For poor children. For cancer research. To save the rainforest. For more sales!

Is “social responsibility” a “marketing angle”? The answer is yes, and sometimes more than that. I have used social-conscious appeals for my own clients and they have worked great. Lately, however the trend is growing and businesses are designed completely around this aim. In other words, saving the world in one way or another is the purpose of their company, enmeshed in their business plan, not just an overlay in their marketing plan.
The way to the cause
Here are three main avenues that businesses choose to save the world:
1. Nonprofits including foundations and philanthropic agencies with a specific cause;
2. For-profit businesses that launch specific campaigns for a cause (the marketing overlay); and 3. For-profit businesses that are built around a specific cause.
Lately the retail sector seems to be on fire to save the world, including for-profit businesses with an aim to make a difference. The Body Shop was one of the first I can remember that encouraged reusing their plastic bottles and making it popular to forego a bag for your merchandise. Now it’s a prevalent values statement for companies. Whether it’s a free pair of shoes going to a third world country for every pair you buy (TOMS), or a percentage of proceeds going to medical research (Happy Nappers, and many more), these philanthropic endeavors draw us to products so we too can help save the world.
Is it a gimmick?
When the purchase of a product benefits the world, the feel good appeal puts consumers in a position to reason, “If I buy this, I help the world too. How wonderful!”
Reading TOMS website, you’ll find it very convincing that selling shoes in a for-profit environment (online, Nordstrom) is a means to an end. Basically, that the mission of the company is to shod children around the globe, and selling shoes helps make that mission possible. It’s no different than a non-profit holding a dinner auction to raise money to buy books for local children. Same result, different angle. Very clever!
If you’re going to buy it anyway, okay. But let’s be clear that those companies are not philanthropic, 501 c 3 nonprofit organizations. They sell stuff and make money. They are using their generosity as a marketing angle to get you to choose their product over another—and join their team to save the world. The retail sales price of one of the “buy one and another goes overseas” products, pays for two of those products, the shipping to get the one to a third world country, the staff to oversee that endeavor as well as the production of the product, and enough money to make a profit. In other words, you are helping to save the world with your pocketbook, which is similar to a nonprofit contribution, but the company makes a profit. The company also benefits from the marketing and perhaps tax deduction of its donation. The retail price for a pair of TOMS, for instance, ranges from $38 for kids to $98 for a pair of women’s vegan boots and $100 for men’s perforated leather shoes. Not exactly on the low end and not a tax deduction for you. 
Does it Work?
As a consumer, you can instead buy the competitor’s product for half the price and give the difference to your favorite nonprofit. But, as a start-up business, this might be an angle to consider. After all, TOMS has donated more than 1,000,000 pairs of shoes.
Lately it’s very cache, even important, to have a social-responsibility factor in your marketing plan, your mission, or in your core values. It does work. People want to feel they are backing companies that recycle, use sustainable products and natural resources responsibly, and have an organic, natural feel to them.
I think this is a generational trend as much as it is part of the prevailing “rivers of thought.” The Millennial Generation is generally socially liberal and is disgusted by waste (i.e. paper bags), and tends to feel a strong obligation to take care of the earth. Composting = good; drilling for oil = bad. Companies that don’t have a social agenda are off-putting to them.
What Can You Do?
More old-school professionals are not as blatant with their community service. They volunteer to serve on boards, they chair fundraisers for non-profit organizations and they sponsor charities with cash and prize donations. Their service is personal and doesn’t necessarily involve their whole business and its personnel.
If you run a small business and a cause is not already at the center of your existence, there are still many ways to help without doubling your prices to do it. Local eatery Johnny Rebs has coin jars on the tables next to bowls of peanuts for their patrons to deposit a few coins or a dollar when they dine. Their “Shell Out for Charity” campaign raises money for charities that rotate throughout the year.
Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer promised to plant a tree for every Like she got on her Facebook page during a certain time period. She reports that 120 tree seedlings were planted in American forests from her campaign.
You can do something simple or you can choose to do something very ambitious like create your own fundraiser or service campaign. Large or small, it is important to give back to your local—or global—community.

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