Is it time to reconsider cause-related marketing?

Bob and Bono are at it again. Just in time for Christmas. Do they know it’s Christmas? has been brought back for another run, this time raising funds to fight Ebola. And while I love the song and its rousing chorus more than any Jewish guy possibly should*, its 2014 return has given me cause to consider, well, causes in general and their role in marketing.

First off, let’s talk about what they did right.

Assembling a cast of stars largely unborn at the time of the first recording in 1984 has given the requisite appeal to the YouTube generation, while the inclusion of credible old crusties like Bono and Sinead O’Conner is there to hook those of us who remember it the first time round.

Also, they’ve done a good job of removing some of the shockingly patronizing lyrics. “Well tonight thank god it’s them, instead of you” has been replaced with “Tonight we’re reaching out and touching you”. While this move has been criticized as making the song less confrontational, the video clip starts with very confronting imagery – showing what the crisis actually looks like on the ground. At the same time, commentators have been quick to point out that it’s an equally insensitive act as the video clip shows “somebody’s child; that is somebody’s mother, somebody’s provider, but you have used her as an object to fulfil your selfish goal of bringing attention to yourself”
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Given all of the above, little wonder then, that it’s become the fastest selling single of 2014 so far – its first two days of sales have exceeded the original 1984 release slightly (206,000 vs 200,000). But whether it goes on to meet the 3.7 million total of the original that made it the biggest selling single of all time remains to be seen. In the digital world, you’d expect initial sales to be quicker – the lack of necessity to actually walk down to the store saves time.

But if sales run out of puff, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Sir Bob was quick to criticize Adele for not turning up but the reaction to that stance yields some interesting clues as to the best way to practice Cause-related marketing. The Telegraph posted this fairly devastating defense of Adele’s actions, pointing out that this style of “action” involved rich people giving time, and the rest of us actually giving money. Ouch. And probably the most devastating rebuttal of the effort is a parody video- “Africa for Norway” – recorded by African musicians, appealing for people to send their radiators to warm up frosty Norway.

Raising awareness used to require effort. Now all it requires is a tweet or a Facebook post and people feel as if something has actually been achieved. Better initiatives like the “ice bucket challenge” work because they require people to actually do something- but again there was quite a lot of social media backlash that people should donate AND pour water over their heads.

Borrowing equity from a cause to generate sales will still work. But unless you create a path for consumers to participate in a more meaningful way, it won’t carry you nearly as far as it did in 1984.

*for the record, I love the rousing festive season spirit in the music, not the paternalist view expressed in the lyrics

This article was first published on Switzer.com.au on 19 November. No further sales statistics have been publicised since, which seems unusual to say the least.