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Shopping for a cause

Star Tribune

December 22, 2005


by Allie Shah

Giving has never looked so good.

From T-shirts designed by Kenneth Cole for World AIDS Day to Target's pink cashmere flip-flops sold to support breast cancer research, shopping for charity has become a chic endeavor.

Ads prominently placed in store windows and fashion magazines pledge support for certain causes and scream "Look at me!" Some stores create special products to sell in support of a designated charity. Others offer to donate a portion of their sales to the charity. It's all part of a larger trend called "cause marketing" which has been around for years but is more visible in the fashion retail world this year.

Large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami have left many in need. In such times, people might feel guilty about indulging themselves -- so retailers are offering ways for consumers to shop and give at the same time.

Wet Seal, a trendy clothing chain aimed at teens, is selling holiday gift boxes with part of the proceeds earmarked for helping hurricane victims. Ralph Lauren's Polo brand sponsored a denim drive in the fall in which company representatives visited several college campuses collecting old jeans to recycle. The money raised was to go to Habitat for Humanity.

More than half of the U.S. shoppers polled last month said they intended to buy a holiday gift associated with a cause this year or buy from a retailer that supports a cause, according to a national survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted by Cone Inc., a brand strategy agency based in Boston.

"Companies want to appear benevolent and not ignorant of what's going on," said Sandra Miniutti, a spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, a national charity evaluator.

They also recognize that aligning themselves with certain causes and organizations makes good business sense, said Scott Beaudoin, vice president of cause branding for Cone Inc.

"Brands and companies are trying to get more loyalty with consumers. They believe tying their brand or company with an issue that's relevant to their consumer will keep customers coming back," he said. "There are also sales objectives as well. If their sales are sluggish in a particular area, they'll use cause marketing."

And many company owners may really care about a particular social issue and want to give to charities that support that cause.

Kenneth Cole, for instance, created a provocative public service campaign involving celebrities wearing T-shirts he designed with the phrases "We All Have AIDS" and "I Have AIDS" on them. The shirts are sold at Barney's New York and other upscale clothiers, with proceeds benefiting an AIDS research foundation chaired by Cole.

Though disasters commanded a lot of attention and donations, the hottest cause by far in the fashion retail world is breast cancer. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, pink ribbons and related products lined store shelves across shopping malls.

"A lot of companies are looking at women's issues and children's issues," Beaudoin said. "A lot of companies sell to moms and they want to strike that emotional connection with the mom."

The most frequent recipient of breast cancer-related cause marketing efforts is the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Named for a 36-year-old Texas woman who died from the disease, the organization has negotiated agreements for cause-marketing campaigns with many stores.

In October, more than 100 retailers supported the Komen foundation with cause-marketing activities -- up from approximately 60 last year. And the foundation raised more than $32 million in 2004 through cause marketing, said Krissy Barker, a manager with the foundation's cause-related marketing department.

With so many companies pledging support for different causes, it's important to examine the details of their offers.

Barker said the Komen foundation uses donations to fund breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment. It also lists all of its financial information, including tax forms, on its website for donors to review.

Miniutti of Charity Navigator acknowledged that giving to a cause through shopping is one way to donate to a charity, but she said it's not the best way.

"We typically tell donors to steer clear of these marketing campaigns. It does a lot of good for the company. It's a way for them to borrow the shiny image of the charity and use it for their good," she said. "We think a more savvy way to donate is to find a charity you're comfortable with and donate directly to them."

Another reason to donate directly instead of buying a donation is to ensure that you, the donor, receive the tax break allowed for charitable contributions. "When you're purchasing a $100 bottle of perfume for a cause, the company takes that deduction," she said.

Nevertheless, cause marketing does help charities, Miniutti said.

"It gives them access to a marketing campaign that they wouldn't have the resources to reach that wide an audience."

Allie Shah • 612-673-7530

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