What Consumers Need to Know Before Buying that Product for Charity

Woman examining a carton of yogurt.
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 Peter Cade/The Image Bank/Getty Images

To Buy or Not to Buy: That Is the Question

You’ve probably saved pink lids on containers of yogurt to support breast cancer research and awareness. Maybe you’ve heard about Subaru’s “Share the Love” event. Alternatively, perhaps you even bought a big red clown nose to support Red Nose Day. These campaigns are proof that cause marketing is a great way to sell products, engage consumers, and raise money for amazing programs.

If you’re not sure what “cause marketing” is, it’s the partnership between a corporation and a nonprofit. Sometimes, a company gives a portion of sales to a specific organization, or they partner with causes to ask people to donate at the register.

Other campaigns involve adding a nonprofit’s logo or name to packaging (think Susan G. Komen and Yoplait). In some cases, a company may even create a partnership that affects how products are designed or sold to support a specific nonprofit’s cause. For example, many dog food companies use their profits to help shelters and donate high-quality food.

Both parties win when a company and a nonprofit get together to create a cause marketing campaign. When consumers see that they’re supporting a cause, they are more likely to buy a cause-affiliated product. A portion of the proceeds or donations is sent to the cause/nonprofit, while the corporation gets a boost in product sales. Plus, the consumer feels like they’ve contributed to society and causes they are passionate about and will likely go away with a good opinion of that company.

Cause marketing is more popular than ever, and many retailers are beginning to adopt this plan of action. However, how does cause marketing work for the consumer and the causes they partner? Moreover, how do you make sure that that charity related product is legit and helping a legit charity?

There’s no doubt that many cause-related campaigns do a world of good. Many are one-offs such as the many pink products sold during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Other cause-related opportunities for consumers are on-going such as the products from “buy one, give one” companies such as Warby Parker eyeglasses and TOMS shoes.

However, there are some things consumers should pay attention to. Here are some suggestions from a range of sources to make you a savvy cause product buyer.

  •  Make sure that the charity and the product/company match. For instance, some years ago, a cancer group partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken (remember the pink buckets of chicken?) That went over like a lead balloon, since a healthy diet is tied to cancer prevention.
  • Is the packaging of the product or service clear? Does it tell you what charity is involved and how much of your purchase goes to the charity? Is there a cap on the amount of the company’s contribution? Sometimes, a product might say that 10 percent of the purchase price of the product goes to the charity, but the contribution from the company tops out at a rather small number, such as $20,000 or so. However, that product may stay on the shelf and draw customers way beyond the contribution cap. You could be buying but not contributing.
  • Is this product equal to or superior to a similar product? Don’t buy an inferior product just for the donation. Instead, make a direct contribution to that charity if you wish.
  • Do you need this product? If you were going to buy a backpack and find one that is a cause-related product, you might want to go with that particular one (if it’s good quality). Don’t buy products you were not going to buy in the first place.
  • Consider the charity the product is affiliated with. Do you recognize the name? Do you know anything about that charity? It would be wise to put off your purchase until you can check out the charity if you don't know anything about it. You can do that quickly through the Better Business Bureau or a charity evaluator such as Charity Navigator. You should check out the programs of that charity, its services, how financially healthy it is, and how up front it is about its finances.
  • Evaluate the marketing of this product. One cause marketing consultant suggests avoiding campaigns that use “fluffy” language such as “eco-friendly” or “good for you” that lack any specific claims. Also, watch out for silly photos that make little sense, unproven or irrelevant claims, irrelevant third-party endorsements (a celebrity endorsement should not sway your decision). Moreover, don’t fall for false or incredible claims for products that you know do harm (Cigarettes? Fried foods?)

Most consumers are incredibly savvy these days, so don’t let a charity affiliation sway you to buy stupidly. Keep your antennae up and your wallet in your pocket if you smell a lousy cause marketing ploy.

As fun as it is, buying a product to support a charity, should be just a sidebar for your charitable activities. Far better for your favorite causes is to donate directly to those organizations.

Some people think that buying a product that gives back a little something to a charity fulfills their charitable obligations. Don’t let that be you.

Find a handful of charities that you adore and then give often and well. Also, don’t forget to volunteer. It’s good for the charity and excellent for your mental and physical health.

Have fun buying products for you and your family as part of your charitable giving and give gifts that are associated with charity. But always regard that as an add-on to your regular giving. Your favorite charities will appreciate your commitment and loyalty.

Interested in knowing what makes a great cause marketing program? Here are just a few of the most highly regarded cause-marketing campaigns from Engage for Good, a professional group that evaluates and gives awards to the best cause marketing programs. Knowing what a good program looks like can help you distinguish the worthy from those that don't deserve your support.