Corporate Altruism: The Blurring of the Lines Between CSR and Cause Marketing | Beth's Blog

Corporate Altruism: The Blurring of the Lines Between CSR and Cause Marketing

Research Studies

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Corporate Altruism: The Blurring of the Lines Between CSR and Cause Marketing by Kami Watson Huyse and Beth Kanter

Aligning with a cause is a great way for a for-profit company to both raise its profile while doing something good for society at large.  For nonprofits and causes, having the right corporate partner can leverage the impact of the social change work.

Associating a product with a social or environmental cause people care about is a popular marketing tactic with consumers.  More than two in five consumers bought such a product in the past year, according to the “2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study.”   And according to that research 75% donate to a company identified nonprofit, ilustrating that corporate altruism is not only good for the bottom line, but also good for society.

Cause Marketing Gone Bad?

However, the ways that companies and causes have aligned in the marketplace have ranged from the sublime to plain old slimy.   Nonprofits need to consider, should we partner with companies?  If so, how?  And those that choose poorly are subject to being the conduits to green washing, pink washing, and any other kind of washing you can imagine. When the accusations start flying, it can get ugly fast.

Source: Fit Sugar Blog

Take for example, “Buckets for the Cure” fund-raising campaign where Susan G. Komen for the Cure teamed up with KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken).   For each $5 bucket (pink!) of fried chicken, KFC donated 50 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and ultimately $4.2 million was donated (the largest ever breast cancer donation.)     Others wondered whether Komen had read their own educational literature about the connection between high fat diets and breast cancer.

The Differences Between Cause Marketing and CSR

In companies, corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments and corporate foundations have risen up as a substantial field of practice – the good ones come complete with a theory of change or goals to make social change the priority.   Many CSR programs subscribe to the ideas of the triple bottom-line: people, planet and profit.  Meaning that all three must figure in to what the company does to be an authentic and generous corporate citizen.

On the other side, cause marketing has risen up as a way to sell more products, widgets or even ideas, with a non-profit or altruistic element to drive the program.  The bottom line here usually rules the day; however there has been a move toward what we see as more CSR-like elements popping up in cause marketing programs.

The grand debate over CSR vs. cause marketing seems to be getting more blurry.   So much so that the two are often confused and interchanged by those not deeply in the community, and most certainly by public relations departments and marketing. Could it be that it is not a question of either-or, but rather a question of a continuum?  And if so, what are the different points on this continuum and what are the best practices for each?

These are real-world questions that go well beyond philosophy. The genie is out of the bag, companies and nonprofit causes will continue to co-exist.  So, can we put down the weapons and look at how to do it better?

What are some of the best examples of CSR or Cause Marketing programs that use social media?
What are some of the worst examples?

16 Responses

  1. Megan Strand says:

    I’m beyond thrilled that you’re taking on this research and very much look forward to your results (thanks so much for sharing!).

    In my observation, the *best*, most effective and authentic cause marketing campaigns are conducted by companies where there is a corporate commitment to a cause, whether it’s organizationally called “CSR” or “Sustainability” or some other strategic initiative.

    One of my favorite campaigns is Levi’s “Care to Air” campaign ( It effectively uses social media and consumer engagement in an attempt to both educate and change behavior. The company itself has made a commitment to sustainability and has done an admirable job in doing so. I wrote a post about their efforts here:

    I’m also completely enamored with Chipotle’s Boorito cause marketing campaign benefitting Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (

    Both of these campaigns are asking for a creative contribution from consumers, not simply a “Like” on a Facebook page. They’re fun, creative and productive AND benefit a good cause – wins all around in my book.

  2. ichi says:

    Hi Beth –
    I am also thrilled to hear that you and Kami are generous enough to share this ongoing important research process, opening to the public. I would like to follow closely in the coming weeks, and would like to join the discussion! maybe introduce some of the cases happening in Japan.

  3. Joe Waters says:

    It’s interesting how you portray CSR and Cause Marketing as two seperate entities (“On the other side, cause marketing has risen up…”)because I’ve never really viewed it that way.

    At its best, cause marketing is an extension of CSR not an “other”. But cause marketing, and you describe it transactionally as I do, is a tactic (keep in mind that we’re not even talking about cause branding, which is different)that can be practiced without the strategic values that come with CSR, but it’s not recommended.

    So when you say that you see “CSR elements popping up in cause marketing programs” to me those have always been a part of thoughtful cause marketing and the real goal is to encourage more programs like that.

    Ultimately, cause marketing isn’t done to sell things. It’s done to achieve higher purpose. The purpose articulated in corporate social responsibility and acted on through cause marketing.


  4. Rachel says:

    I personally was a fan of the Pepsi Refresh program. I thought they utilized social medias really effectively, and the programs that got the grants were top notch.

  5. Beth says:


    Thanks for your comment!

    I have a question about your framing of cause marketing – you say it isn’t done to sell products but for a higher purpose. Isn’t is both?

    In looking at field, do you see that all cause marketing campaigns articulate a higher purpose that aligns company CSR goals or are there examples where they do not? Are there differences in the end results? Do you have specific examples?

  6. Beth says:

    Also wanted to point over the post at Kami’s blog – some terrific discussion threads over there as well, particularly from Carol Cone

  7. Joe Waters says:

    Hey Beth,

    Cause marketing does both: it supports a higher purpose and moves product. But when we’re in the presence of great cause marketing–like say in the case of Timberland–sales drives social innovation, although this certainly isn’t true for most cause marketing. But it’s an ideal to strive for.

    Your second question on whether all cause marketing campaigns articulate a higher purpose that aligns with CSR goals is interesting. It varies. Significantly, with the companies I’ve had the best and most successful relationships with, yes it does. There’s no doubt that when CM aligns with CSR (or VALUES, as we once called them) the results are better.

    That said, we do transactional partnerships all the time because we (1) need the money, like most nonprofits (2) hope that we can work bottom up and use cause marketing to share values that will make them long-term partners. This doesn’t always work. Some partners stay for a couple years and leave. Some come in and out again as market conditions warrant. And some–but very few–drink the cool-aid and join the ranks of the committed.

    I think the point is that sometimes, but not always, cause marketing doesn’t always need to flow from CSR (values). It can be reversed. It’s not easy. But it’s this hope and, of course, the money that keeps transactional cause marketers like me doing less-than-ideal campaigns.

    Fortunately, my judgement hasn’t been so clouded as to execute a promotion along the line of “Buckets for the Cure.” 😉

    Hope this helps!


  8. marnie webb says:

    (disclaimer: i work for an org — — that does significant work with the philanthropic areas of many major companies)

    I gotta say that I agree with a lot of what Joe wrote above. Cause marketing should be, ideally, an extension and promotion of the CSR work that a company is doing. I think that things start to go area when cause marketing is a corporate buzz word used to garner email addresses or get you buy the product with the pink ribbon on it but does not, other than a few dollars thrown at a nonprofits, represent a corporate investment in a particular cause.

    In this way, I’d love to see organizations partnering with companies in their issue area. While I’d never want to stand in the way of a large breast cancer donation, it seems that KFC partnering with orgs over sustainable food and health issues map the cause to the product to the CSR efforts in way that is more sustaining for everyone — most particularly the community.

  9. Ruth Zive says:

    Look forward to reading the results of your research. We wrote about the KFC debacle several months ago on our blog ( I think that in the best case examples, cause marketing strategies do reflect authentic CSR principles. But I agree that these lines are becoming increasingly blurred. In our blog article, we highlighted the HuggiesMomInspired initiative – not sure to what extent they are leveraging social media resources. I really like the DoveDifference campaign – very organic and seamlessly integrates with their business model.

  10. Beth says:


    We interviewed the good folks from Microsoft about their approach to cause-marketing. As you know, they have an impressive CSR program with higher purpose goals that align with their corporate mission.

    The cause marketing campaign we looked at included supporting a nonprofit that they had an existing relationship with in the CSR area. The Cause marketing department found it valuable because they didn’t have to start from scratch with the relationship and CSR was able to add value to an existing relationship. In fact, CSR works in partnership with cause marketing – and they admit not every campaign can ladder up to their CSR goals – but if it is supporting a nonprofit that they have a relationship with as part of the CSR strategy – then it is of value.

  11. Beth says:

    Joe: The more I read your comments and thoughts, the more I see where we are saying the same thing …. we are not saying that “cause marketing” is evil and “csr” is good – we’re beginning to see that some integration/relationship is a best practice.

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