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Do charitable donations really contribute to consumers' respect for brands?

Do charitable donations really contribute to consumers' respect for brands?

James Bickford

The global ‘Occupy’ protests have brought the role of big businesses into the spotlight, and people have begun to re-evaluate their trust in brands. So how do they regain this trust?

In a world of social responsibility, a simple place to start is how the brand contributes to society. Simply donating a pile of cash to charity isn’t cutting it anymore, and displaying a list of charities on a website or logo on a letterhead is a contrivance consumers can see right through.

To create social profit value, both the sponsor and the charity must work in a value-creation relationship. Non-profits should show genuine interest in working with a corporate sponsor because they know the alliance will provide something of value for both organisations.

Companies need to have a strategic plan grounded within their brand. They need to align their values with that of the cause and have a set of criteria that all charitable opportunities are assessed against so that they are relevant to their brand and authentic to the watchful consumer.

Giving money to benefit one cause, whilst continuing to harm another, does not equate to social responsibility. KFC’s ‘pink buckets for the cure’ is a prime example of a poorly thought-out partnership. The ‘F’ in KFC stands for ‘fried’, a form of cooking associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. KFC and the charity didn’t deem this relevant when they chose to work together. It’s a classic case of ‘pinkwashing’, which just didn’t sit right.

Coke also angered many consumers by turning the classic red can white in support of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to bring attention to the plight of polar bears and the destruction of their habitat through climate change. Although intentions were good, this badly conceived campaign alienated customers as they struggled to find the connection between Coke and protecting wild animals.

Coke has previously created a plant-derived plastic bottle with the intention of reducing dependency on oil-based plastics, which is a far more relevant, and effective, connection.This intelligent approach of focusing on resolving an issue created by your own product makes sense to consumers. Example: car companies contribute to the noise and air pollution of the urban environment, so BMW and Guggenheim are seeking to solve urban mobility issues through their collaboration in the BMW-Guggenheim Lab.

Social contributions work well when brands leverage what they’re good at, creating economic value by building social value.

On the local front there’s Peoples’ Coffee, the first to cut out a ‘social’ niche in the competitive Wellington coffee market, by delivering a pro-social message through their sustainably sourced, organic, Fair-Trade coffee sourced from co-operatives.

As consumers become more connected and increasingly more demanding of brands’ social responsibility, simply donating a chunk of cash to charity no longer cuts it. It must make sense to the consumer, the brand and the non-profit, as to why and how they are in partnership.In the absence of a genuine reason, brands will fail to earn respect and involvement from consumers. These brand partnerships need to be more than just symbolic.

James Bickford is managing director of Interbrand New Zealand.