Cause marketing needs to progress. For the past decade we have heard that consumers are more willing to buy brands that support good causes. In fact, people are even prepared to switch brands and to pay a premium if the cause and brand resonate. This preference now extends to working for and investing in companies that do right.
Such compelling evidence begs the question, why don’t all companies embrace cause marketing? The answer is simple. It is not easy and it is growing harder. The primary challenge is consumer skepticism. Too many companies initially used cause marketing to drive product sales and green-wash brands. Now sophisticated socially conscious consumers respond with apathy or even hostility when cause marketing efforts are deemed disingenuous or vacuous.
Cause marketing is over forty years old. It began in 1976, when the first major cause marketing campaign was executed between the Marriott Corporation and theMarch of Dimes. American Express coined the term "cause marketing" in 1983 for its campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty. Since then there have been innovative programs but the practice is growing stale. This is attributed to something called“C.B.C.” or Cause | Brand | Consumer.
Historically, most efforts started with the Cause. Nonprofits needed to gain awareness and convince people to support them. However, the resulting campaigns amounted to collecting loose change rather than changing behaviour. These efforts were the equivalent of giant ‘bake sale tables’ with little innovation beyond scale.
In order to gain greater reach, they looked to their for-profit cousins. Hey, they said, if we come together you will look good and we will get more donations. Overtime everyone learned that there is an art and a science to pairing companies and causes.
This insight was borne out a survey and research report. In 2015, Swystun Communications surveyed 5,000 marketing and public relations professionals viaLinkedIn. 3,322 respondents completed the survey. A further 596 agreed to be interviewed from which 100 were selected. Such a high number of professionals agreeing to an interview affirmed the interest in cause marketing.
The findings revealed that 79% of respondent companies are active in cause marketing and that 63% are considering increased investment. The ultimate goal of these programs is changing. Respondents suggested that cause marketing was no longer evaluated on creating awareness alone. Now nonprofits and private partners want to change people’s behaviour.
The challenge is linking this directly benefit the cause. This makes the effort more relevant but much harder to execute. “I have been doing this for over twenty years and have to admit that it is more complex. Cause marketing is no longer a nice-to-have. It is a standing agenda item at our executive meetings,” said a vice president at a regional U.S. bank.
There is also a surprising level of dissatisfaction. Only 27% of respondents agreed that their cause marketing efforts were meeting or exceeding expectations. The departments that create and manage these programs are under siege. Company executives want to see a clear return on investment and customers are vocal critics.
In fact, consumers are actively lobbying businesses to do more. One professional employed at a national retailer stated, “We receive daily inquiries about the efficacy of our program. Often these come with suggestions for improvement or advocacy for other causes they would like to see us get involved with.”
Rights and Wrongs
Building on the survey results and interviews, there were a select number of campaigns cited as best practice examples. One was Gucci's "Chime for Change”.Robert Triefus, Gucci’s Chief Marketing Officer describes the investment, ”Chime for Change aims to realize a world where girls and women have the safety and protection they need to thrive.”
It was launched at TED and backed by celebrity endorsements from Salma Hayekand Frida Giannini. It went to host a mega-concert headlined by Beyonce, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. This led to Chimehack 2, “a female hack-a-thon to develop solutions for relevant challenges in today’s world.” Chime for Change has been lauded for directly engaging consumers using a crowd-funding platform calledCatapult.
For all of this they get admirable press. Yet, outside of the fashion industry, precious few people have actually heard of it. Respondents noted that Chime forChange has fallen for two common traps in cause marketing. The first involves celebrity. Celebrities are often used as avatars for the cause and a quick way to raise awareness. This presents a long-term disconnect as consumers may desire to be a celebrity but they cannot easily relate to them. It produces an artificial association with the cause.
Second, the cause leverages big events that generate press releases but questionable results. Chime for Change is an amazing premise executed in a traditional way. One respondent said she would be surprised if 1 in 1000 of Gucci’s own customers have heard of the program.
Love them or hate them, Uber deserves recognition as a creator of cause-related programs. They give military veterans jobs, find homes for abandoned pets, and collect clothes for the needy. Smartly, they do this through their app by involving their ever-expanding customer base. One program called “Share Our Strength”surpassed all goals. Initially Uber wanted to provide #3MillionMeals for children in need and in support No Kid Hungry.
This may not sound innovative but it fits with the Uber brand as a rule breaker.The program asked customers to “DriveOut Hunger” by making a $5 donation within the Uber app for the first time ever, thereby finding its way around Apple policy that bans in-app donations. Within four days, the Uber Community raised enough money to provide a record#5MillionMeals.
Uber’s bold ask resonated and was consistent with who they are as a company. One respondent in marketing services commented, “As Uber expands and challenges the taxi and limo industry they need cause marketing. Some people empathize with the traditional drivers who are now making less or are losing jobs. All of these good works help to win more over to what Uber does and how they do it.”
LUSH's Charity Pot is premised on a simple concept. Simple is smart when it comes to cause marketing. Convoluted, preachy or condescending efforts seldoms way and can turn off consumers. When a consumer purchased Charity Pot body lotion all the money from the sale went to the nonprofit featured on the lid.
This understated but effective promotion has been in place since 2007. Since then it has raised nearly $6 million for over 600 nonprofits. This is a full-time effort forLUSH. Three staff people manage the program year-round.
Percentage of sales programs always prompt questions and often attract controversy. Consumers question how much of the proceeds actually gets to the cause. LUSH takes care of this by giving 100% of the retail sale. While this may not seem earth shattering, it is actually. A survey respondent noted the administration that cause marketing programs require, “LUSH got this right. It is a long running program and cannot be called a campaign. Campaigns are expensive and episodic. That makes most of them highly inefficient.”
LUSH must also be commended for supporting small nonprofits. These organizations often get the crumbs left over from big charities like American CancerSociety, The Salvation Army and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. A nonprofit survey respondent noted, “I would argue this gives them more reach and impact.By touching 600 charities, they get their name out there in a more interesting way.”
LUSH has a clear intent. A spokesperson said, “We find these groups when they need a lift up, and ideally, after a year, we hope to get them in a position where they don’t need us anymore.” The support goes beyond monetary support. LUSH encourages employees to volunteer at these charities and recognizes and rewards them accordingly.
DoSomething.org teamed up with fashion retailer H&M to get young people involved in clothing recycling and sustainable fashion through “Comeback Clothes”.Young people could drop old clothing off in recycling bins at any H&M store. All brands and conditions were accepted.
Participants that sent a photo of themselves dropping off clothing were entered to win a $10,000 scholarship, and received a 15% discount off their next purchase.“The beauty of this campaign was it encouraged activity and provided education on sustainability. Kids go through clothes like water with little understanding of the supply chain and effect on the environment. Best of all it made them feel good,”said one respondent involved in the campaign.
The history of cause marketing along with the survey and examples of compelling programs reveals eight cause marketing must-dos.
1. Changing Real People
It all begins by identifying the desired consumer and articulating what it is exactly you want them to do. Long gone is the assumption that consumers will hop on board when a recognizable charity and visible brand band together. The most effective efforts strive to get real people, not a vague segment, to change their behaviour rather than giving a dollar at the checkout.
2. Authenticity Rules
Anything falsely designed and administered is poorly received, attracts the wrong attention and dies a quick death. The partnership, the activity, and the ask must be honest and transparent. Authenticity allows the program to be unique, talkable and iconic.
3. Abolish the Campaign Mindset
Throughout this article, the word ‘campaign’ is used liberally. Campaigns denote one-time, short-lived efforts.Cause marketing has largely been built with this mindset and is reflected in how much of the work is short-lived. It is now critical to think of cause marketing in the same way one builds a brand. It takes place over time and is constant in its purpose even when the mechanics and activities change to ensure relevance.
4. Avoid the Big Bang
Cause marketers love to sign celebrities and hold big events. They are experts in the moment but many lack the skills to build a cause brand over time. That is why there are so many campaigns but precious few that are recognized by name. Big bang events are exciting and newsworthy but are quickly forgotten and questionable in long-term impact.
5. Strive for Loyalty
There is a profound lack of thinking around loyalty to causes. Most cause marketing is designed to have a one-time interaction with people. The best programs have people coming back because they get them to recognize the benefits. This rewards both the cause and brands with loyalty and advocacy.
6. Go Grassroots
There are millions of charities vying for the same dollars, volunteers, and media attention. The history of giving is predicated on grassroots support. Cause marketing lost sight of this as it became a big business. Grassroots efforts represent a fresh opportunity because they must first convert those closest to the cause.
7. Involve Employees
It makes sense to motivate the workforce. This is a rich resource that is not only arms and legs but also brains and many voices. Employees should not hear about their company’s cause marketing efforts through advertising and the media. They should be co-opted and made an active part of the program at the outset.
8. Have a Plan B
Cause marketing begins with the best intentions.However, not all programs resonate and some even backfire. It is important to anticipate potential negative or a pathetic reaction. That is why cause marketing is a long-term strategy and not episodic events. Some will work, some will not. Like anything in business, it requires investment, energy, creativity and experimentation to be successful.
Cause marketing has not yet fulfilled its potential. That makes it a tremendous opportunity for both causes and brands. Yet, it will only be successful if it puts the consumer first. Rather than being a collection agency that redistributes funds, causes exist to make us aware, involve us, and turn us into committed and active advocates. This has never been easy and it is not getting easier. Yet, if the eight must-dos presented here are pursued, cause marketing efforts stand a greater chance of success and that will benefit us all.