Why do people buy products that are part of cause marketing campaigns? I've always assumed the obvious, that it was mostly because they care about the cause being promoted. Or maybe they don't care about the specific cause, but they feel good about doing something that makes the world a little better, irrespective of how it does so. I also suspect that sometimes, it's just because the cause promotion helps the product break through the clutter - when you're looking at a wall of nearly identical post-it notes, all at nearly identical prices, the ones with the pink ribbons on the packaging stand out. Similarly, I suspect that, when a company creates a product with a cause marketing component, it gives them a hook when negotiating with retailers for the best possible shelf space, which in turn leads to increased sales.
I came across another reason, though, that I think has interesting implications for cause marketers. I'm currently reading Creative Capitalism, the compilation of essays on the title topic, edited by Michael Kinsley. Early in the book, Kinsley has included Bill Gates' 2008 speech at Davos that launched that term into the mainstream (that introduced the term, perhaps?). In the speech, Gates has this to say about (RED): "If you give people a chance to associate themselves with a cause they care about, they will pay more, and that premium can make an impact."
Notice what Gates does NOT say: "If you give people a chance to" impact, or to contribute to "a cause they care about." He says "to associate themselves with", and that's a fundamentally different concept. Association is not about action, it's about identity. I associate myself with a cause when I wear a particular t-shirt (like Gap's RED shirts), when I join a particular group on Facebook, when I slap a sticker on the back of my car. When I take those actions, I may be raising awareness, I may be winning hearts and minds, but let's focus on association - I'm telling people who I am, what I stand for, and what kind of person I want to be.
The fact that (RED) and its ilk seem particularly popular among teens and young adults makes more sense in light of this framework. That population is still in the midst of exploring and trying on identities, so anything that helps someone in this demographic to project his or her identity to peers is attractive.
If Gates is right, this is a really powerful concept. If a marketer can get prospective customers to make a product part of the identity they display to the world, that sounds like a gold mine to me - and the money goes to both the Gap and the Global Fund.
This also suggests that marketers should think about cause marketing in a really different way than I suspect many currently do. Right now, I imagine that decision-making around cause marketing typically goes in one of two ways. Either the company decides to create a product that raises money for a cause with which the company is already affiliated, as an extension of existing philanthropy, or the company decides to run a cause marketing campaign and searches for a cause with which to affiliate. In the latter case, marketers try to identify a cause that it's customers care about - they may use market research to identify this cause, or they may look for causes with the same target demographic as the company (which is why women's clothing stores seem to turn into a uniform array of pink ribbons every October, in honor of breast cancer awareness).
If we take the latter case, the "competition" for the cause-related products (it's awkward to think of it that way, but I think we have to) includes other cause marketing campaigns benefiting the same cause, along with direct donations to the organization in question. It also includes volunteerism or activism that support the cause.
On the other hand, if we buy cause marketing products in order to broadcast our identities, the marketer's job is not so simple. While women, as a monolithic group, might have a common reason to be concerned about breast cancer, they are interested in projecting a wide array of different identities. Women who shop at Coldwater Creek and women who shop at New Balance - both companies are members of the Komen Million Dollar Council Elite - might want to impact the same causes, but they likely want to project very different identities. That said, these two companies aren't trying to attract "women" as a monolithic group, either. They each have very specific target audiences, which can be delineated in part, I imagine, by exactly this issue of identity.
In this case, the competition isn't writing a check - most of us don't write checks big enough to name a building or otherwise make our philanthropy part of our public image. Instead, the competition could be logo t-shirts, or fashion in general, or our Facebook profiles, or the music we play when the car window is down, or any other tool we use to tell the world who we are.
This makes the cause marketer's job much more complicated, and probably more difficult. On the other hand, it gives marketers the opportunity to build a deep and unique relationship with the customer, just the type of relationship that goes beyond a transaction to a partnership.