Cause Marketing Wall of Shame: Holt Renfrew Edition

November 6, 2012 benevity


Lack of transparency and an old-school playbook make Holt Renfrew’s latest cause marketing campaign so out of style

Alongside the new-retro styles of fall 2012 like the modern geometric Prada and MiuMiu prints and the reinvented lady looks by Louis Vuitton and Valentino, Holt Renfrew’s latest cause marketing campaign is decidedly dated. The old-school m.o. and lack of transparent details about the program made the song “You’re So 1988” play in my head, while fashion flashbacks of acid wash denim hitting the cover of Vogue provided the visual.

So what’s the scoop? Recently, Holt Renfrew and Missoni partnered to create a limited-edition, worldwide-exclusive plush bear and elephant that will support OrphanAid Africa. Their press release says that the bear and elephant, which will be sold at Holt Renfrew stores across Canada will “retail for $50 each” and that “purchases of the bear and elephant will help Holt Renfrew reach its goal of raising $100,000 for children and families through OrphanAid Africa.” In the press release, Alexandra Weston, Director of Brand Experience, states that: “At Holt Renfrew we love to offer the exceptional and this gift that gives back is exactly that.”

So what are the exceptional cause marketing style faux-pas?

This cause marketing campaign is the equivalent of a 1988 Christian Lacroix pouf skirt because of its:

  • Old-school playbook: The essence of this campaign is that HR customers purchase the special edition bears and elephants and, in turn, Holt Renfrew will donate something to OrphanAid Africa (in their words: “Purchases of the bear and elephant will help Holt Renfrew reach its goal of raising $100,000 for children and families through OrphanAid Africa.“). The purchase and a portion goes to charity concept is the oldest idea in the cause marketing playbook, going way back to the 80s (it’s an idea often attributed to American Express in 1983, when they launched their Statue of Liberty Restoration Project). Though the 2012 F/W shows demonstrated that old ideas are not necessarily bad ideas, this one, as executed, is now super-antiquated. In an era dominated by social media (which facilitates instant two-way communication), customization (where everything can be personalized, especially online) and a growing yearning for customer involvement (engagement is through the experience), this one-way exchange (you purchase the item and we’ll choose the cause) is not likely to make any meaningful impact either on Holt Renfrew’s customer engagement or its overall community investment contribution. More so than ever, retail is about me (and you!), not about the vendor or even the immensely talented designer Margherita Missoni (who chose the charity).

    By failing to connect with their clients through causes that matter to them, Holt Renfrew is missing out on an opportunity to cement a real-live, meaningful client-centric connection that can buoy customer loyalty (which might be a good idea right about now, especially with Nordstrom coming to Canada soon…). To be fair to Holt Renfrew, they’re not the only retailer (sadly) continuing to employ this old school tactic which runs the risk of being considered opportunistic, rather than philanthropic. Maybe, along with other retail execs, HR management should check out a recent study in the Journal of Marketing, which showed that cause related campaigns that allow consumers to choose the cause that receives the donation lead to greater consumer support than those in which the company determines the cause.

  • Lack of transparency: Whether by accident or design, there is no disclosure about the amount or percentage of funds from the sale of the items that will go to support the chosen charity. Their press release (and currently running advertisement) simply states that: “Purchases of the bear and elephant will help Holt Renfrew reach its goal of raising $100,000 for children and families through OrphanAid Africa.” There is no information about the portion being contributed to OrphanAid Africa, nor whether Holt Renfrew will kick in some of its own funds toward the cause (which in my view would be decidedly better than raising money only from its clientele and passing it through to the cause). Not only is this imprudent because people typically want transparency when someone is trying to use a social mission to sell a product, but if this program were done in the US, it would be contrary to “commercial coventure” legislation in most states. A consumer is entitled to know exactly how much of an embedded donation is going to the charity on a product purchase – and hey, they might even feel better about buying it and about the brand if they knew!
  • Cause and consumer mismatch: Even though OrphanAid Africa sounds like a great cause, it strikes me as a huge disconnect that Holt Renfrew – which only operates retail stores in Canada – has chosen a cause that is not even a registered charity in Canada, when I’m certain that every single one of its Canadian clients has a cause among the 86,000 registered charities in Canada that makes his or her heart melt. What if I care more about Canadian children or bullying or the environment or a local shelter; should I miss out on the bear and the elephant helping me give back? A massively big missed opportunity on their part, IMHO.

So what could Holt Renfrew do differently to have their cause marketing to be less the big hair and shoulder pads of yester-year and more like the leather paneled and burgundy fashions au courant this autumn?

I think it would be really great for Holt Renfrew to introduce a simple cause marketing campaign that incorporates elements of customer choice and honours (yup, u included!) their Canadian origins. How about this: based on their total purchase, HR clients receive a printed or virtual charitable gift card that they can then redeem to make donations to their charities of choice? (Canadian causes, natch!) To further compel take up and to demonstrate corporate commitment, Holt Renfrew could create a few Canadian cause portfolios (e.g.: the Kids in Canada Cause that supports 5 great Canadian kids charities, the Power of the Purse Fund that supports 10 awesome charities that help women etc.), and perhaps even OrphanAid Africa, and match donations that customers make to these causes. A campaign like this could also easily be buttressed with a like-minded loyalty program (reward loyalty, which again will be key in the face of new customer-oriented American retailers that are on their way…).

People would connect the company, the brand and their purchase experience more directly and resonantly with giving back, HR would create a goodness-based excuse for some online interaction with their clients (notably absent in the e-commless world that is HR) and people like me would be providing raving accolades about their more than lip-service commitment to social action.

C’mon HR: Doing well by Doing Good is not a tag line…you need to execute!


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