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Think before you link, or your cause might end up in a lard of trouble

John Thompson | 27 January 2014 | Blogs

BBC Radio 2 presenter, Jeremy Vine, has helped fuel the national obesity debate by retweeting controversial cause-related marketing (CRM) programmes identified by cardiologist and author, Dr Aseem Malhotra.

The first of these tweets, see below, related to a KFC  fundraising promotion for JDRF, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in New York. Essentially, the company (or as I understand it, several franchises) promised to donate $1 for every meal bigged-up with a mega jug of Pepsi.

The second related to a Subway store raising funds for a ‘diabetes fund’ by offering a free cookie to every customer that donated $1. These anecdotes caused quite a stir, but also  highlighted a common misconception that Type 1 diabetes is caused by obesity or eating too much sugar and ‘junk food’. Regardless of that, poor diet does impact Type 2 diabetes and these examples have been publicly criticised at a time when sugar is being dubbed the new tobacco.


Recruiting and managing millennials, a course by Bruce Tait.

This should act as a warning to all UK-based charities engaged in, or thinking about, food and drink-based tie-ups – the most common form of CRM.

This exchange comes days after the National Obesity Forum issued stark warnings about the state of the UK’s health and a comprehensive article on the matter was published in Marketing Week. I couldn’t help noticing that this was penned by the appropriately/inappropriately-named named Mr Bacon.

Pun aside though, Richard Cope, senior trends consultant at Mintel was reported as saying: “Brands that make sugary and fatty foods are in danger of becoming the new tobacco companies.” He may just as well have added: “as will the shops and restaurants that sell them.

Of course, charities linking with food and drinks products can always be problematic, for one reason or another, and may attract criticism from some quarters. For example, only recently have we learned of a new beer being sold at Tesco to support research into prostate cancer. Will this provoke uproar amongst those tackling alcohol abuse?

Somehow, I don’t think so – if you already enjoy the occasional beer, this may simply encourage you to try a new brand.  What about Lidl UK raising money for CLIC Sargent through sales of Mini Stollen Bites that helped the company raise over £250,000 for the charity during 2013? Furthermore, I don’t recall any moral indignation about Greggs’ employees and customers raising an incredible £953,000 for BBC Children in Need.

But what if they were fundraising for Diabetes UK and included food and drinks-based fundraising promotions?

Greggs Children in Need poster. Photo: John Thompson
Photo: John Thompson

The reason why the above examples have escaped criticism is because it’s all about how close a product is, or perceived to be, to a cause’s key objectives and how such partnerships are promoted. Ironically, and going against the grain of what CRM should really be about, there’s no logical ‘fit’ but the partnerships still work, especially for the causes.

In fact, they suggest we’re entering a phase of the unfitting cause-related promotional paradigm! But even that doesn’t mean it’s easy for a health cause to link with so-called “healthy products”, as any such partnerships must be careful not to fall foul of a myriad of European health claims regulations.

These were established to ensure that claims on food labelling, presentation and advertising must be clear, concise and based on evidence accepted by the whole scientific community.

On that, I noticed a distinct drop-off of partnerships such as British Heart Foundation (BHF) and Shredded Wheat whilst this legislation was going through the tortuous motions of establishing EU regulations.

However, several years ago, I blogged about NSPCC’s partnership with Richmond Sausages that I don’t think would go down well in today’s climate.  Just as BHF launched a virtual world games website to combat “junk food advertising”, NSPCC promoted its fundraising partnership with Richmond Sausages through a virtual Banger Rescue game.

The focus of the Banger Rescue game was to navigate as many sausages as possible on to two hungry looking children’s plates using one’s keyboard arrows. The promotion, which included an on-pack text competition that generates funds for the charity, was underpinned by the strap-line: ‘Richmond sausages put a smile on your face.”

That partnership was targeted to raise £600,000 though, six years on, I’m not sure it would be marketed in the same way or escape a pounding in the press. That’s despite obesity not being a primary issue for the charity. In my opinion, in this instance NSPCC’s marketing came too close to looking like endorsement. Conversely, and show-casing a direct positive link with the cause, the objective of BHF’s game was to teach children about the ingredients and manufacture of the food they might east so that they could make healthier choices. For example, it depicted kids munching on hotdogs as the raw ingredients used to make them rolled by on a conveyer belt.

More recently, I also blogged about Tesco dropping its “Charity of the Year” programme in favour of a long-term strategic partnership with Diabetes UK.

Of course, Tesco is the UK’s largest food retailer selling a wide range of groceries;  high-fat/low-fat, high-sugar/low-sugar and high-salt/low-salt. In that blog I said  that:

“Rising levels of diabetes will fix supermarkets firmly under the media’s and health campaigners’ microscopes, as they focus on how major grocers (and suppliers/manufacturers) label and promote food & drink products.
Whilst I don’t think this move sounds the much-mooted death-knell for all such Charity of the Year programmes, other companies will have noted Tesco’s continual shift towards aligning itself with major health-based charities that are experts in issues that could affect a large number of its employees and customers. And, of course, its bottom-line and reputation.”

So far, the partnership has steered clear of any direct product links, unlike previous partnerships with Tesco.  It’s tended to focus more on information provision and active fundraising events like its recent national Cha Cha Slide that saw staff shaking their funky stuff and buckets for the charity. But there is a tradition of third-party fundraising promotions being used to help raise funds for Tesco’s charity partners.

For example, when British Red Cross was its Charity of the Year, it ran the “One of Britain’s Favourites” campaign, where 5p from the sale of 60 popular products, such as Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Marmite and Heinz Baked Beans, went to the charity.  Such profile-raising promotions are a lucrative addition to such partnerships so it will be interesting to see what Tesco and Diabetes UK come up with.

Whatever transpires, both parties must be prepared for a level of scrutiny at some point and be ready to articulate the rationale behind the relationship thus preventing the press making a meal of it.

Personally, I don’t like seeing things banned, taxed-to-bits or, indeed, labelled “good for you”  or “bad for you”. I’ve always believed in helping people make balanced choices based on solid facts, though price and availability obviously play an important role. However, when a debate is fuelled by Twitter, scientific facts relating to different causes of Types 1 and 2 diabetes and disposable incomes go out of the window. This presents a difficult communications challenge for causes linking with food and drinks products. If enough people tweet that you’re bad, then you’re bad. Simples.

In conclusion, whilst the likes of WWF and Whiskas’ cat-food partnering to raise funds for endangered tigers , a brilliant, logical, cause-related marketing programme, can’t fail to get a paws-up, a health-based charity set up to promote nutrition and active-living raising funds through sugary, fat-laden doughnuts could find that a circle too hard to square. Thus my advice is lean: think before you link – or you might find your cause in a lard of trouble.

The future of food and drink marketing, Jonathan Bacon, Marketing Week