At the Cause Marketing Forum, we’re thrilled to see an increase in the amount of research being published by academic and commercial analysts. We’re all about sharing information and best practices in the pursuit of doing well by doing good.
Of course, we’re pleased when studies emerge that support the idea that companies and causes can create win-win alliances. But we also welcome critical studies that can guide practitioners and policy makers from making damaging mistakes.
Limited Data Used Should Not Equal Sweeping Pronouncements
Whether the studies cast cause marketing in positive or negative light, we are unimpressed, however, when researchers use very limited experimental data to make sweeping pronouncements about cause marketing.That, unfortunately, appears to be what is happening with “Can Supporting a Cause Decrease Donations and Happiness?: The Cause Marketing Paradox”, a new study by Professor Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan.
“Cause Marketing Lowers Charitable Donations,” is the distressing headline on the March 31 University of Michigan press release announcing an upcoming study that explores linkages between purchasing cause-related items and subsequent donations based on experiments involving several hundred college students.
Have You Read This Study?
I have. Fortified by a good deal of coffee, I dug into the dense 26-page paper to get the story behind the story. I found that the experiments on which it was based were quite artificial and that their implications were far overstated by the author.
One field study compared funds raised from passersby over four days by a fraternity raising money for the American Cancer Society under two conditions:
- The fraternity brothers only asked for donations — or —
- They sold Red Bull for $2.50 per can with a 50-cent donation and accepted additional donations.
Two laboratory studies examined the impact on donations under a number of scenarios when participants “were shown a number of products on which to spend a budget of $100 and/or donate to charity.”
Based on what I’ve read, I could buy the conclusion that under some circumstances consumers who buy a cause-related product might make smaller donations. But the study in no way has the “oomph” to support such sweeping generalizations as “consumers who buy products linked to social causes end up giving less money to charity,” as the press release states.
Study Admits That Generalizations Shouldn’t Be Made
Unfortunately, I’m probably one of a handful of people who has taken the time to request the study and read it in full to understand its limitations. Read it closely enough and you’ll find that Professor Krishna states that:
- The Red Bull study “is very small scale and needs to be replicated before any generalizations can be drawn from it” and
- The study doesn’t prove that total donations decrease in the presence of CM, but only that they could.
I can only wish that this study had been titled “Avoiding Situations in Which Cause Marketing Could Diminish Donations” and that it had offered practical suggestions for avoiding such scenarios.
What’s your take on this study? Have you read it? Did you find any takeaways that could be helpful for the cause marketing community?