The group-buying Web site Groupon raised the hackles of many people in the nonprofit world with a pair of commercials that aired during Sunday’s Super Bowl.
To put the ads in context, we offer the following guest post from Joe Waters, director of cause and event marketing at Boston Medical Center, who writes the blog Selfish Giving and is co-author of the forthcoming book Cause Marketing for Dummies.
By Joe Waters
Enough people have registered their opinion to confirm this deal-breaker for everyone: Groupon’s Superbowl ads Sunday night were ill-conceived and offensive. Good will earned from this promotion: 0%.
Groupon should have apologized (it hasn’t), pulled the ads (saw one last night), fired its ad agency (standing shoulder to shoulder), and donated a boatload of money to the causes it offended (um … nope).
But while the ads may have been a disaster for Groupon, they highlight four important lessons for nonprofits—and the businesses that work with them.
Holy, Batman! This cause marketing stuff really works! The outrage against Groupon was immediate, loud, and passionate. Now imagine if Groupon had produced a great cause-marketing ad. It would have earned passionate raves from viewers. Cause marketing is a powerful, meaningful strategy that enhances a company’s reputation—when it’s done well. When it’s not, it has an equally potent but negative impact.
Group-buying sites can work for causes. There was a legitimate giving component to Groupon’s Super Bowl spots. But it wasn’t mentioned in the ads (Groupon offered to match donations to the causes it dissed in the ads). Groupon and other group-buying Web sites have already helped causes. Groupon and Living Social have worked with DonorsChoose.org to raise more than $250,000. A recent post in Mashable reviewed seven group-buying sites using daily deals to raise money. And just this week I wrote about GoodTwo.com, a site hat lets charities and individual fund raisers raise cash.
Humor has a place in cause marketing. Tom Watson pointed this out in his wonderful CauseWired post on the Groupon mess, and even the founder of Groupon has assured people that his company was just making fun of itself. But to be effective, the humor needs to be appropriate, non-exploitative, positive, and disruptive. Some causes are trying to use humor well, while others are reminding causes to laugh at themselves every now and then. The message: humor for good is good.
Groupon will survive. Groupon has the potential to join ranks with some of the best brands in the world. A strong brand is your most important asset in cause-related marketing. For cause or company, it’s like a magnet that draws people, money, and influence closer and, in difficult times, repels critics and controversy.
Take a top nonprofit brand like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which wields one of the strongest magnets in the charity world. It attracts donors, celebrities, and advocates in hoards who contribute marketing muscle and hundreds of millions to its fight. But last year when Komen entered a questionable relationship with Kentucky Fried Chicken, nothing stuck. Despite waves of criticism, Komen weathered the storm. Groupon and Komen demonstrate the power of brand and why we all need a powerful one.
And Groupon certainly has enough brand power to earn a pass on this Super Bowl fumble. The rest of us shouldn’t spend a moment longer dissecting the replay. We need to get busy harnessing the power of cause marketing, the value of group-buying Web sites, and the disruptive nature of humor while building a brand that can play offense and defense.