A portion of this purchase will make you feel good

I’ve just about had it with “worthy” product tie-ins ( “a portion of this purchase will go to charity”) but I’ve felt like it’s such an obvious point that I’d let it lie.  And then today I came across a giant 6 page Bulgari ad in Vanity Fair.  I flip through six beautiful, stern, black-and-white photographs of movie stars I admire, starting with Isabella Rossellini, and quotations like “Let’s give children a chance for a better future,” and “Every child deserves and education.”  OK, you’ve gotten my attention.

On the 6th page there’s the heavy silver Lord of the Rings-esque ring each moviestar is wearing.  Buy a Bulgari “silver ring created especially for the campaign to support kids’ education…A portion of the proceeds will help to rewrite the future for millions of children” with money being given to Save the Children.Willem da Foe and Ben Stiller for Bulgari/Save the Children

A similar, recent charity tie-in that comes to mind is Product(Red), which,the NY Times reported last year, spent $100M on advertising to raise $18M for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Malaria, and Tuberculosis.

Obviously I don’t have a problem with big companies donating to charity, nor do I think Save the Children is to blame since they do wonderful work and are absolutely worth supporting.  And kudos to the movie stars themselves for supporting a worthy cause.

It’s the “portion of the proceeds” piece that gets me.  Bulgari is apparently donating €1M and raising €9M through this campaign, and €50 out of the 290 cost of the ring will go to Save the Children.  They are also auctioning off an estimated $3M worth of jewelry, all of whose proceeds will go to Save the Children.  This from a company with more than €1 billion in revenues in 2008.

Yes, it’s a lot better than nothing.  But it is so much less than what we could do.  It’s a “no sacrifice” mentality.  Sure, it’s good for Save the Children, for awareness about the importance of education, and good for Bulgari.  But when I look at all the resources that went into this one Vanity Fair ad, I feel pretty sure that Save the Children is getting the crumbs left on the table.

For starters, as far as I can tell, the 6-page ad in Vanity Fair cost around $85,000 a page, or a total of $510,000 (this is my first time reading a rate card…someone correct me if I’ve got this wrong).  So I can’t help but worry that the donation will be a small piece of a much bigger pie.

Plus there’s something that doesn’t feel right about Bulgari customers, who by definition are ultra-wealthy, wearing a €300 ring to say “I am doing something to improve education for poor kids in the developing world,” and the total value of their donation to Save the Children is €50.

Finally, there’s a gut check question here:  It makes me queasy to think about a halo effect for an ultra-premium brand like Bulgari on the backs of poor kids in the developing world.

I’d like to see us set a very different bar, and charity:water gives us the example.  They allow you to buy a $20 bottle of water, with 100% of the proceeds going to charity.  Pay 10 times as much, because we all could do more and give more, and all the money goes to charity.  Giving is important, it’s not a free pass or a rounding error in your latest purchase.

If the 10x the price sets too high a bar, at the very least, let’s ask all the charity tie-ins to give the full cost of the product to the charity.  That should be the minimum.  It’s 100% transparent, it is more honest, and it forces the multinational to put some real skin in the game.  Plus, imagine what happens inside the company when they’re promoting the heck out of a product that doesn’t earn them one thin dime.  I bet they’d get more, not less, energy, enthusiasm, creativity and sacrifice.  People would be fighting to work on that project.

Could someone out there please create a “100% to charity” logo/brand/standard to set the bar here?

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11 thoughts on “A portion of this purchase will make you feel good

  1. As usual, a thought-provoking post. I don’t feel as strident about it as you do, because I’ve come to understand (albeit grudgingly) that the profit motive drives nearly all of what happens in the business world. In turn, business is rapidly becoming (or has become?) the defining institution of the modern world. In our age of increasingly impotent governments and declining social institutions, we need the wealth and power of for-profit business to be brought to bear on the social causes of the world — I don’t think we can make a difference without it. So, I think that as a result we have to accept and embrace the profit motive being applied to cause. In this context I think that Product(Red) actually represents some of the most progressive thinking about how to pull the profit-focused world into alignment with the cause-focused one.

    But I do agree that cause marketing is fast becoming a self-parody. Many non-profit organizations have so many cause-marketing relationships that have so little relevance to their mission that one pictures their headquarters as a giant NASCAR racer, circling a track at top speed, heading nowhere. Is it too much to ask that an organization seek out relationships that are in sync with its core mission?

    Ultimately, that is my objection to the Bulgari promotion. Perhaps it is a marketing objection rather than a philosophical one, and as such may be less compelling than your argument. But from a simple standpoint of brand alignment and mission focus, what the heck does designer jewelry have in common with children in poverty? In fact, the two brands couldn’t be less aligned; it strikes me the same as if Camel were supporting the American Lung Association. How does such a relationship drive the organization forward?

    This campaign may create some short-term benefit for both organizations, but I doubt it will create long-term growth for either, and will muddy both brands in the process. Further, as someone whose job is to raise money for nonprofits, I can tell you from personal experience that brand confusion leads to more insidious problems. When you tell your constituents that it is “enough” to give 17% of your jewelry purchase to charity, you create an environment (both internal and external to the organization) in which everyone is focused on getting the drippings from the table instead of the main course. Such a culture makes it much more difficult to ask for more significant gifts later. Worse, this culture hampers the ability to ask for cause-based gifts –that is, true donations which do not come with a product give-away as a quid pro quo.

    Nonprofits need to have more confidence in their own value, more willingness to ask directly, and more sense of who they are and where they are going. If the pairing of the for-profit and non-profit worlds is a necessity, as I believe, then nonprofits are going to need to understand branding and positioning as well as their for-profit counterparts. At the very least, the nonprofit world is going to have to get much more sophisticated about which relationships it accepts and which it does not.

  2. I understand your post (and others on your blog) as boiled down to this: You don’t think companies and individuals should gain too much (good publicity, feeling good about oneself) for too little investment (a portion of proceeds, a portion of money spent on something for one’s self) and too little good actually done (money ending up in recipient’s hands.)

    Fair enough. This is a somewhat straightforward question and can be argued based on the numbers (more on this below). But there is also a resistance to selfish motivations in your posts, that I’m not sure should be part of the calculous at all.

    It seems to me that you simply feel on a gut level that companies and individuals and society in general should do good for altruistic reasons. You’ve “just about had it with ‘worthy’ product tie-ins.” Because it bothers you that the motivation for these campaigns and the customers who participate are selfish, you are more willing to discount the results and call for a different method of philanthropy. Essentially, you discount an ends-justifies-the-means philosophy.

    Again, fair enough. Most people know that ends justifying the means can lead to outlandish and problematic results. However, I think that a common sense look has to be made to any particular case. Basically, are the “means” causing harm in and of themselves? If Bulgari said they could save up to 1million children, but had to kill one child for every 100,000 to do so we would say this is unacceptable despite the million that could be saved. Because we are not willing to be actively responsible for causing harm to the 10 children they would kill, even though by doing nothing, we know more than 10 children will die out of the million.

    However, in this case the ‘harm’ is the (in your opinion) undeserved good publicity and profits Bulgari will gain. But just because it rubs you the wrong way that Bulgari and its customers are motivated from selfish desires, should this method of philanthropy be discounted? You’ve addressed this in other posts, and I don’t want to argue this particular point. The larger issue is that this point skews the original calculous.

    I feel like you’re coming at this from within your world of philanthropy and not willing to deal with the wold of actors outside, many of whom have a worldview that does not include the desire/need for charity. The fact is, outside the world of philanthropy, people are not convinced that they should act for altruistic reasons. Do we insist that this not be the case? Not allow self congratulation and profit motive related to philanthropy? You seem generally positive when discussing the AIDS ride director who commands large salaries for very large returns. Why does this not apply for corporate actors trying to enrich themselves, generate positive images and do good? Perhaps because the returns are too small? Well perhaps you are not calculating all of the returns:

    So how best to reach a broader section of the public and policy-makers? The argument made by proponents of the Product(Red) was that the point wasn’t the 18M raised, but rather that the 100M spent in publicity was more important than the money raised. (BTW they claim they spent 50M and raised 25M) You might argue that they should have given the100M/ 50M to the Global Fund to Fight Aids and asked for nothing in return…. But from an awareness and policy perspective, that money would have done very little. So what was more important? 100M/50M that could have gone to the Fund? Or 100M in advertising about the issue? (Of course the advertising wasn’t simply about the issue; it was selling products. But the fact is awareness was raised.) The campaign was quite large and had a lot of reach. Oprah. Bono. etc The money that made it to Africa was quite real and made a difference according to the Times, but it could be argued that the impact was much larger in terms of awareness and involvement by companies and consumers and policy-makers in this country. And while this was not altruistic, the results can be quite substantial. And remember, I argue that the ‘negative’ in terms of ends justifying the means is not harm to a group of people, but rather profits and positive press for the companies/people involved. You may not like them to get this when their motives are not pure, but I think this desire causes you to discount the gains of publicity and awareness.

    In the case of Bulgari for instance, you add up the costs of advertising to show how paltry it is for the company and what a good deal it is for them, but perhaps we should ask what it would mean for Save the Children to spend that much to have a campaign of equal size for their organization. I don’t think it could be justified (my guess). But advertising of that size and scope is very real for Save the Children. They are benefiting from that just as much (or I would argue, more) than the money raised for them. (Although the poster above makes a good point about the lack of relation of the two brands.) The only way to make this kind of spending justifiable (I would imagine) is to find a company willing to foot the bill; and they do this by jointly promoting the company and Save the Children. The same is true in the (RED) campaign. You may not like their motives, but I feel your dislike of their motives cause your discounting of very real and possibly powerful benefits other than the dollars raised.

    All this being said, I understand your point. I’m not trying to argue that you shouldn’t push companies to do more and convince them that they should do more. My main point of contention is to try to get non-profits/philanthropies to adjust their world view to include the vast majority of people who (I believe) do not agree that it’s an ‘obvious point’ that non-altruistic giving is wrong. It is limiting to discount and write off the vast numbers of people who do not share the same altruistic reasons for giving. I may personally agree with your worldview, but I think philanthropy should/must still be willing to work with people/companies/governments that truly don’t think it is their responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves. Those people can still be part of the solution. Their giving must fit into their worldview. Why spend all effort on changing their worldview if they can be motivated to give within it?

  3. I have been enjoying your blog and perspective for a couple weeks now.

    This post reminded me of a time I was at a charity auction. The first thing the guy auctioned off was a $20 bill from his own wallet. He said he was testing to see how generous everyone was. The $20 bill went for $175 and it got everyone fired up.

  4. I have to say that although I understand your point and cringe at the these ads in Vanity Fair, I don’t have an issue with cause marketing when it’s done right. In this case I think the issue is a lack of alignment between the product and the cause and perhaps the fact that although there is some substance behind this message the message has been diluted. There was probably a better way to promote this partnership one that perhaps offended less.

    Having said all that – cause marketing does not make you a responsible corporate citizen. How you do business does – so frankly even the charitywater example brings up some issues – bottled water? Do we really need more of it even if it is for charity? Cause marketing is a tool not a means to an end. There are many people out there who are helping create effective, strategic partnerships that do benefit both the charity and the corporation equally. Don’t dismiss all cause marketing partnerships because of one poorly executed campaign. If you’d like I’ll put you in touch with some people I think get it and are doing things the right way – then make up your mind.

    If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that there are multiple ways to create positive impact –we shouldn’t assume there’s just one way or a right way. Transparency and authenticity should guide our actions – the more people we can engage in authentic efforts to create change the better we are profit or no profit.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  5. Hey Sasha,

    Just wanted to say thanks for the “shout out” about charity: water. Scott’s in Ethiopia right now so I’m chiming in for him and the rest of the team. Think you’re right about giving- and we have an office full of engaged, creative and excited volunteers and staff to show for it. Keep up your great work at Acumen Fund!


    Director of Water Programs

  6. Jennifer, thank you for this comment. I think I was reacting to the VF ad specifically when I led with “I’ve just about had it with ‘worthy’ product tie-ins.” I didn’t mean to dismiss all cause marketing partnerships, only to say that many (most?) of them fall far short of the mark.

    I would love to hear more examples of things that work, and I’d also be thrilled if the agencies that specialize in cause marketing would do a pro-bono project to set the “100% to charity” bar for the world. “Transparency and authenticity should guide our actions.” Absolutely.

  7. Great post, Sasha.

    For some reason, we shy away from actively discriminating between projects.

    Everything under the sun seems to contribute to “social change”, while the measure and sustainability of impact doesn’t seem to matter.

    The standard excuses?
    “Don’t compare these things”,
    “Let’s do our little bit”, and
    “at least it doesn’t cause any harm”.

  8. I totally agree with your post. Completely.

    On the other hand, I have another angle. I am a seasoned giver: I donate to four charities each month, and give ad-hoc to different causes, and support friends family members, and generally give as much as I can. I also like to give to myself every now and then. A nice piece of jewelry such as this one would be perfect for, say, my husband to give me for my birthday: it’s something special, but it would be even more special to me, knowing that at least part of the price went towards something worthy.

    Campaigns like this won’t change the world, and most people see it for what it is: my first reaction was, really? $60 out of the $290 purchase price? Surely Bulgari could do more… But if I was going to buy a piece of jewelry for a special occasion, I would be more likely to buy this than a Tiffany bracelet.

    That’s just my two cents. Love your blog, by the way. I’ve just added you to my favourites 🙂

  9. Sarah, thank you for sharing this. I really appreciate your perspective and I think you make a great point.

    I still would love to see the whole $290 go to Save the children, though…

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