How British Brands Are Gamifying Kindness This Christmas

Treading the fine line between collaboration and coercion when it comes to cause-driven marketing.


Consumers at Christmastime essentially want two things: to consume and to feel good about it. And with an entirely new patch of grey hairs dedicated to the pandemic, we’re all in desperate need of a bit of feel-good positivity this year. So it’s little wonder that we’re seeing a flurry of cause-driven advertising hit our screens during this season of goodwill.

Stella Artois’ beautiful Christmas campaign highlights its longstanding partnership with Water.org, a charity that provides access to safe water for people in the developing world. It’s indelible “Give the Gift of Time” ad—narrated, of course, by Matt Damon—shines a light on the 771 million people who still don’t have access to safe water. The spot also reassures us that every time we buy a beer this Christmas, we’ll be funding one month’s supply of clean drinking water. So treat yourself to a 12 pack and you’ve covered a full year…you legend.

Stella Artois

Meanwhile, John Lewis is donating 10% of the profits from the sales of a sweater that features in its Christmas ad “Unexpected Guest” to FareShare and Home-Start. For #GivingTuesday, Dominoes, as part of its first-ever Christmas ad campaign, is matching customer “doughnations” to its long-standing charity partner, Teenage Cancer Trust and Coca‑Cola’s ‘Real Magic’ campaign has been complemented by a Win a Meal, Give a Meal promotion, where for every entry they’ve committed to giving 33 cents (or 25p) to FareShare, up to a maximum of $20.7k (or 15.5k pounds).

If you so much as blink this Christmas, some brand somewhere will empower you to do good and help those in need, in partnership with them. 

Christmas is a time for brands to give back

These cause-driven activations are not new and they can be extremely powerful. An iconic example is the Heinz partnership with Magic Breakfast. Heinz has been supporting Magic Breakfast since 2019 and the brand recently announced that for every purchase of its limited edition “Beanz for Every Child” can, they’ll donate one portion of baked beans. This commitment amounts to up to 3 million meals for schoolchildren who would otherwise be too hungry to learn.

Magic Breakfast is a fantastic charity and the perfect partner for Heinz. They’re aligned at both a product level (beans are a healthy, affordable way to feed the whole family) as well as at an emotional level (Beanz is a universal, inclusive brand with roots running through generations of British families). Similarly, in Heinz, Magic Breakfast has found a formidable partner who can offer national reach and scale. It’s a match made in heaven and by tying this dream team together with a purchase mechanic Heinz is cleverly engaging its consumer base in the social impact narrative.

I would simply encourage brands to work closely and collaboratively with the charity partners they choose, to ensure they are meaningfully and helpfully engaging with the issue beyond a ‘limited edition’.

Amy Williams, chief executive of Good Loop

There’s just one bean in the ointment. If no consumers are inclined to purchase this limited edition can, does that then mean 3 million children will go hungry? Indeed, what happens to these children when this limited edition ends and the baked bean gravy train dries up?

In contrast, Aldi’s new Kevin The Carrot Christmas campaign has all the heart, without any of the ultimatums. In this spot, the nation’s favorite carrot reminds us that “the moral of the story, the answer you’ll find, for you to be happy, you need to be kind.” Aldi is leading by example, and making Kevin proud, by supporting Neighbourly and donating 1.8 million meals to families in need.

Aldi

In some cases, this “passive” donation mechanic would be a less engaging way to land a cause-driven message. Without a clear reason for the consumer to care, well-meaning brands could quite easily find themselves standing on a soapbox, shouting into the void. However, in Aldi’s case, the social impact is so aligned with its storytelling and brand positioning that this feels memorable and authentic.

Brands not stepping up

At the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of examples where advertisers have delivered a heartfelt, emotive message but failed to back it up with any meaningful social impact. Amazon’s holiday campaign this year features a young woman who, in moments of should-be happiness, is plagued by anxiety and worry. At one point we hear a reporter state that “cases of anxiety in young adults are rising” and the spot ends with a moment of remedial kindness shared between strangers. There are so many fantastic mental-health charities working in this space, from CALM to Ditch the Label, and without any clear partnerships or wider initiatives, the ad ultimately falls flat.

We never want to gamify kindness or trivialize human suffering. In the infamous example of MasterCard’s “Champions League” campaign, where they offered to donate meals for malnourished children every time Lionel Messi or Neymar scored, the activation stank of insincerity and privilege. Conversely, the Stella Artois and Water.org activation tackle a serious issue in a serious and sensitive manner, while doubling down on a long-standing partnership and making a meaningful financial commitment. Plus, Matt Damon is not only famous—he is also the co-founder of Water.org so this is a great example of how working really closely and collaboratively with the charity can help brands to strike the right tone.

So, if you are a brand leader about to sign off on a “buy our stuff or the puppy gets it” promotion, go ahead. No one wants to dissuade corporations from taking responsibility and actively engaging in social issues, even if it does rely on a purchase mechanic. 

Brands should work closely and collaboratively with the charity partners they choose, to ensure they are meaningfully and helpfully engaging with the issue beyond a “limited edition.” Because with an open mind—and some deep pockets—brands can and should be a powerful catalyst for real social change.