Cause Marketing: Honest Help Or Another Ploy To Sell More?

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Cause Marketing is popular with Big Food companies because it's good for business, not because they care.

Do you have a cause that’s near and dear to your heart? Does it make you feel good when you support a special charity? But how about when Big Food companies partner with charitable organizations to promote their brands? Do these companies really care? Although one can’t argue that their donations help many good causes, the honest truth is Big Food isn’t motivated by some altruistic desire. Rather, cause marketing has become yet another strategy they use to grow their brands.

So why has cause marketing become so popular? Well, when used effectively it can work in many powerful ways:

    1. Cause marketing humanizes a brand by telling consumers “we care.”
    2. It provides an emotional tie-breaker that gives a consumer one more reason to buy a particular brand
    3. It can help brands get merchandised—participation in cause platforms like Komen For the Cure can help a brand get valuable merchandising like end-aisle displays or features in retailers’ ads
    4. Cause marketing gives consumers a reason to “like” and “share”—when a popular cause is involved, consumers are much more likely to spread the word and talk about a brand on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

But probably the most powerful yet subtle way cause marketing can help products is by strengthening certain credentials, like health, whether the brand deserves it or not.

Campbell’s has long touted the health benefits of eating soup. However over the years high sodium levels have plagued its efforts. In fact, in the 1980s food advocates successfully forced Campbell’s to abandon its “Soup is good food” slogan after arguing soup is too salty to be deemed “good” or “healthy.”

Down but not out, Campbell’s announced a huge sodium reduction effort in 2006. Between launching a line of  reformulated, sodium-reduced soups and establishing long-term goals for further sodium reduction across all soups, it seemed like Campbell’s finally wanted to enact real change. Campbell’s even teamed up with the American Heart Association’s (AHA) “Go Red” effort by launching its “adDress Your Heart” campaign.

Fast forward six years later, Campbell’s is still a huge AHA sponsor pledging more than $3.6 million in 2012. So what’s wrong? Despite recent USDA guidelines that suggest Americans are still consuming way too much sodium, Campbell’s took a dramatic turn and scrapped its sodium-reduction strategy in hopes of luring soup-lovers back to its sodium-drenched fold. Apparently consumers weren’t buying enough of the new, lower-sodium versions. But how can Campbell’s continue its heart health campaign when it has ditched it sodium-reduction efforts and most of its soup line-up has over 1,500 mg of sodium per can?

Using a classic page from Big Food’s playbook, Campbell’s tie-in only applies to a small portion of the company’s soup and food offerings that the AHA has certified as heart healthy. Of course this fact is practically invisible to everyone. Check out Campbell’s logo above. And how about its YouTube video with Monica Potter [Sorry, this video is no longer available on Campbell's YouTube page]? And its landing page on Facebook? Would you guess Campbell’s heart health campaign is limited to only a small fraction of Campbell’s portfolio? And what happens when consumers connect Campbell’s “adDress Your Heart” effort with its national advertising campaign entitled, “It’s Amazing What Soup Can Do?” In consumers’ minds Campbell’s soup becomes a veritable superfood.

By using imagery of active, happy, and healthy people, Campbell’s successfully transforms its salty, canned soup into a cure-all for what ails you. Through the use of advertising and misleading cause marketing efforts, Campbell’s has created powerful messages that make people believe canned soup is good for you.

How about the charity partners? Shouldn’t they be doing a better job vetting and managing potential partnerships? Probably, but as this 2010 tie-in between KFC and Komen For The Cure proves, many of these organizations are so pressed to raise money, it seems like they will partner with anyone.

What do you think of Big Food’s contributions to charities? Are they motivated by generosity, or is cause marketing just another way to manipulate consumers to get them eating more processed food?

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it by pasting a link on your Facebook wall, liking it, or emailing it to a friend. And for more inside scoop on the world of food, please subscribe to my blog.

35 comments… add one

  • Jean | Delightful Repast February 14, 2012, 6:39 pm

    I can’t believe people are still buying canned soup (and other processed foods). Homemade soup is not difficult to make. And if one is making one of the more time-consuming soups, one can always make a huge batch and freeze some for later.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 14, 2012, 6:41 pm

      I totally agree. Soup is one my favorites…so many different varieties, easy to make and freeze, and a family favorite. Let’s kick the soup can and start making fresh!

      Reply
  • Ed February 14, 2012, 6:45 pm

    This is more noticeable since the pink/Komen story came down the wire a couple weeks ago. I look at it from a cost/benefit angle and usually decide that I don’t want that product and I will support my charity directly. It’s interesting to see charities teaming with products that promote the problems that the charity is working to alleviate. Duh!

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 14, 2012, 6:49 pm

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, supporting a charity directly is a great option. I do think the latest Komen fiasco will have more charities looking at how they run their operations, so hopefully things will improve.

      Reply
  • Tom Nikkola February 14, 2012, 7:46 pm

    Great post once again Bruce. The KFC commercials seemed even more silly because they were intended to be serious. Too many companies are using breast cancer awareness to sell their products, which when used regularly can increase the risk of developing it.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 15, 2012, 4:58 pm

      Tom, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your comment. I agree with you on the KFC commercials. The first time I saw the ad, I totally thought it was some SNL-like spoof. And yes, the pink ribboning of unhealthy foods is out of control.

      Reply
      • Elizabeth May 7, 2012, 9:38 pm

        Unfortunately, it is not just unhealthy foods that have known carcinogens in them – it is phthalates in plastics, BPA on receipts, and a SLEW of toxic chemicals in personal care products! I’ve seen pink ribbons on almost all of them! How about Komen coming out with their own fragrance that had carcinogens in it last year or putting their branding on the products of cosmetic giants with known toxic cocktails for ingredient lists??

        Reply
        • Bruce Bradley May 7, 2012, 9:41 pm

          Elizabeth, you are totally right. Thanks for bringing up this important point!

          Thanks for visiting my blog … hope to see you here again!

          Reply
  • Stefano February 15, 2012, 8:43 am

    Folks, slow cookers and pressure cookers are your friends! With the former, you just dump the ingredients in it, turn it on and go about your things for the whole day, then come back and your soup is there waiting for you. With the latter, you can have great soup ready in an hour tops, no matter the ingredients. And, of course, you can make a big batch and freeze it as already suggested.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 15, 2012, 5:01 pm

      Stefano, thanks for your comment. I agree that slow cookers and pressure cookers can be a lifesaver, especially when cooking beans, lentils, etc. For my broth based soups, however, it’s as easy as cutting up some veggies and adding some homemade frozen or store-bought organic broth. 1-2-3 YUM!

      Reply
  • Karen February 15, 2012, 9:12 am

    The KFC ad makes bubbles go off in my brain! From the first shot, who DOES’NT imagine that the woman would do nothing more than wordlessly pitch that bucket off camera, and dust off her hands as we hear a mighty crash. Soupmaking should be part of every child’s education. Any homemake soup with even meager ingredients is far above and beyond the value of canned. When will we relate real food to understanding how to truly value ourselves? My perspective on my relationship to food is simple: what do I want to be made of?

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 15, 2012, 5:03 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Karen. I love your perspective on food and your question, “what do I want to be made of?” Awesome!

      Reply
  • Chris Callahan February 15, 2012, 12:13 pm

    Good post! I think about this all the time, more so since the recent Komen PR debacle. When I look around the grocery store at all this pink packaging and ribbons it feels like nothing but marketing. If I want to support a charity, I will give. The company I work for actually matches that so it’s a much better deal.

    And regarding the aforementioned Komen PR debacle, I imagine they have diminished the cache of their brand in the eyes of corporate partners. It will be interesting to see if there are less of those pink packages about going forward.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 15, 2012, 5:06 pm

      I agree, Chris. Komen’s image is definitely tarnished these days. I think we will be seeing less pink ribbons due to it becoming over-saturated in the market and Komen’s recent PR debacle.

      Reply
  • Ruth February 15, 2012, 3:49 pm

    I have thought for a lot of years that companies do all this for themselves. I do a lot of surveys and many times they ask if doing this or that makes me look more favorably on them. I have to say no.

    Reply
  • Karen February 16, 2012, 2:29 am

    Soup is good for you. Just not the kind that comes from the store. I am so happy to see people are figuring out where their kitchens are and what to do when they get there. If the label says it is good for you, RUN. Stop when you find something without a label. Then cook it yourself. Despite what food processors and the newest bizarre-combos-r-us chef on the food network say, it just isn’t that hard.

    And food companies supporting charities? Thanks, but I can and will decide for myself what charity, if any, I will support. And when I chose to do so I will take the tax break myself. The whole portion.

    Reply
  • SalG February 16, 2012, 6:18 am

    What concerns me about all brands of lower sodium soups is the increase in potassium in them when I compared the labels.

    Reply
  • Michelle February 16, 2012, 9:53 pm

    What are your thoughts on the new Chipotle commercial/movement?

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 17, 2012, 10:58 am

      I like the Chipotle commercial. I think it brings attention to an issue that many people still don’t understand or know very little about.

      That said, let’s be clear…Chipotle is NOT perfect. To be honest, that is one of the hard things about being part of the real food movement. For so many, everything is a black or white issue. For good reasons we don’t trust big companies who claim to be doing good things—we’ve been burnt too many times. I think we, as advocates for better food, need to applaud manufacturers and restaurants when they take steps in the right direction. We can still ask for and demand more, but last time I checked, perfection doesn’t exist. I know I’m not perfect.

      So back to your specific question, I applaud Chipotle for bringing attention to and sourcing better quality ingredients and humanely treated animals. I do, however, remain confused why Chipotle has NOT come to an agreement with the CIW / Florida tomato pickers. I also wish Chipotle was more upfront about the caloric/nutrition content of their food—I’ve written them a couple times about this. More than any other restaurant chain out there, they seem to be making real steps to being “better” … yet they still have a long way to go. But then again, so do I in my journey to be “perfect.”

      Reply
      • Chuck Murray February 17, 2012, 1:12 pm

        I agree with you Bruce, about the commercial from Chipotle. I’m an organic farmer with a growing CSA in Northern Ohio and also work in the advertising world. When you compare KFC’s commercial with Chipotle’s, it’s hard not to laugh at KFC for trying so hard. I like your blog and the comments. For each comment on here, I bet there are hundreds if not thousands of others with the same disgust at industrial food and their ridiculous advertising claims. As for canned soup, I wish you would have talked about the BPA issue. What is your take on food packaging?

        Reply
        • Bruce Bradley February 17, 2012, 1:35 pm

          Thanks for your comments, Chuck. I’m glad you are enjoying my blog. I also thought about mentioning BPA in this post, but opted not to (my posts have been getting longer and longer, so I really tried hard to keep this a reasonable length).

          I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg with BPA. It is scary … it’s in/on so many things. I was just reading this article on rod ale.com (http://www.rodale.com/research-feed/bpa-canned-food) and another one that a friend sent me earlier this week. Silgan (leading can manufacturer) and other packaging manufacturers have tried to dismiss the growing claims, but there are more and more indications that we should really be concerned. Once again, if we are eating real food (vs. the packaged stuff), we can avoid a lot of the dangers out there with BPA.

          Reply
  • Norma February 17, 2012, 6:54 am

    Great to see this issue being addressed here. Komen particularly pisses me off. I cringe every October when I walk into the supermarket and the produce section is obscured by folding tables decked in frilly pink tablecloths and pink balloons, piled high with artificially-flavored and colored, trans-fat-filled, chemistry lab ingredient list, pure sugar baked goods — cupcakes, cookies and the like, because it’s breast cancer awareness month. What a crock. Who isn’t “aware” of breast cancer and how the hell does purchasing and consuming insanely unhealthy and unnecessary junk food help anyone? Their whole “cute!” “boobies!” approach to the subject is revolting as well…perhaps I’ll sell chocolate frosted brownies to raise awareness of colon cancer. If you really want to help a cancer patient or support a cause that you care about, avoid the “big business” charities…call your local hospital and find a program where you can volunteer to drive patients to appointments or make a donation to an organization whose funds actually go to patients whose families are struggling financially because of lost work, insurance problems, etc. The fundraising demands they place on their “3 Day” walk participants are outrageous and besides their political bent, their ties to Astra Zeneca (who not only make tamoxifen, the leading breast cancer drug…which unfortunately causes cancer) and the astronomical salaries of their administration, their throwing their stupid pink sticker on everything from freakin’ motor oil to paper towels to KFC shows where there intentions truly lie.

    Reply
    • Karen February 19, 2012, 9:12 pm

      Absolutely! I will help you with the chocolate frosted brownies for colon cancer awareness. And I’m sure we could make people very aware of prostate cancer.

      When I was a kid, I knew one person who knew one person who had had cancer. Period. It was a friend of my grandmother. Now I know several people who have had cancer, and know nobody who doesn’t know anyone with cancer. It’s not about awareness, it is about money. I stopped donating to cancer research when I read that one of the family of companies owned by Astra Zeneca manufactures known carcinogens. To me, that is double dipping at it’s most obscene. I would support an individual or family any day. A multimillion dollar corporation – not a chance.

      Reply
    • Tiffany May 28, 2013, 8:52 pm

      They DO know what causes breast cancer and have known for many many years. Cancer treatments cost tons of money and remember it’s all about money and how much the Big Pharma can make. Go to cancertutor.com to learn. Also take vitamin D and avoid, like the plague, all factory foods. And, if you want a cheap and excellent probiotic and you like sauerkraut, make your own. Its super super easy and tastes not at all like the stuff in the grocery stores.

      Reply
  • Andy February 17, 2012, 10:02 am

    Bruce,

    I love reading your blog and wish more executives would come out with the truth!

    However, I do have one little criticism of one aspect of your argument. Specifically, the idea that soup is unhealthy because of it’s higher than normal sodium levels is a blanket statement that unjustly labels it as “bad”. I just think that it points too much to a black/white concept of food being good/bad.

    Now, I would agree that the average American diet is way too high in sodium, but it is also way too high in processed and hypercaloric foods which only compound the problem of high sodium in food. So by cutting back on processed foods you begin to address these three problems.

    So is soup unhealthy? It really depends on how often you eat it, the energy density and the ingredients (such as minimally processed foods) as opposed to solely looking at sodium content.

    OK, so that’s my criticism, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    -Andy

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley February 17, 2012, 11:41 am

      Hi Andy. I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. For the sake of brevity of my blog post, I didn’t go into great detail over how healthy or unhealthy canned soup is. High sodium levels are an obvious issue, so I didn’t go any further. The major point I was trying to make with my post is Big Food manipulates us with cause marketing, and don’t be fooled.

      While I wasn’t trying to label canned soup as “bad,” I don’t think it lives up to how Campbell’s is trying to market it. Personally I don’t think canned soup is a great option for many reasons—high sodium levels are just one of those reasons. Can soup be healthy? Yes, it most certainly can. Homemade soups that are made with real ingredients don’t need all the salt to have flavor. I’m a huge fan of homemade soup. It’s much tougher to make a canned soup that is healthy and tastes good.

      Finally, with all my posts, I’m not trying to create a “don’t eat this”, good food/bad food list. Rather, I’m hoping to share information that: (1) increases the transparency of what’s in our food and (2) creates an awareness to not just believe the marketing hype. I am FAR from perfect in my eating habits, and like most of us I’m just trying to do my best.

      Thanks again for your comment / question.

      Bruce

      Reply
      • Andy February 17, 2012, 1:51 pm

        Thank you for your response Bruce.

        That definitely satisfies my criticism appetite. I don’t mean to be nit-picking by any means but being that canned soup=unhealthy was the crux of your argument, it felt like a simple description of a complex subject. Clearly that was not your goal.

        “I’m hoping to share information that: (1) increases the transparency of what’s in our food and (2) creates an awareness to not just believe the marketing hype.”

        And that’s why I love reading your blog. Keep it up!

        -Andy

        Reply
  • Edith February 18, 2012, 7:57 am

    It supposedly was Beethoven who said, “Whoever tells a lie cannot be pure in heart. And only the pure in heart can make good soup.”

    Great post — and blog! I’ve only just now discovered it, but I’ll be back often:>)!

    Reply
  • Heather Jacobsen February 27, 2012, 11:43 am

    omg. SNL should really do a skit on that KFC commercial (puke-a-rama!). I don’t like cause marketing. Its just like the green-washing of the 90s, when every product was supposed to be better for the environment, whether such claims were true or not. Its also the same with gluten-free now. Without regulation, anyone can jump on the bandwagon and call their product gluten-free, even if they aren’t abiding by safe kitchen practices. These companies are not doing it out of concern for those of us who cannot eat gluten. And what do you call it when one Big Food company starts their own community around gluten-free eating, just so they can sell more of their own products? Is that still cause-marketing? My only hope is that cause marketing has become so saturated, that the average person will finally start seeing through the false perception of concern that these companies are trying to project.

    Reply
    • Tiffany May 28, 2013, 8:45 pm

      I don’t want to be, but I have to be gluten free. I had (operative word here is: had) Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and once I killed off the intestinal parasites I went gluten free and got rid of the RA. Gluten is poison for me and maybe others. However, I understand how the whole gluten free thing became a craze and the factory food companies got on the band wagon real quick. Its the same junk. I make everything from “scratch” and by no gluten free factory food products (I don’t trust them and seem to be correct in my thinking from what I read). I just get annoyed when people poo-poo the gluten free lifestyle which in my case I HAVE to. I proved it to myself 6 months ago when I ate one bite of a gluten containing product and its been that long since I could walk again (my immune system prompted by gluten ingestion changed a couple of toes).
      I don’t have Celiac disease, but I’m sure those people would love to eat just about any wheat containing product they’d want. RA is caused by gluten intolerance, even my high priced Rheumatologist told me that!

      Reply
      • Heather Jacobsen May 30, 2013, 8:33 pm

        Hi Tiffany,

        so great to hear that your RA has gone away. I know several people with it, many of whom aren’t on a strict GF diet, and I keep telling them they should try to go GF. Unfortunately, often only those who are diagnosed with Celiac Disease truly understand how dangerous gluten can be, so they think gluten once (or twice) a week won’t harm them.

        I’m like you – I don’t have CD, but I am severely Gluten Sensitive and have an autoimmune thyroid disorder to prove it.

        I’m also so happy to hear you cook everything from scratch! I’d like to invite you to come on by our GF community website. Submit some of your recipes if you like! I’d love to see that homemade sauerkraut! :)

        Here’s our URL: http://www.stuffed-pepper.com.

        I’d love your feedback on the site, too. :)

        Reply
  • Amanda March 4, 2012, 1:59 pm

    I hope not to offend by this comment, but I don’t endorse these charities anyway. Komen for example. Billions of dollars later and still no cure. Why is that? Because the cure isn’t in medicine or some complicated scientific process. It’s in us. It’s in the foods we eat and the lifestyle we lead. These charities will never “cure” anything because they are in bed with the very organizations and companies that are causing the damn problem in the first place. We need to make radical changes to the food and wellness industry. Period. There’s your cure.

    Reply
    • Karen March 9, 2012, 12:51 am

      Yup!

      Reply
  • Tiffany May 28, 2013, 8:37 pm

    Reference the comments on salt referring to Campbell’s soup and the Gov’t saying we eat way too much salt. Not so. We eat the wrong type of salt. The salt by Morton’s (even their newest Sea Salt) is not good. You need the minerals contained in the product Real Salt (which by the way d o e s n o t taste salty at all). How about Himalayan Salt? Also good for you and has all the minerals you need. The body is not an inert object and needs certain minerals (like magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese) in order for the body to function properly. Your body NEEDS the minerals and the processed salt (i.e., Morton’s, Diamond and cheap store brands) are chemically bleached and all possible goodness has been removed. The mfgr’s made the salt white because they thought that’s what the populace would want. Stick to Real Salt (made in Utah) or Himalayan Salt and also read Dr. Brownstein’s book “Salt Your Way To Health.”

    Reply
  • Bruce Bradley February 15, 2012, 4:59 pm

    Thanks for your comment Jessica. I’m totally with you … we don’t eat canned soup either. Homemade is MUCH better and know where the ingredients come from.

    Reply

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Commenting Policy: Following the advice of a popular blogger, I’m running my blog conversation like it’s my living room. Just so you know, I won’t tolerate bad behavior in my living room, and I won’t tolerate it on here. Critical is fine and differing opinions are encouraged. But if you’re rude … bye bye. And when commenting, please use your PERSONAL name or initials and NOT your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. The bottom line is, be cool, keep it clean, and have fun! Thanks in advance for adding to the conversation!

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About Me:

Bruce Bradley

Bruce Bradley

I'm a father, food advocate, consultant, and author.

Bruce is a former processed food exec turned food advocate, blogger, and author.

Before his food advocacy work, Bruce worked for over fifteen years as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. As one of the only former processed food marketers actively speaking out about concerns over the food we eat, the media often seeks Bruce out for his honest perspective. His 2011 interview, Confessions of a former Big Food Executive, was one of Grist online's Top 10 clicked stories for 2011.

Bruce now writes, performs speaking engagements, and provides business strategy and marketing consultant services to help ethical, sustainable businesses reach their potential.

Bruce graduated with an MBA from Duke University and a B.A. from Davidson College. Born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, he now lives in Minneapolis, MN with his son and their dog, Katie.

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