Marketing Charity or Fake Philanthropy? A Closer Look at TOMS Shoes

TOMS logoConsumers love to feel like their money is going toward something worthwhile, and the strategists behind TOMS shoes have really capitalized on that. TOMS promises “One For One” – so when you buy a pair of shoes, you are also providing a pair for someone in need. But is this model really working?

Consider what TOMS has to say: go a day without shoes just to see what it’s like – so “kids don’t have to.”

TOMS Shoes: The Premise

It’s a simple premise, that’s for sure. TOMS works with 75 “Giving Partners” in shoe donation. Children and their communities worldwide receive free shoes, directly in correlation with the number of shoes purchased by TOMS customers. Shoes, says the TOMS website, are important because they are often required in schools, protect children’s feet from cuts and infection, and help kids feel more confident.

They have it down to an exact science: the Giving Department orders all the right sizes for the communities they work with, and then distributes them to the Giving Partners. Shoes are placed directly on children’s feet.

There are a number of options, and they all come in the classically recognizable TOMS style. There are black canvas shoes, more colorful canvas shoes distributed in communities in Argentina to stay in keeping with, as TOMS puts it, local tradition, and heavier boots for recipients in colder climates.

Is it Working?

Of course, with any marketing movement comes criticism. Ecouterre, a competitor in do-good style, believes that TOMS shoes do more harm than good. The sentiment is echoed in the video below, a direct response to the TOMS advertisement above: ultimately, all TOMS shoes do is make the people buying them feel good about themselves.

The critics say that not only do the shoes wear out quickly, leaving rural poor communities just as susceptible to the same problems as they were before, but also, according to the video below, giving out free shoes makes the local economy vulnerable, so local business owners who sell their own shoes are unable to keep their shops going.

Active Listening in Marketing

The lesson here is really what it always comes down to: the question of listening. According to this Huffington Post piece, TOMS would do well to invest more in local markets, but many of the critics ignore the work that TOMS is already doing. TOMS explains on their site, “…before we give, we listen to our partners; they’re the experts on the ground. Then together we develop a strategy that supports their goals and respects the cultures in which they work.”

What do you think? Is TOMS doing more harm than good, or are they smart marketers AND real do-gooders?

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Tree

Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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