Sometimes a philanthropic act can offer big PR wins.
Earlier in the month, The Providence Journal reported that Chobani (which calls itself “America’s number one Greek Yogurt”) donated $50,000 to public schools in Warwick, Rhode Island, to pay off children’s lunch bills.
In a grossly unpopular move, school administrators had announced that children who owed money for lunch would be served cold sandwiches instead of a hot lunch. The yogurt-maker then swooped in with a charitable donation (and inspiring words), a move that ultimately helped cause the school to reverse course.
Chobani founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, said: “[We] are trying to bring attention to the national crisis of food insecurity among students.…access to naturally nutritious and delicious food should be a right, not a privilege for every child.”
As my co-workers and I discussed the news around the office, we were all (unsurprisingly) sad about the state of the Warwick lunch system, but it was Caster founder and president Kimberly Lancaster who said, “I need to switch from Fage to Chobani.”
This conversation provoked a thought: Was this act of charity really just Chobani’s most cunning PR move?
If my boss had decided (or at least postulated) to make the switch between yogurt competitors, how many others might follow suit?
Philanthropy and PR
Philanthropy can thread a delicate needle in the world of PR, as companies run the risk of seeing their charitable efforts exposed as thinly veiled PR stunts.
In this circumstance, it’s easy for Chobani to be seen as the good guy. Food that’s “nutritious and delicious” is right in their wheelhouse, making their donation not only a charitable but also relevant and logical move. The company also pledged to donate cups and bottles of their yogurt to the rest of the Warwick community.
To solidify the brand’s identity, Chobani has a history of charitable giving. Just this month, Chobani also partnered with Chenango County businesses to bring a new firehouse and several community centers to New Berlin. Last year, the yogurt-maker donated $500,000 to Operation Homefront, a nonprofit serving military families—and matched consumer donations up to $250,000 or a total of up to $1 million.
After digging deep into Chobani’s charitable background, Lancaster said: “I was duly impressed with the size of their community efforts. It changed my entire [point of view] on the company.”
As evident from our no-nonsense president’s purchasing pivot, Chobani walks away from their recent school-lunch donation in good conscience and in a good light—but other corporate donations don’t always look so rosy.
A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “in an experiment in collaboration with an Italian firm…instrumental charitable incentives backfire compared to non-instrumental incentives.”
In other words, when a company’s charitable efforts are considered “instrumental” (i.e. beneficial) for the company itself, people are more likely to see through the charitable veneer and classify the gift as a self-serving PR stunt.
In Chobani’s case, helping hungry children get the food that they need doesn’t really serve Chobani’s business interests—and it’s an easy argument that making sure every child gets a hot lunch falls under the category of “good” charity.
Will Chobani end up profiting from their donation, nonetheless? Probably.
Though not everyone will be like Kimberly Lancaster and consciously decide to switch products based on a bit of community philanthropy, that doesn’t mean that Chobani’s efforts won’t see an uptick in profit.
Almost certainly, news of their donation will tip the scales (even if ever so slightly) in their favor in the competitive world of Greek yogurt, so that the next time newsreaders are wandering aimlessly down the dairy aisle and their hands waver between Fage’s Passion Fruit Clementine and Chobani’s Key Lime Crumble, they might just feel a subconscious pull towards the latter.
Being philanthropic just for PR can make companies either look like the hero who saved the day or the wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing. For those attempting this sleight of hand, they need to pay attention to what kind of donation they’re making and to whom, so their intentions look pure and never nefarious.
Have you seen philanthropic PR backfire in an ugly way? Share your thoughts in the comments below.