recognizable symbol that not only communicates "I care" but is highly visible-it's bright yellow (like the yellow shirt Armstrong got for winning the Tour de France). Thus you aren't just supporting a charity and you aren't just buying a bracelet; you are buying a bracelet with a benefit. For just a dollar you get to wear the latest fashion accessory and show the world your philanthropic nature.

This is very different, then, from writing a check at the end of the year in the privacy of your home or donating money via the Internet. Making a purchase and wearing a product, particularly on a daily basis, is a very public act. That bright yellow band broadcasts to the world that you are concerned enough about cancer to do something about it. And, in doing this, Livestrong is as much about you as it is about cancer.

For sure, the Lance Armstrong Foundation benefits from this exchange. Millions of people happily put down a buck to buy a band, and those individually inexpensive purchases added up to serious money. On top of that, everyone who buys the bracelet-something that unlike a T-shirt or a lapel pin can be worn day in and day out-acts as a walking billboard for the charity, providing Livestrong with priceless free publicity.

In the end, though, this campaign did far more than raise money and awareness for charity through the use of sophisticated marketing techniques. It initiated social marketing's march into the world of consumer product branding.

Two years later, another shift occurred that moved social causes fully into the realm of a branded consumer venture-the launch of the (RED) campaign. (RED) amassed numerous upscale consumer product companies and asked them to use the (RED) parentheses to connote to consumers that a percentage of a product's sales price-be it a cup of Starbucks or a red iPod or a Motorola phone-would go to the Global Fund, which works to assuage AIDS in Africa.

From a consumer culture perspective, (RED) created a seismic shift in how we perceive philanthropy and social justice. (RED) is not a product or a company or even a charity. It's a brand-a name, a logo (the parentheses), and a mythology (it was begun by Bono to save the world). That's it. A brand like McDonald's golden arches or Nike's swoosh, slapped onto a number of high-end consumer products so that "companies [can] expand their customer base and bottom-line by combining their products with a brand that is both culturally significant and compassionate," according to Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund. There's just one problem with that sentiment. A brand cannot be compassionate, only people can.

So why did raising money for charity move from appealing to individual altruism to selling consumer products branded as a charitable good? There are three reasons: one consumer-based, discussed here, one based on changes in corporate responsibility, and one based on new methods of charitable fund-raising; the last two are discussed in the next two chapters.

From a marketing perspective, the first thing to consider is that our consumer environment has become increasingly noisy, and it is exceedingly difficult for any one message-charitable or otherwise-to be heard above any other. Americans are exposed on average to 3,000 marketing messages a day, and we have access to tens of thousands of product options in our supermarkets, drug stores, and the nearest Walmart. Because of this, organizations of any type that are trying to get our attention must do something to make themselves stand out. Branding has become the primary means of doing that.

The second consideration is that the proliferation of a personalized economy has contributed to the commercialization of charity. A personalized economy is one where it is assumed that every individual person's needs can be met by a consumer product customized or nearly customized to individual expectations. This specialization in conjunction with ubiquitous media and concomitant advertising has us socialized to expect immediate gratification in an increasing number of areas: "we want what we want when we want it." We take it for granted that there is a product to supply any need, from love (online dating is a $1 billion annual industry) to weight loss (a $60 billion business annually). This expectation is rapidly being transferred to social causes-we begin to look for short-term fixes for long-term social ills, not because we believe this can be achieved but because the immediate gratification of consumer culture leads us to think that way.

In a competitive environment where consumers have limited disposable income, charities are compelled to present themselves as valuable commodities, products (not only services) that are worthy of people's dollars, because they meet personal needs. To do this, charities are being packaged and promoted. They are associating themselves with consumer products and celebrities. They need to break through the media clutter, and for that to happen, a charity needs to establish a brand identity.

A Quick History of Advertising and Marketing

Criers-young boys crying their wares-are widely considered the earliest form of advertising. It was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, however, that led to the broad dissemination of advertising. Early ads (handbills really) were used to sell books of religious verse, and sales messages were straightforward-"This is a book, this is how much it costs, and this is where you can buy one." These clear-cut messages remained the promotional standard for hundreds of years.

The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ushered in mass production. The goal of marketers, then, was to sell the vast quantity of products coming out of the factories to anyone who would buy them. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few manufacturers began attaching brand names to their wares; it was hoped that consumers would purchase a specific brand-named product over something that was nameless and generic. This strategy was so successful that by the turn of the twentieth century, branding was becoming standard industry practice. Thetwentieth century also ushered in what the historian T.J. Jackson Lears calls the "therapeutic ethos," which suggested that product purchases could provide not only gratification through having bought a product but also fulfillment and peace of mind for having done so. The advertising spotlight thus shifted from product attributes (physical features) to user benefits (what the customer gets). So, for example, in the 1920s, mouthwash was no longer only about making your mouth healthy, but rather about relieving halitosis, and therefore about making you more appealing to other people. This idea continued into the 1950s, when Marlboro cigarettes were not only about smoking, but about rugged individualism and a way to escape the grind of corporate America. Today, light bulbs aren't only about illuminating a room, but about helping save the planet. Selling through the psyche has prevailed as the dominant marketing method, and mass-produced commodity products differentiated by branding proliferated.

There were, however, competing schools of advertising in the 1950s and 1960s when mass marketing was driven by television. One group used a rational sell to get consumers to buy; this was the so-called hard sell or head sell. It was an approach based on the concept of the unique selling proposition (USP), devised by Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates agency. A good example of a USP is "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands" for MMs. This simple line told consumers the most important and distinct thing about the brand-I can have chocolate, and it won't make a mess-implying that no other candy brand could make that claim.

The problem with the rational sell, however, is that advertising becomes based on having something new to say: what the industry calls "new news." If the brand isn't "new and improved," for instance, what can marketers talk about in their advertising? Companies that invest in significant research and development, like the mega-brander Procter Gamble, have most successfully used this method. Moreover, this approach is most effective when a consumer is in search of information about which product to buy. What medicine is best for my child's asthma? What kind of car needs less maintenance? How many vitamins and minerals are in my cereal? Most brands have a rational component, which needs to be communicated, but most marketers today would agree that that is not the only information that should to be conveyed.

The other school of advertising promoted the soft sell, also called the emotional sell, which was advocated by David Ogilvy and the Chicago ad man Leo Burnett. Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy Mather and a leader in the world of advertising, is famous for creating iconic brands with copy like "the man in the Hathaway shirt" and "Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream" (still in use today). Leo Burnett is known for creating characters around his brands, notably the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, and the Marlboro Man. These famous admen were influenced by motivational research suggesting that archetypal images would unconsciously attract consumers to brands. Attracting consumers to the brand through image and emotion was at the heart of the soft sell.

Advertising evolved through the late 1960s and into the 1970s during what was called the creative revolution, a period driven by the copywriters and artists of Madison Avenue. Sophisticated, humorous messages were conceived to sell to a more educated population. Notable work from that time includes Volkswagen's "Ever wonder how the guy who drives the snow plow gets to the snow plow?" and Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Urbane humor, emotional imagery, and lifestyle benefits became mainstays of the trade, and behavioral psychologists were ever more involved in industry practices. "Advertising agencies started to talk about 'end end benefits' as opposed to just 'end benefits', meaning the final consumer satisfaction in emotional terms rather than the physical satisfaction to be gained on the way there," according to the Saatchi Saatchi executives Hamish Pringle and Marjorie Thompson. In order to identify the emotional end benefits most relevant to consumers, it became of paramount importance to understand who the consumers are, what concerns them most, and what will fulfill their lifestyle aspirations.

Using a variety of methods, from surveys to focus groups to personal interviews, advertisers became experts in psychology and thus learned to understand the motivations behind consumer purchases. From the mid-twentieth century down to the present, marketing techniques have shifted away from mass market thinking and targeting based on demographics-statistical data about consumers-to a niche, and even micro-niche, market mentality based on psychographics.

Psychographics is research that segments consumers based on their personalities, values, and lifestyles rather than their age, income, and gender. These groups are given memorable names that evoke the group psychology. For example, "Bohemian Mix" is a psychographic group defined by PRIZM, a leading marketing segmentation company, as upper-middle-class, ethnically diverse people under the age of fifty-five. More important to marketers is that they tend to like to eat at Au Bon Pain, buy Latin music, read The Economist, and drive Audi A4s. "Mayberry-ville" is the name of a rural grouping defined by white people under the age of fifty-five. They tend to shop at True Value, go hunting with a gun, read Bassmaster magazine, watch the Daytona 500, and drive GMC Sierras. PRIZM defines sixty-seven different groups, which segment consumers based not only on who they are, but also on what they think and feel, and therefore what they are likely to purchase. Once psychographic groups are segmented in this way, brand companies can determine which of them their products are most likely to appeal to and then target their messages at one or more of them.

"Early adopters" is the best-known psychographic group. An early adopter is the person who has the latest, greatest gadget before anyone else. This feeds the sense of oneself as a "go-to" guy or gal. "Alpha moms" are an example of an early adopter group. According to USA Today, these women are "educated, tech-savvy, Type A moms with a common goal: mommy excellence. She is a multitasker. She is kidcentric. She is hands-on. She may or may not work outside the home, but at home, she views motherhood as a job that can be mastered with diligent research." So, an Alpha mom could be a 28-year-old Gen-Y mom / part-time student, a 38-year-old stay-at-home Gen-X mom, or a hard-hitting 48-year-old careerist baby boomer mom: three different consumers with very different demographic profiles. But the psychological motivation to purchase unites these women, and understanding that and creating marketing that feeds that self-perception is how marketers get them to buy. Nintendo did just that when it launched the Wii gaming system, promoting this computer console as a new and innovative tool for exercise, as well as a way to bring the family together. Nintendo recruited Alpha moms for Wii parties, let them try the product, and hoped for positive word of mouth. This promotion was extremely effective. In 2006, when the product launched, Wii sales totaled 1.1 million units and outsold Sony's Playstation-the leader in gaming consoles-by almost 50 percent. By creating a promotion where Alpha moms could be alpha, that is, could know about a new product before any of their friends and thereby look like the trendsetters they see themselves to be, Nintendo successfully used psychographics not only to sell a product but also to support its customers' self-image.

The psychographic label for people who care about the environment and social causes has evolved over the past decade. In the 1990s, this group was first identified as "cultural creatives" in American Demographics magazine. The sociologist Paul Ray segmented society into three broad groups-traditionalism (believers in "small towns and strong churches"), modernism (this group values "personal success, consumerism, materialism, and technological rationality"), and cultural creatives. Cultural creatives are well-educated, interested in spirituality as well as social activism, and tend to like to see things from a big-picture perspective-a key reason why they look askance at language-light advertising. In 1997, when this research was done, cultural creatives made up 24 percent of the adult population-a larger group than might have been expected. Let me note that Ray doesn't call this group a psychographic cohort. Rather, he says, the group is based on its members' values. However, these are by definition fundamental to a psychographic group defined by its values, lifestyles, and attitudes, which is why I include this description here. Today, BBMG, a marketing and strategy agency that helps companies integrate sustainability and social innovation, has created a spectrum of cultural caring that they call "conscious consumers." This spectrum ranks consumers from enlighteneds to aspirationals to practicals to indifferents. This framework in many ways parallels Ray's work in the 1990s. Enlighteneds (10 percent of the population) are the group most engaged in socially responsible behavior, and this is exhibited through their buying habits. Aspirationals (20 percent of the population) are also socially committed, but they balance that concern against practical issues like time and money. These two cohorts are not the same as Ray's, but they seem to parallel the cultural creatives, and it is notable that this group has increased over the past twenty years. The two remaining segments are less motivated by causes than by traditional product attributes like price and quality. Enlighteneds are more powerful in the marketplace than cultural creatives, because they are a particularly vocal group and have access to social media, so-called Web 2.0, unavailable ten years ago. The rule of thumb with word-of-mouth marketing-- and social media is its newest incarnation-- is that if these passionate consumers like a product, they tell ten people; if they don't, they tell three hundred.

More broadly, a market segment known as LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) has grown up around products that improve human health, as well as the health of the environment. This category includes well-known companies like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and little known ones like Me to We Style, a "social enterprise" that provides sweatshop-free apparel created from environmentally friendly fabrics, with 50 percent of profits going to Free the Children, an organization where children help other children through education, and the winner of the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child(also known as the Children's Nobel Prize). Purchasers of these products and thousands of others like them are called LOHASians. "LOHAS is an idea premised on the assumption that consumers and producers in a capitalist economy are able, through their market labor, to bring about global social change," Monica Emerich, an early LOHASian, explains. Whether we call them cultural creatives, conscious consumers, or LOHASians, this belief in the power to sway the market and make it more environmentally and socially conscious is what defines this psychographic group.

Related to socially conscious consumers or not, psychographics is the norm for marketers. The sociologist Michael Schudson posits two important reasons for this. First, women are the primary purchasers of consumer products. Since women may display and embrace certain emotions more readily than men, it is believed that they are more likely to respond to psychological, needs-based sales pitches rather than intellectual, reason-based ones. Tied to the need to create emotion-laden sales pitches is the means through which those appeals are communicated, that is, television. Television commercials-and now also Internet advertising-are quite simply much better at eliciting emotion than they are at conveying complex information. This is particularly true when you are trying to convey that message in thirty seconds or less. Second, grabbing consumers' attention trumps providing information, given an overwhelming number of largely undifferentiated commodity-like products. More marketing, louder marketing, cruder marketing became acceptable ways of "breaking through the clutter." The best way to stand out, however, was to have a thorough understanding of your consumers, so that they could instantaneously connect to your message.

Getting people to see your message, never mind connect with it, became more complex as media technologies advanced. That's because people no longer share the same cultural experiences (remember Friends on Thursday nights?). Most people now consume media individually. The media environment moved from one dominated by three broadcast networks to one fragmented into hundreds, some would say thousands, of media options. As these choices proliferate, media audiences get sliced into smaller and smaller pieces, so that now instead of being able to reach 30 or 40 or even 50 percent of Americans with one television commercial, marketers are lucky to reach 10 or 15 percent today.

Moreover, while the number of media options has mushroomed, people's time and ability to consume more information are not increasing. People's short-term memory is limited to somewhere between three and nine pieces of information. In television, the rule of thumb has been that viewers are aware of programming on seven channels. Even though the number of programming options has increased to over 150 channels in households with cable, far more if you have satellite TV, and exponentially more if you include YouTube, our brains have not expanded to allow for retaining all of this additional information. Never mind remembering what you have waiting on your DVR, iPod, iPad, or Netflix cue.

Not only do we have limited brain capacity, but also we have limited attention spans, all the more so for being bombarded with new information. You know exactly what I mean if you have more than two tabs open on your web browser. Because of this, marketers are acutely aware that if they want to sell something, they had better stand out in a crowd, and they have to get consumers' attention quickly. To do this, they adorn the landscape with swooshes, yellow arches, and apple logos-what Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson call "sign wars." This is where branding comes in.

Branding

What Is Branding?

David Ogilvy said that a brand is "the intangible sum of a product's attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation and the way it is advertised." Thus a brand has little to do with the physical aspects of a product and everything to do with what people think about it.

Take a look around you. From Domino sugar in your pantry to Starbucks coffee, from your Sony TV to the Subaru in your driveway, from your Banana Republic T-shirt to your Target credit card, there's barely a place you can look that you won't see a branded product. In fact, if you have kids, you know just how hard it is to find a backpack or a piece of clothing without a picture of the latest Disney star or Nickelodeon cartoon character.

So why is that? Why turn a simple piece of clothing into a fashion statement, or a car into "the ultimate driving machine"?

Because consumers are more likely to relate to products that have meaning attached to them. Marketers create stories around their products through marketing messages, whether we're talking about advertising or promotion or public relations. These stories, called brand mythologies, are accompanied by a logo and usually a tagline, so that consumers will immediately associate the product with the story when they see the product symbol.

Let's take an example. Basically, an iPod is a piece of media equipment that allows for the transmission of moving pictures and audio entertainment. But is that what you think about when you see an iPod? Of course not. You think of cutting-edge technology and hip, dancing shadows and white ear buds that make you look cool. So, why? Why isn't the iPod simply a piece of machinery that provides entertainment when you want it? Because branding has created a story for you about what that piece of electronics in your hands is. Through numerous commercials, endless promotion and PR (Mac World, stories about Steve Jobs and the secrecy around him and his products, opening new Apple stores, etc.) and ultimately word of mouth, Apple has created a mythology, some would say a mystique, around its products.

In addition to the mythology, there is also the product logo. In this case, the identifying logo could be either the iPod itself or the ubiquitous white earbuds-both of which are distinctive-or the Apple logo. This last has a history that embodies the mythology of being creative (artists and advertising people use Mac computers) and smart and "different," which has been cultivated through years of advertising, from the famous "1984" commercial that introduced the Macintosh during the Super Bowl and launched that game as the advertising event of the year to the iconic "Think Different" ads that included creative luminaries in all fields, from Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart to Jim Henson (with Kermit the Frog).

Most products have traditionally also used a tagline to further embed product information in the minds of consumers ("Just do it" for Nike or "Tastes great, less filling" for Miller Lite). Because of the globalization of markets, however, companies today prefer using simplistic logos that do not require translation across international markets. In the case of the iPod, the Apple logo eliminates the need for words. Another good example where we see this trend is Gatorade: the product is no longer referred to as Gatorade, but simply as "G."

Branding is about communicating an idea through a product. It is about creating meaning-taking a physical object and turning it into more than the sum of its parts. It is about creating a personal connection between consumers and products (or services) through communications that lead to thoughts and feelings that have nothing to do with the product's physical attributes. Branding is about fulfilling a need; providing what marketers call the benefit. So, for example, if we talk about ATT's historic "Reach out and touch someone" campaign, we are not led to think about how good or bad the technology is, but rather focus on our ability to connect with people we care about. Or take Coca-Cola's more recent "Open Happiness" campaign, which doesn't mention fizzy, syrupy soda, but merely presents us with something everyone wants-happiness. If you are of a certain generation, that idea might also spark up a memory of an older Coke commercial that showed smiling, happy hippies standing on a hillside singing "I'd like to teach the world to sing ... in perfect harmony." The expectation is that these benefits-connection to loved ones, happiness, and harmony-will become associated with the product. Then the more you as a consumer interact with the product, and the more successfully the product provides you with the hoped-for benefit and/or fulfills a need, the more likely you are to purchase that brand again and again.

These interactions create connections-marketers would say relationships-between us and the brands we use. This occurs whether we are aware of it or not. We prefer one brand to another, and often we are not conscious of why those preferences exist. For instance, we always buy Morton's salt because that's what Mom always bought, and the girl in the yellow slicker on a blue background reminds us of home. Intellectually, this doesn't make sense, because salt is salt. It's a commodity. But because we have a preexisting relationship with Morton's and Mom, we are willing to pay extra money for that name and its perceived higher quality. Or, women may buy Oil of Olay because they have seen all the research on how it's better than the $700 creams, and they hope by using this brand to eliminate-or at least reduce-the "signs of aging." This is not to suggest that all products are commodities-parity products with no differentiation. Rather, it is to suggest that in the vast majority of categories, it is the brand and not the physical product that we, the consumer, have the relationship with.

But, remember, the brand is simply a story created to sell a product. When Leo Burnett, first marketed Marlboro cigarettes, they were sold as a brand for women. The brown filter, in fact, was created to hide unsightly lipstick stains. Today, after decades of the Marlboro Man riding the Western plains, it's hard for us to imagine Marlboro as a product with feminine appeal. The reframing of this iconic brand, however, is a great example of how products in and of themselves have no meaning. The brand-the logo, the mythology, the meaning-is the product. The cigarette or the coffee or the salt is secondary.

These fundamentals of branding remain in effect today. However, the methods of branding are decidedly in flux. Brand managers have less control over the messaging of the brand than they did a decade ago. With Web 2.0, the second wave of the Internet that has fully exploited interactivity, consumers are able to create their own YouTube videos about a product, post comments on Facebook or Twitter, and ultimately spread brand messages to friends, family, and various followers. Because of this, consumers have considerable influence on a brand, especially when it does not live up to its claims or presents its consumers in an unflattering light. In 2008, the "mommy bloggers" took Motrin and its advertising to task when the company suggested in its commercials that putting your child in a sling would lead to back, neck, and shoulder pain. The mommy bloggers considered that to be bashing "baby wearing," and they complained about it-vociferously-throughout the blogosphere. Under pressure from these outspoken consumers, the online ad was summarily pulled. The capacity for direct and immediate feedback means that consumers have more say in the mythologies surrounding the products they use. And, according to the consulting firm Imagination Insight, "as people become increasingly aware of their ability to drive change, they begin to demand more."

Public influence and psychology play into why product companies are connecting their brands with causes-consumers are demanding it, even if they aren't fully aware of why. In the wake of 9/11, when consumers were asked to respond to the statement "I would be likely to switch brands to one associated with a good cause, if price and quality are similar," consumer agreement was 81 percent, up dramatically from 54 percent seven months before. After the tragic events of that day, consumers were encouraged by then president George W. Bush to normalize their lives through shopping. To motivate consumers to get back to the stores, companies responded first by nationalizing their images and then by using charitable appeals. This marketing tactic is so entrenched that today, according to the 2010 Goodpurpose Study put out by the PR firm Edelman, a majority of people (52 to 60 percent depending on the product) would actually pay more for a product if it was tied to a cause. And consumers expect the charitable connection to be fully embedded in the brand's mythology and the work of the company-it's not good enough just to do a one-shot promotion, the commitment has to be part and parcel of how the company functions. Think here of Ben Jerry's or The Body Shop or Stonyfield Farms.

Terror management theory (TMT), a psychological theory developed in the mid-1980s, may provide a clue to consumers' positive response to these cause campaigns. TMT hypothesizes that one function of culture is to reduce anxiety around death. Awareness of one's mortality, particularly when put in stark relief after the violence of an event such as 9/11, is likely to lead people to seek out ways to manage their fear. TMT suggests that this will be done either through a cultural worldview that provides value and perhaps promises immortality (for some, this will be religious beliefs), or people will look for ways to bolster their self-esteem. Researchers have begun to apply this theory to consumption practices. Some suggest that one way to buoy esteem and thus reduce one's fear of death is to acquire material possessions; one study noted in particular that those who are concerned about terrorist attacks are more likely to purchase brand-name products and consume compulsively. It stands to reason that cause marketing would enhance the appeal of products connected to charities, because they enhance self-esteem not only through the purchase itself but also through the knowledge of having helped others. Moreover, if these causes are connected to death-related events such as the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami in Japan, there is all the more reason to justify the purchase to alleviate the fear of one's own mortality in the face of others' tragedy.

New research in social psychology suggests why consumers might even consider paying more for these products. Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard Business School, is a social psychologist who studies how subconscious influences, that is, emotions, affect decision making. Lerner did an experiment to test how sadness impacts financial choices. Sensors measuring skin conductance, sweat response, skin temperature, and so on, were placed on test subjects and baseline physiological measurements taken. Then, among other activities, the test subjects were shown a sad movie, but one that induced only a low level of emotional effect. "The decision-makers in our studies are completely unaware that the sadness is impacting them. And when we ask them, did the film you saw change your responses in any way, they say no," Lerner reports. Once in this state, they are given a number of financial choices to make; the last of which is to say how much they would pay for a water bottle. Those who had watched the sad movie were willing to pay much more than those who had not experienced sadness before evaluating the item-in one case, $10.00 as opposed to $2.50. While studies have not been done that specifically relate this concept to cause marketing, it makes sense that people might be willing to pay more for a product associated with a cause, particularly one that generates sadness, as many of these campaigns do. Whether patriotism or psychology, this trend remains intact today, leading companies to increase their social marketing and integrate these messages into their branding efforts.

This is important information. Most products can't compete on attributes-true physical benefits-because most products are commodities. Shampoo by any name is still shampoo. But if it's a trendy brand like Garnier Fructis and the manufacturer runs a campaign with Locks of Love (www.locksoflove.org), a nonprofit that uses natural hair donations to create hairpieces for financially disadvantaged children who have lost their hair, this may provide consumers with a tipping-point reason to buy it. A cause becomes a product benefit-a means of differentiating one product from another.

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