It’s the holy grail of cause marketing: tangibility.  The idea behind tangibility seems simple – create a giving program that means something to the consumer so it’s easy to understand and meaningful.  Cone calls it a fundamental that resonates with today’s consumers.  Not tangible means not sellable means not profitable.

Examples of tangible programs exist everywhere (Toms Shoes, Nothing But Nets, etc).  Goodwill just blew me away with their latest website – plug in your potential donation of computers or coats or whatever and find out how you just helped a person get a job! We’re no exception.  As we build our product and partner with nonprofit organizations, we weave tangibility into everything we do.

Yet tangibility takes on many different forms, and as we discuss with our partners, we find that there’s no simple definition, little marketing data to back up decisions, and a lot of gut instinct.  In fact, we struggle to wonder what tangible means to the consumer who’s only looking at the product for a few seconds or minutes.

Does Tangible Mean Direct Impact?
What makes donating shoes or buying nets so compelling is that there’s a very human one-to-one correlation – your individual act of purchasing helps another individual directly.  But the real challenge is that most issues in this world don’t conform to that one-to-one small-scale act of giving.  What do you do if you’re saving a forest?  Or contributing to cancer research?   Or what if the cost of helping one person is far higher than the cost of the product being purchased?

Does Tangible Mean The Consumer Relates?
The other day my wife* was at Safeway, where they asked her at checkout if she’d donate a dollar to prostate cancer research.  Her first thought was, “That can’t happen to me.”  Then she thought about the men in her life – her son and her husband – and realized it very well could happen to her.  She hit “yes.”  But is research very tangible?  Can you say, “With my contribution I helped save a life?”  Maybe consumers do think that.  But then the question is – did they donate because they felt that cancer research was important or did they relate to the type of cancer?  Same question for Komen and their pink ribbon. People relate to and understand breast cancer.  Komen’s partnerships are everywhere, but does anyone know what their dollar buys?

Does Tangible Mean There’s an Opportunity for Service?
Cone’s 2008 Behavioral Cause Study identifies  5 types of cause conscious-consumers.  Two of them (advocates and activists), together 43% of the population, show signs that for the right cause and campaign they would get involved.  Disney tapped into these folks with their Give a Day, Get a Disney Day program.  Participants got a free ticket if they volunteered for a day.  What’s more tangible than that?  Good, hard work always results in greater knowledge, understanding, and cohesion.  That’s a win-win.  But what if folks buying a cause-branded product want to get involved?  Will they be drawn to research programs?  Will they be excited by an organization operating out of their region?  Tangibility for them means something else entirely.

Does Tangible Just Mean Well Defined?
So what about the idea that tangible just means you know where your money goes?  That instead of donating to Aid Relief you’re donating to Haiti Disaster Relief?  Or instead of donating to fight poverty you’re donating to the local food shelter?  Or instead of donating to a cancer research org you donate to a particular research program within the org?  Is this approach really tangibility?  Or does this fall into that other important arena of cause marketing: transparency?

The Answer: It’s All Tangible, but…
Well, I don’t know if this is the answer, but I do know that all these things are tangible.  The real issue is not whether or not the money is going to have tangible benefit, but whether or not the consumer knows or understands anything about the nonprofit or issue being promoted.  And in cause marketing, it’s a huge risk to assume that the consumer does know, because if they don’t, they won’t buy.

The Real Issue is Relatability
What we’re trying to get at with tangibility is how well does the consumer relate to what we’re promoting? Do they have experience with the cause or the nonprofit? Have they been personally affected by the cause they are contributing to? We’ve identified three reasons a consumer may not relate:

  • They don’t know or never heard of the nonprofit
  • They don’t understand what the nonprofit does or how they do it
  • They can’t relate to the cause itself

In all of these cases, the consumer needs to be educated.  And on the front of a package, in a short commercial, on a sign at checkout, there’s scant room for a full-blown education.  And thus, marketers need to make tangible something that consumers don’t relate to.

Which Brings Us to Equivalencies
“Equivalencies” bridge the gap.  Nonprofits and companies pore through their programs and figure out how much money it might take to provide a simple but impactful act.   It might cost $20 to save a flock of ducks over at Heifer.  Or for $75 you can save a mile of ocean at Conservation International.  Equivalencies are awesome because they allow people to relate through the power of tangibility.

Most of the time equivalencies are just representations.  Consumers need to know their money won’t go specifically to those causes being promoted, but most likely to unrestricted funds which the organization can use any way they like.  No problem there – we trust nonprofits to be good stewards of our donations and you can check on Charity Navigator or the BBB to see if they are.  But the fact remains that equivalencies are for marketing and not for programming.

Have you noticed that we’re right back where we started?  Reask the questions above but insert “relatable” for “tangible” and the same confusion ensues.  For different consumers, different issues relate.  And so the real answer is “it depends.” It depends what your causes are.  It depends who your consumer is.  It depends what channels you have to educate your market.  Like all things marketing, you have to know your product and the environment in which you’re selling, and then adjust the message accordingly.

I’m sure I’ll develop stronger opinions as we bring our product to market and start really giving back to our nonprofit partners.  In the meantime, I’d love to learn from your thoughts and experiences, so please share.  I’ll come back to this with lessons learned, somewhere down the line.

*Special thanks to my dear wife who lent her cause-marketing brilliance to this post.


18 Responses to What Does Tangible Mean To You?

  1. Megan Strand says:

    Excellent post! I agree – it’s a bit of a spiraling circle when you start asking the hard questions you’re asking.

    To me it comes down to communication. We live in a world with a 140-character attention span and consumers are asked to make snap judgement when choosing where to put their dollars and attention. Joe Waters, cause marketing pinup king, advises that point-of-sale cause marketing asks should be simple, compelling and relatable “Donate a dollar to help sick kids?”.

    Sometimes in our quest to educate, we confuse the very people we’re trying to engage with wordy, verbose messaging. Better to keep it simple and provide additional background information on websites, should the consumer choose to seek out additional information.

    • That’s great advice, Megan! It’s very easy to try to over-explain when simple wording would do the trick. And I agree that the website should be used to engage interested people more fully, while the product itself should simply grab people’s attention. Do you think it’s important in that short burst to tell consumers exactly where their money went?

      • Megan Strand says:

        I think it’s important to give them something digestible. To me, I think back to that Cone presentation at Cause Marketing Forum – how much of my dollar is going to benefit what cause, specifically? If that’s not easily accessible, you lose authenticity.

        So either: a) Your product has to provide that information in a simple and compelling way or b) Your product has to communicate a means to obtain that information (e.g. a label “teaser” that directs the consumer to great info online).

  2. Chris Noble says:

    Excellent post, CS. A very thoughtful and targeted approach to the elements behind compelling cause marketing. I agree w Megan that the consumer needs the info about where their dollars are going, but I have a different driver in mind. Folks like to talk about what they’ve done when they’ve done some good, even if they’re just retelling the brand’s story. Sharing the information about how and where their dollars are spent helps the consumer place themselves in the brand story, and in turn establishes a more solid connection to the brand/product.

    Really well thought out. May we cross post this on WhatGives!?


    • Thanks for the thoughts, Chris. So you’re saying that the message needs to be tangible not just so the consumer can understand it but also so they can feel like they’re part of the story themselves? That’s super interesting. I guess in this world of two-way brand communications and social media, individuals do feel like they’re part of things. Just like a consumer’s video could become the next commercial for a product, a consumer’s purchase means the next meal for a homeless person.

      But I’m still struggling with what the right degree of tangibility is. If the nonprofit being supported puts money into research, does the consumer think, “I just supported research,” or do they think “I’m saving a life” or… something else?

  3. Joe Waters says:

    A thoughtful post, CS. Before I got into cause marketing and nonprofit work I taught public speaking and one of the things I always taught speakers was that “persuasion occurs through identification.” People are convinced because they can relate to you, because they you meet their needs, wants, desires, beliefs, etc. So I do think you’re right that it’s about tangibility and relatability.

    The trump card in all this, however, are the emotions. When you can connect with people emotionally on an issue challenges around tangibility and relatability evaporate.

    Megan above mentions my advice for point-of-sale asks at the register. If you plan to win the battle with consumers at the register you can’t expect them to endure an onslaught of cuts and slashes. A dagger to the heart will win the day every time.


    • Joe, what if this isn’t a pinup or a donation at checkout? Would you say the messaging on a product for sale on the shelves could be the same messaging meant to inspire consumers to add $1 to their total bill at the grocery store?

      Either way, though, you’re saying hit people’s emotions in whatever message you’re putting out there. If the partnership is with Kaboom!, let’s say (and in full disclosure, it’s not), don’t say, “your money went to build a playground” but instead “your money saved another child from growing up on the street” or something like that?

  4. koodooz says:

    Appreciate the level of thought you put into this post. As a cause catalyst, innovator and implementor of these campaigns, the characteristics I put into the spotlight are:

    * is the cause capable of evoking an emotional connection? (social)
    * is the cause substantially integrated into the brand’s culture? (material)
    * is the cause a clearly identified humanitarian issue or recognized as a problem? (socio-economic)
    * are the assets spent on or raised for the cause easily justified? (economic)
    * is the timing, length or timeframe of the cause campaign reasonable? (transformative)

    Because social value has intrinsic value, it can be difficult to agree upon or quantify. But I think the facets of all cause campaigns must examine the social, material, socio-economic, economic & transformative qualities which for me, are tangible.

    ~Lee Fox (founder of KooDooZ)

    • Lee,

      Very cool of you to take the time to provide examples. Frankly, the seatbelt video blew my mind and I was really impressed by the teen homeless campaign. Both very tangible, both very relatable, both campaigns drove the issue back into the viewer’s home.

      Are you saying that those 5 qualities provide a framework through which to view all causes? That all causes fall into one of them, and once you decide which you can create the campaign accordingly?

  5. Lisa O'Brien says:

    Great post, CS. Tangibility and relatibility are key components in building a good cause marketing campaign. You mention the importance of using equivalencies as a way to further connect potential donors to a cause. To me, equivalencies, although a good way to build tangibility, seem to understate the amount of work/help necessary for most causes to achieve big results. The solution for every malady seems suddenly so simple and now maybe I am left thinking I never need to give more then a couple bucks to change the world. Could this type of marketing discourage potential donors from giving larger donations? Thoughts?

    • Lisa,

      That’s a good question and I guess this is the current debate. It’s similar to the question of mobile giving – do people who text in a $10 donation feel like their job is done and so they don’t give again? Is there some portion of those who text in a donation that would have sought out ways to give more than $10 but now they don’t have to because it was convenient?

      There’s a great blog that I read a lot called Good Intentions Are Not Enough, where Saundra explores some of the unintended consequences of our newly found giving culture. This would be a great question for her to tackle.

      To address the question specifically, my hope is that cause marketing evolves to not just include a quick donation but also to work to raise awareness of the causes in question. That’s certainly something that we’re hoping to do with our product – each of our cause partners will be true partners and we’ll go the distance in educating our consumers about them and what they do. My hope is that this drives up not just donations but also volunteerism and word-of-mouth promotion through all the ways people have to do that these days.

      Perhaps then we will be free of the trap of over simplifying causes.

  6. This is a really great post and great comments! I don’t have the expertise in cause marketing that you all do but I agree with what Chris Noble said – people like to insert themselves into the story – It seems that it would be far easier to reach that emotional place with the consumer with an equivalency for their donation. “I provided X books to the children” sounds and I think, feels better then “I donated X dollars”.

    Thanks for good thoughts to ponder!

    • Hey Cindy, thanks for contributing! I agree that it’s better to have a recipient. Maybe that’s the tangible piece – having someone receive the benefit, even if that someone is an object (like a rain forest). I just don’t know what to think about research-based cause partnership options…

  7. Great discussion. Thanks @KooDooZ for getting me over here. I agree with Lee that a successful cause-related marketing campaign will meet the 5 guidelines she mentioned. I would also add that a campaign should have mechanisms to move the consumer from one level of engagement (offering up a dollar at the checkout, purchasing a product with percentage-of-donations) to a higher level if they want. Earlier this week I read a comment from a woman who ran Macy’s cause marketing campaign. She found that after a significant portion of consumers participated in the campaign, they expected to be involved in the cause going forward–to receive updates on the campaign’s progress and invitations to do more. So (and here we are again), I think it depends on all the variables mentioned. But giving consumers easy access to greater involvement is important.

    Lisa, that’s a great question–by making smaller-sized donations, do people feel they’re off the hook for anything larger or do these smaller donations undermine the resources needed to tackle the issue. I’ve been fascinated lately with equivalencies. I’ve shifted my giving habits to make gifts that affect (at least ostensibly, and that’s enough for me right now) one individual.


    • Olivia,

      Thanks so much for coming and contributing. AND CONGRATS ON YOUR 200TH POST! For me, 10 will be a milestone :-) And, the topic of your post is (hint) extremely relevant to our burgeoning company. Well timed.

      I love the idea of moving beyond just a simple cause-marketing message and getting to a point where consumers are engaged in the brand, the nonprofits, and the issues themselves. That’s the trifecta that we’re aiming for, and I’m excited to get to a place where we can showcase it.

      Thanks also to Lee for the introduction. I look forward to reading more…

  8. Saundra says:

    I don’t come from the marketing perspective, in fact I’ve found I’m not that great of a fund raiser. What I do know are the unintended consequences that simplified marketing messages have had on aid.

    These simplified messages can impact your own programs, the aid /social venture worlds and the people you’re trying to help. Some of the problems have been mentioned above so forgive me if I repeat what others have said. Here are some things to be cautious of.

    First – the wave of the future is greater scrutiny on the actual work and impact of both aid and social venture programs. So be very cautious of making any claims you cannot prove. A case in point would be the example above of instead of saying that your money went to build playgrounds that instead it kept children from growing up on the streets. If one of the charity watchdogs called you to the table could you prove it?
    Microfinance programs are a prime example of this. All the hype on how the transform people’s lives is beginning to be proven wrong in a multitude of studies. In addition Kiva’s original marketing message of the donors’ money going straight to the aid recipient was proven to be false and a firestorm of blogs were written on the topic which eventually made it to the New York Times and NPR. This whole debate also covers person to person or P2P marketing techniques and the ethics behind it. It’s a case study I highly recommend to everyone. Here’s a link

    Second – A lot of the new marketing techniques completely gloss over the need for administrative costs or make it appear that administrative costs are actually a waste of money. This is having profound negative impacts on the ability of aid organizations to function in the field. And it makes it appear that the best programs are the cheapest. This is creating a spiraling effect of organizations slowly strangling themselves to death as they try to grow or even maintain their organization with too few staff and too few resources.

    Third – Marketing that pulls at heartstrings often stereotypes or misrepresents the people they are trying to help accidentally hurting them in an effort to help them. Some of the advertisements even exploit aid recipients by putting up photos or information or videos of them that you would never allow to be made of your own wife, children or parents. I call this Trading Dignity for Dollars others call it Poverty Porn. Whenever you develop a program that pulls at people’s heartstrings always put yourself in the aid recipients shoes. How would you feel if this was the image of you, your disease, your country. Here’s one of many posts I’ve written on the topic.

    Fourth – Oversimplifying a message makes it appear that anyone could go out and save the world with just a load of bednets. In reality many bednets are often not used for their intended purposes but instead are used for fishing nets or bridal lace. For a bednet program to be successful there has to be a concerted effort to actually teach people how and why they should use them. There’s also the issue of the fact that if the bednets aren’t treated every 4 years they become far less effective. Here’s a blog post talking about this

    The impact of a decade of oversimplified marketing messages have led to large numbers of people thinking they can save the world by taking up a collection of shoes or purchasing bednets and flying off to a developing country to distribute them. This has led to a proliferation of startup nonprofits and social venture companies. A new nonprofit is registered every 15 minutes in the US and I have no idea how many new social ventures are also launched. There are two impacts of this. First there is extremely heavy competition of donor dollars which will only get worse. And second there are an awful lot of really bad aid projects out there leading to some areas and government offices refusing to work with outsiders anymore.

    My take away message for you is that marketing campaigns have a huge impact on aid. It’s critical when looking at a new campaign to not only think about how to attract donors, but also how your message will impact those you are trying to help. I don’t know the best way to balance these opposing issues, but I’m very glad to see people debating and discussing the issues.

    • Saundra,

      Thank you for taking the time to contribute. You’ve done a lot in this area and I have enjoyed reading your take on topics like this. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m taking them to heart.

      As a result of this blog post and the comments in it, we’ve adjusted. I’ll write more in a full post on the topic, but in short we are working to always be part of the solution. We are committing to raising not just basic donations of a quarter per consumer, but also to raise awareness, promote advocacy, and overall educate consumers on the causes we represent.

      On the back end, we are committed to the transparency you recommend and will be open and honest about where the money goes, what percentage is used for admin, etc. We agree that admin costs are important and in fact we have no qualms with donating money that goes to admin.

      I’m using this blog to learn from the community as we build our business. Thank you for contributing.

  9. [...] A look at how charity advertising that goes straight for the heartstrings or oversimplifies aid can negatively impact the organization, the larger aid/social venture world, and the very people organization is trying to help. If you can’t wait for the blog post you can read some of my thoughts in the comment section of this blog. [...]

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