£1 billion. A big enough number to make even the most financially secure Bond villain sit up and take notice. Indeed, normally when we hear numbers like that, they are associated with business tycoons, oligarchs, Silicon Valley teenagers or Travie McCoy wanting to be a Billionaire "so freakin' bad, so that he can buy all of the things that he never had".
But this month, the 1bn in question has been refreshingly all about charity. The peculiarly British charity Comic Relief has totalled up more than £1bn since it was founded 30 years ago, with more than £78m raised by the end of Friday's live show alone. An amazing result!
Much of the money is raised by people doing 'funny things for money' in workplaces and schools. But a substantial chunk of the funding comes from cause related marketing. That is the idea that brands partner with a charity on their marketing activities, for mutual benefit. In the case of Comic Relief the partnerships range from TKMAXX and Ryman through to Maltesers and Babybel.... products that are round and vaguely-nose shaped feature prominently.
These partnerships often don't cost the brand a great deal more than traditional marketing activities, and often the consumer is not asked to shell out extra money. The cause usually benefits directly from each product sold - funds coming directly off of the bottom line. The brand benefits by association, and the consumer benefits from a warm and fuzzy, 'doing good', feeling.
Cause related marketing is a big category, and there are lots of variations. Sometimes no money is raised but a good cause is highlighted; sometimes it's a partnership with a charity or media owner, other times the business is acting alone; sometimes the product or service link is obvious because it plays a role in tackling the cause, other times there is no product link.
Being honest, I have often been suspicious of cause related marketing. It's the cynic in me worrying about what it is that the business or brand is hiding, or what contentious issue they are trying to avoid by piggybacking on something altogether more worthy.
I think that in quite a few cases this cynicism is justified. For example, it is predictably funny to see some of the businesses that have been accused of not paying their taxes partnering with charities on issues like youth development and entrepreneurship - ironically the very issues that would have been tackled more effectively by government if they had higher tax revenues. Fortunately, in the era of social media, people are able to react when they see double standards. For example, Starbucks recent #racetogether hashtag campaign was not received as well as the company would have wanted: the irony of inconsistency doing more harm than good for the reputation of the business.
These disquieting examples are not the majority. For the last ten years cause related marketing has been on the rise. When I think back over the decade my front of mind top ten (in no particular order) are as follows:
- Pampers/UNICEF, an almost decade-long campaign that has helped provide 300 million doses of the tetanus vaccine to millions of women and their newborns and has contributed to eliminating the disease in 14 countries.
- Product (RED), a licensed brand that has become the largest private sector donor to The Global Fund, over200M to date.
- Comic Relief/Sainsbury's, the iconic partnership that has been at the heart of Comic relief since 1999, selling millions of red noses and raising over £95M.
- Tide: 'Loads of Hope', the washing liquid brand that helps disaster victims by bringing normality - cleaning and comfort - to families in the midst of chaos.
- Lifebuoy: 'Help a Child Reach 5'. The enlightened self-interest campaign from Unilever that raises awareness in India of the infections that can be prevented by simply hand washing with soap.
- TOMS Shoes, One for One. TOMS was launched with social purpose in mind. For every product that is purchased, TOMS will help a person in need, usually with either a pair of shoes, drinking water or eyewear. The business has spawned many imitations, and has therefore had a bigger impact than just through the core business.
- Patagonia: 'Don't Buy this Jacket'. Patagonia is the original socially and environmentally responsible brand. Over the years it launched many cause related marketing initiatives, but 'this Black Friday' campaign really stands out because it is focused on standing up to consumerism and persuading people to stop buying things that they don't need.
- Tesco, 'Computers for Schools'. Launched in the early 90s, this programme is one of the most iconic cause related marketing efforts the UK has to offer. Yes, it has had its critics but it has had a material impact on the amount of computer equipment in UK schools.
- Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Launched by Unilever in 2004, this campaign celebrates the natural physical variation in women and challenges traditional stereotypes. It triggered a reappraisal globally of the role of marketing in self esteem and has diversified into a play, a book, workshops and events.
- Nike, LiveStrong. In retrospect this is a controversial one but if you take the impact that it had in pure engagement terms, it would be one of the most successful personal health campaigns of recent times - sadly cut short by the shortcomings of its co-founder Lance Armstrong. The iconic yellow band spawned hundreds of imitations and other cause campaigns.
Despite my inbuilt cynicism, I can see that these campaigns have had a material impact on causes. And when you consider that brands don't have to do this, and could just spend the money on traditional marketing, I am really inspired. But what gives me more faith than anything else is the idea that increasingly, public opinion - vocalized by social media - is not allowing brands to free-ride on causes.
The Starbucks example shows that, today, actualised values and good business behaviours are the price of entry for cause related marketing.