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.
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