TOMS Instagram Campaign: Heavy on Marketing, Light on Education

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TOMS Instagram

May 5, 2015;Paste, “Style”

Don’t have money to purchase a $50 pair of TOMS shoes? Don’t worry! Now you can make a difference by going barefoot.

Just post a photo of your bare feet to Instagram before May 21st with the hashtag #withoutshoes, and TOMS, a company well known for its buy-one-give-one model, will donate a pair of shoes to someone in need. And, not incidentally, TOMS will build its brand recognition in the process.

This strategic marketing initiative is part of TOMS’ annual One Day Without Shoes event. Each year, TOMS encourages people to go barefoot for all or part of one day in an effort to increase awareness about the need for shoes. According to Fashionista, Blake Mycoskie, TOMS founder, said the company’s annual campaign had been lacking a “charitable act.” He wanted to give everyone an opportunity to “do something good without having to buy.”

Hence the 2015 social media initiative. As of Wednesday, May 6th, more than 50,000 participating photos had been uploaded to Instagram. Uploaded photos include feet from men and women, children and adults, and feet in a variety of different settings. It is unclear whether or how, exactly, the owners of those feet have increased their knowledge about the need for shoes in developing nations, the intended goal of the annual campaign. As TOMS’ website states, through this social media campaign “we’re honoring your commitment to raising awareness for children’s health & education.”

The implicit message is that the company is also honoring its commitment to marketing. And it wants you to help. In fact, you are encouraged to download a marketing toolkit from the company’s website. The toolkit includes instructions on how to engage others in the campaign, a pledge form for your office or group, t-shirt logos, and a variety of templates for (well-branded) signage. The 31-page toolkit also includes an underwhelming two facts about the need for shoes:

  • Providing children with school uniforms, which often includes shoes, can increase school attendance by up to 62 percent (Source: Evans, 2009)
  • At least 4 million people in 15 countries are affected by podoconiosis, a debilitating disease that causes painful swelling of the feet and legs. (Source: WHO 2013)

One could argue that all campaign marketing increases the number of shoes donated, which is presumably a good thing. Maybe. Maybe not. TOMS has been widely criticized for, among myriad other concerns, negatively impacting cobblers in developing nations.

This campaign is not the first time TOMS has chosen marketing over education, nor is it the first time the company has come under scrutiny. But, the company has caught the eye of investors like Bain Capital, who have come to realize that social businesses can be a wise investment. It seems that despite what Angela Eikenberry describes as its many hidden costs, cause marketing is still profitable.—Jennifer Amanda Jones