Gainful giving: what’s behind cause marketing?

money-2696229__340I have recently come across an interesting paper by Cabrera and Williams (2014) discussing ethical consumption as a new advertising and marketing terrain. Having read a lot (and even written a bit) about product ethics from the consumer viewpoint, I was curious to see the other side of the coin and learn how the trend towards ethical consumption shapes (and is, of course, shaped by) the current dominant marketing ideology. The authors also offered a useful glimpse into the history of marketing strategy and certain sociological aspects of it.

For me, one of the most important points made in the article was that the way in which advertisers choose to market their products to consumers is determined by the concomitant social, technological, political and economic conditions. Historically, the shift from one dominant form of marketing to another represented important changes in the way the entire society was conceptualised. Thus, mass marketing popular in the Post-World War II period mirrored the idea of society as a homogenous group of consumers with uniform shopping habits and motives – hence, unvarying advertising messages aimed at “average” consumers all of whom were supposed to aspire to the same values and lifestyles. Mass marketing was replaced by niche marketing and its fragmented vision of society as consisting of different segments of consumers whose wants and needs were stereotyped based on the group’s race, age, gender, class, etc. That meant tailoring advertising messages to selected consumer groups. Presently, we are living in the era of what Cabrera and Williams refer to as relationship management marketing (RMM) – that which recognizes the idiosyncracy of individual consumers and the distinctiveness of their needs, desires, habits and tastes. Highly individualised approach to consumers is realised through data mining and customized advertisements and offers, and pursues the ultimate goal of creating customer loyalty and building long-term relationships with the most profitable clients.

money-2696229__340An essential and increasingly important part of the RMM is the so-called cause marketing – a relationship between a company and a charity aimed at raising money for a specific cause (or, as Dummies helpfully explain, “a partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit for mutual profit”). Essentially, this is about tying products to environmental and social themes in an attempt to appeal to shoppers’ morals, values and concerns. The underlying message conveyed to consumers is that satisfaction of their needs and wants may be successfully combined with contributing to social good and environmental wellbeing. This “shopping for good” motive is in stark contrast with traditional sociological approach to acquisition of material stuff as a predominantly hedonistic, pleasure-seeking or status-enhancing pursuit of self-interested consumers. In contrast to radical environmentalists who insist that the challenge of sustainability calls for nothing less than a dramatic curb in consumption levels and the profound reorganisation of the entire food system, industry spares no efforts to convince shoppers of the possibility of “delicious revolution” and “eating for change” (Johnston and Cairns, 2012 cited in Cabrera and Williams, 2014, p. 351) without any need to challenge the status-quo. One of the most telling examples is Ben and Jerry’s – a world famous ice cream maker whose communications and adverts are replete with messages about the company’s social and environmental values – fair trade is, perhaps, the brand’s biggest passion (the “fair nuts” commercial is a good illustration). An older example is Cadbury’s Get Active marketing campaign – back in 2003 the chocolate brand partnered with the Youth Sport Trust to launch a sport promotion scheme which offered school sports equipment to children in exchange of tokens collected from chocolate bars (it’s worth mentioning that the company was heavily criticised for this evidently self-contradictory campaign encouraging physical activity through eating huge amounts of chocolate).

Success or failure, linking products to ecological and social problems is now an essential part of the marketing strategy of every far-sighted company. In fact, Cabrera and Williams’ research found that the most influential marketing textbooks advocate cause marketing as a long-term investment into customer loyalty amidst increasingly common and louder concerns over environmental, economic and social sustainability. As shoppers become more and more mindful of the ethical implications of their purchase decisions, and companies realise the potential of the ethical consumer market, the exchange of goods between producers and consumers becomes increasingly imbued with moral meanings. While such “commodity activism” may not be “simply hypocrisy, incorporation or social appropriation” (Mukherjee, 2012, p. x cited in Cabrera and Williams, 2014, p. 351), it is still bound up in the neoliberal ideology which extols free market and places responsibility for achieving social good on individual consumers rather than the industry and government mechanisms (Mukherjee, 2012 cited in Cabrera and Williams, 2014).  So while on the surface cause marketing appears to be a win-win-win for all parties involved, its underlying messages and intimations may well deserve more careful scrutiny.


Cabrera, S. A., & Williams, C. L. (2014). Consuming for the Social Good: Marketing, Consumer Citizenship, and the Possibilities of Ethical Consumption. Critical Sociology, 40(3), 349-367.

Further resources

Mara Einstein’s book “Compassion, Inc: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between what We Buy, who We Are, and Those We Help” promises to be an engaging read – click here for the full book details.

This Economist article, although quite dated, offers good info on corporate ethics.

A comprehensive online source on cause marketing.


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