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Philanthropy Is a Part of Who You Are, Not a Quick Way to Build Brand

A commitment to philanthropy should never be a marketing hook. It should be a value.

When I used to work with startups, it would drive me nuts when founders and venture capitalists would talk about the “social hook” a company had. In short, they wanted to support a social justice issue only as a way to get funding or customers. It was a way to differentiate a company in a crowded market.

That’s short-sighted and wrong. Cause marketing is important to our economy and to philanthropy. At its best, it allows customers to put their dollars where their hearts are. When social commitment works for a brand, it is because of one thing: mission. If social commitment isn’t core to what you do, it shouldn’t be part of what you sell.

Connect to a Real Social Need and Provide a Solution

Think of some of the most successful companies that have been able to use social-justice ends in their own product marketing. TOMS, the shoe company, was founded because of a social need . Founder Blake Mycoskie was spending time in Argentina when he was introduced to a local shoe charity. “Yes, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that poor children around the world often went barefoot,” he recalled, “ but now, for the first time, I saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections.” His original plan was to start a charity himself but then he decided a business would be better. He opted to manufacture a local type of shoe, the alpargata , and, for every pair he sold, he would donate a pair. No percentages. No gimmicks. Just a straight one-to-one donation.

That commitment led to TOMS being able to market its shoes as an authentic way of doing good. People can buy with purpose and intention.

Related: What’s in a Name? Perhaps a Looming Crisis

Focus on the Cause and Avoid Incentive Marketing

It’s easy to see when companies don’t put real values behind their philanthropy. When marketing out-strips cause in cause marketing, your brand can face ridicule. Take Kellogg’s, the cereal maker that decided in 2003 to post a tweet promising to feed a “vulnerable child” in return for a retweet. The offer caused wide condemnation since Kellogg’s seemed to be holding back the ability to feed those in need for something as silly as a boost to social engagement. The company quickly deleted the tweet and apologized. The worst part was that the episode overshadowed real work Kellogg’s does in providing meals for those who don’t have them.

You Can't Fake Corporate Social Responsibility

What you do is only part of what you are as a brand . What you believe is important, too. Your philanthropic commitments send a clear message to customers, employees and partners about what drives you. That can be powerful. But you can’t fake values. Great brands are authentic brands, and any effort to be cynical about your social-justice or charitable aims will only tell your audience that you’re fake, unworthy of trust and not worth their business.