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3 Spectacular Cause Marketing Fails — And How Your Credit Union Can Do Better

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Cause marketing should be a win-win. You support a worthy cause while generating positive PR for your company. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. These three major companies messed up so spectacularly that you’ve probably heard of at least one, if not all, of the following PR nightmares.

But don’t let these fails scare you away — when done right, cause marketing has enormous potential to positively impact your community and brand. (Check out our Definitive Guide to Cause Marketing for Credit Unions, to learn the six essential steps to cause marketing done right to deepen member and employee engagement and commitment.)

See where the big guys went wrong, and how credit unions can get it right …

KFC’s Buckets for a Cure


kfc-buckets-for-the-cureWould you like some fried chicken to go with that cancer research? Many of us have heard of the infamous “Buckets for a Cure” debacle, when KFC donated $0.50 for every bucket of chicken sold to breast cancer research foundation Susan G. Komen.

Though the campaign could be considered an astounding success — it resulted in a $4.2 million donation to Komen, the single largest donation in Komen’s history — it did not measure up so well when it came to positive PR, for KFC or for Komen.

Why it failed: What does fried chicken have to do with breast cancer research? The only link is that eating too much fried chicken could contribute to obesity, a primary risk factor for breast cancer. The incongruity of a partnership between a fast food chain and a healthcare-focused nonprofit is simply too glaring to ignore.

trailhead How you can do better: The cause you choose doesn’t have to link directly to your services, but it does need to be authentic to your brand and the values you stand for. (That’s why Step #1 in the Definitive Guide to Cause Marketing is learn what makes a cause a good fit for your brand.)

For example: Back in 2011, our client Trailhead Credit Union participated in one of the Occupy Wall Street marches that took place here in Portland. This community action fits well with their motto “Small Enough to Know Better.” Not only was this community action sincere to what Trailhead stands for, it also provided an opportune moment to connect with like-minded prospects. (Step #3: Find your tribe outside the credit union.)

Starbucks Race Together Campaign


starbucks-race-togetherWhat if you had to give your Starbucks barista your definition of white privilege along with your request for an extra shot of espresso? That was sort of the idea behind Starbucks’s awkward #RaceTogether campaign, which asked employees to write “Race Together” on its coffee cups to spark dialogue on race.

Why it failed: Forced racial dialogue with strangers before I get my morning coffee? Many critics of #RaceTogether found the cause worthy, but the execution bizarre. Had Starbucks more fully engaged its baristas — or its customers, for that matter — in deciding how the company might be able to play a role in improving the country’s race relations, it’s doubtful they would have launched this particular campaign.

fibre-social-impact-profileHow you can do better: Don’t plan your cause marketing campaign with top executives in a board room. Get input from your employees and customers, and empower them to make the campaign a success. (Not sure where to start? Check out Step #2: Engage your employees to choose your cause.)

For example: Fibre Federal Credit Union created a community service committee, consisting of employees and volunteers, to review and select causes to support, taking into account suggestions from both its staff and members. (See also Step #4: Engage your members.)


Bing’s Retweet for a Dollar to #SupportJapan


bing-tweetbing-response-1bing-response-2On March 12, 2011, Bing sent a well-intentioned tweet asking its followers to retweet the post in exchange for a $1 donation to help victims of the recent earthquake in Japan.

Why it failed: Engaging your members around a cause can yield great results, but it can’t just be a PR stunt for you. In this case, given the urgency and dire nature of the cause at hand, asking for retweets before helping earthquake victims came off as blatantly self-serving. Even if Bing genuinely wanted to help, they went about doing it the wrong way.

How you can do better: Be cautious about any transactional promotions you run around your cause. Bing would have been better off saying they were donating to the relief efforts, encouraging others to donate, and leaving it at that — they probably would have received retweets for doing that alone. Don’t try and force your cause marketing campaign to go viral. If you run a great campaign, people will be inspired to talk about it on their own, and that’s the best way to amplify a cause.

roll-on-seattleFor example: In 2013, Seattle’s Verity Credit Union, which provides bike loans, launched “Roll On Seattle,” a photo contest that asked its bike enthusiast members to show off their bikes. For each of the first 100 entries, Verity contributed $5 to BikeWorks Seattle, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability initiatives, bicycle education and safety. (This is a great example of Step #5: Leverage multiple channels.)

Doing cause marketing “right” really comes down to these crucial elements: aligning your cause with your brand, engaging your employees and members, and inspiring your members to amplify the cause.

That’s a win-win-win.

Read more about how you can use cause marketing to increase member and employee engagement >>