Companies and consumers alike have a more complicated relationship with Cause Marketing Campaigns than you might think.

By Alyson Genovese

It’s been thirty years since American Express launched what’s believed to be the first nationwide cause marketing effort with the Statue of Liberty Preservation Project. Consumers responded tremendously to the now famous four-month effort, which generated $1.75 million for restoration, grew new users by 17% and jumped transaction activity by 28%.

Since then, cause marketing campaigns have become increasingly sophisticated, complex and multi-faceted. Consumer research tells us that consumers want to have deeper engagement with cause marketing programs; they want companies to tie cause marketing to overall sustainability issues. Research also shows us that consumers want companies to have more transparent communications and more meaningful impact. Consumers are increasingly telling us that they are sick of being solicited every time they purchase items (anecdotally, a quick internet search of “customer checkout donations” yields quite a few interesting blog posts).

But consumer behavior tells us otherwise.

Despite their frustrations, Americans spend nearly half a billion annually on “donate a dollar to a charity at checkout and you’ll get your name on a paper” programs, AKA Point of Sale (POS) Campaigns. Why?

Because:

They are Easy to Do

Customers want to engage in retailers’ philanthropic efforts, but the way they can participate must be straightforward and simple. Too many steps, and you lose the customer’s interest and attention. POS campaigns are straightforward: “Do you want to donate $1 to this nonprofit?” They do not ask you to forward to a friend. They do not require you to purchase an item. They do not need you to log in online. The customer knows what is expected of them and how they can add value to the program.

They are Simple Messages

Many of the programs that retailers are trying to address by raising funds from their customers are difficult and emotional issues: childhood cancer, birth defects, and hunger, to name a few. However, these POS campaigns simply ask “do you want to help?”. They do not get into substantive and complex ways to address the social issue.

There is a Personal Ask

Such campaigns use employees to ask customers to give. It’s hard to say no to a dollar donation for an important social issue. A little bit of awkward generates a lot of funding.

So POS campaigns are win-win, right? Not so fast. Highly lucrative for the company’s philanthropic wallet and the nonprofit beneficiary, such campaigns can seem like an easy way to generate funding for a program.

But certain risks remain:

They Distract

POS campaigns can offer a false sense of success. Yes, they drive big dollars for a charity. But the ask is transactional; POS programs do not add value to the carefully nuanced customer-brand relationship. This is especially true if retailers change their focus seasonally, supporting multiple charities in a year.

They are Everywhere

POS campaigns today are so ubiquitous, consumers come to expect the $1 ask and often cannot remember what that dollar was for. By the time the customer is out the door, they have forgotten not only the cause, but the retailer’s relationship to it as well.

They don’t Create New Friendships

POS Campaigns occur at the end of the interaction between the retailer and its customer; it does not drive in-store visits or build new engagement opportunities.

The good news is that POS campaigns do have a place in our cause marketing suite of programs. And despite what customers tell us in surveys, their dollar donations speak greater volumes.

Does your company employ POS campaign? Are you a consumer engaged by and/or annoyed by the $1 ask? Tell us about it in the comment section below.


Alyson Genovese
Senior Associate

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