Altruistic Content Marketing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last December, when companies everywhere were busy hawking their holiday deals, Japan Airlines was spreading a message of world peace.

The company had partnered with a Japanese artist known as “Yassan” who previously made headlines for proposing to his now-wife with a GPS route that criss-crossed across Japan and spelled out “MARRY ME.” This time, Japan Airlines had an even more ambitious idea: It asked Yassan to fly 65,700 miles, across six continents, to spell the word “PEACE” on a map, using a GPS tracker and iPhone.

“Imagine a world without war,” Yassan wrote about the project, which was documented on YouTube. “That is my dream.”

These noble stunts have always been great PR, but it seems like more brands have been producing altruistic content to aid local communities, preserve the environment, and promote world peace.

Part of the reason why could be evolving philosophies on corporate responsibility. A 2014 survey by PR firm MSLGroup found that 83 percent of millennials “strongly believe business should be more active in solving the world’s biggest problems.” According to Deloitte’s 2016 survey of millennials, young adults value employers who are purpose-driven much more than ones driven by profit. And a recent report from global communications company Havas Worldwide showed that 73 percent of consumers believe companies have a responsibility to “do more than just generate profit.”

In fact, when Havas Worldwide polled respondents on the importance of 10 different company behaviors ranging from offering quality products to being transparent about business practices, improving the lives of employees beat out investing in innovation; meanwhile, upholding strong values and giving back to the community was deemed more important than low prices. What’s more, nearly three-quarters of global consumers want brands to “express a vision of a better world” and “drive social change.”

This shift in the consumer mindset is what has prompted companies like Japan Airlines to market more than just sales and new destinations.

“As a brand, we believe that Yassan’s journey and the project perfectly exemplifies JAL’s goal of connectivity and connecting the world,” said Yasuto Sasaki, vice president of corporate brand promotion at JAL. “Yassan’s simple yet powerful message of ‘Peace on Earth’ is in line with our brand’s values, and we hope to see this project continue to reach our customers.”

The days when brand sentiment was largely tied to product are long gone. Now, if companies hope to create a positive image and maintain a loyal customer base, they’re finding it increasingly important to use their influence and means to make the world a better place—and subsequently tell that story with content.

What brands get from giving back

Most brands already have charitable operations in place. The challenge is figuring out how to connect that altruism with the brand’s focus and values.

Take Toyota—the Japanese carmaker works with multiple non-profits on an ongoing basis, but it specifically highlights some of its charitable projects via digital and social media marketing. This January, for example, Toyota launched a campaign that allowed Instagram users to turn their selfies into philanthropy; the company donated $50 to Boys & Girls Clubs of America every time someone posted a picture using the #Selflessie hashtag. The company also worked with Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles to tap celebrities and social influencers like Kelly Rowland and Debby Ryan to help spread the word. What began as an effort to raise $250,000 ultimately brought in over $750,000.

“We wanted something with a low barrier of entry for participation, but also a great benefit,” said Florence Drakton, manager of Toyota’s social media strategy and operations. Past efforts have included a partnership with Buckle Up for Life, which Toyota created with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Every time a social media user posted the #BuckleUpForLife hashtag, Toyota donated a car seat.

In the past, organizing these programs fell to public relations teams concerned with improving brand image. Today, they’re often headed by content marketers like Drakton, who routinely collaborates with a number of Toyota’s departments including product, financial services, and community relations.

“The campaign gets the charity more exposure and brings awareness to the concept of charitable giving, which is really close to who we are as a brand,” Drakton explained.

Zappos is another brand that got good press recently for investing in good deeds. In February, the online shoe retailer celebrated Leap Day with #TakeTheLeap, a movement to make every Leap Day a national holiday. In addition to starting a petition on, the company shut down for the day and encouraged its workers to make the most of the time off.

Working with integrated ad agency MullenLowe, Zappos filmed its employees donating their time and Zappos products to those in need, facing their fears, and even getting married. The resulting videos appeared on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

“We look for unique ways to drive employee engagement through fun, quirky initiatives, and support our employees’ personal and professional development,” explained Kristin Richmer, a Zappos marketing manager.

Zappos has made helping out a habit. Besides #TakeTheLeap, the company also surprised an entire town with free products and paid for rescue pet adoptions. An important part of the success is that Zappos didn’t treat these like a one-off publicity grab. When customers and employees expect this type of culture, it’s easier for a brand to promote its work without coming across as self-serving.

When altruism doesn’t work

Though brands can profit from philanthropy, promotion disguised as altruism can produce toxic results. It’s possible for some projects that start off as selfless to become distasteful and contrived.

During the Ice Bucket Challenge craze of 2014—initiated by the ALS Association to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and funds to treat it—Best Buy, TD Bank, Coca-Cola, Target, and many other brands were criticized for incorporating mascots and prominent corporate signage into their Ice Bucket Challenge videos.

Companies have also run into trouble when they partnered with organizations that clashed with their products. Take KFC: The brand ran a campaign called “Buckets for the Cure,” donating a portion of its sales to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Unfortunately, KFC’s fatty menu was completely at odds with the health-centric focus on breast cancer research and education.

A similar issue plagued Starbucks last year when the coffee chain tried to start a conversation about race relations. Starbucks intended to stimulate “empathy and compassion toward one another,” but consumers immediately criticized the company for being inappropriate and tone-deaf. Fast Company refers to the campaign as a “PR disaster” and notes, “there’s simply no obvious corporate benefit.”

Zappos avoids conflict by picking its causes carefully rather than latching onto controversial conversations. “We’ve found we are most successful when we view initiatives and content as an extension of our company, adhering to our values,” Richmer said. “You have to stay true to the brand’s core and execute on initiatives that are genuine.”

Drakton, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of making a difference—not just a media splash. “Have the right partners at the ready to help,” she said. “And if you can tap influencers, you can spread the [charity’s] message even further.”

When developed with self-awareness, content that relates to altruism and philanthropy can inspire, delight, and drive change. But when it’s designed to sell fried chicken, well, that charity is just going to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Get better at your job right now.

Read our monthly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories