Leveraging a Cause to Promote Your Brand
It’s not enough to convince consumers that you have the best product or the least expensive service anymore; many brands are turning to a cause marketing strategy in order to appeal to their audience. Consumers are delving deeper into a brand’s values, practices, reputation, and especially in light of recent events, what the board room looks like as well. Are there multiple cultures, backgrounds, and points of view represented among the executives? How diverse is the employee population?
As there’s more awareness of global issues and greater appreciation, understanding, and representation of marginalized groups, companies are using these opportunities to develop entire purpose-driven marketing campaigns centered around these causes while also promoting diversity.
Target, for example, featured products by black-owned businesses as well as black entrepreneurs and Target team members in their Black Beyond Measure campaign in February to honor Black History Month.1 For Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in May, Spotify introduced Our Roots. Our Sound. to amplify the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander artists with this curated collection on the streaming platform.2 In recent years, countless brands have capitalized on Pride Month in June, promoting limited edition products featuring rainbows representing the iconic Pride flag, such as Modcloth and their rainbow collection, with a percentage of sales going towards The Trevor Project.3 Skittles took the opposite approach, removing their signature rainbow colors from the candy and going colorless in support of the LGBTQ+ community, saying “only #oneRainbow matters.” The candy company is working in partnership with GLAAD and will donate $1 for every pack of the Pride Edition Skittles sold, up to $100,000, to the organization.4
Corporate Social Responsibility Sells
Consumer activism has driven people to hold brands accountable for corporate social responsibility (CSR), a company’s commitment to social, environmental, and economic management in their business practices.5 People are better able to make more responsible purchasing decisions, choosing brands that align with their values as well as those that support causes people are passionate about. In fact, 91% of consumers worldwide would switch to another brand that supports a good cause or takes a stance on important issues and 92% are likely to purchase a product if there was a social or environmental benefit.6 Thus, businesses have taken a cause marketing approach in order to demonstrate their CSR to potential customers and maintain their brand reputation while also promoting their products and services.
What Is Cause Marketing?
While companies will often practice CSR through sponsorships, donations to non-profit organizations, or even a corporate foundation, such as The Coca-Cola Foundation,7 cause marketing is a form of corporate social responsibility in which a brand’s promotional campaign not only benefits the company but also endorses a social or environmental cause. The legal term for a purpose-driven campaign is commercial co-venture; a company must abide by state and federal laws as well as maintain transparency with consumers about how the campaign works if they plan to employ a cause marketing strategy.8
When a company opts to run a purpose-driven campaign, the cause should be a good fit for the brand and make sense with the company’s mission and values. How can a company develop an effective campaign around a specific cause in a meaningful, genuine way?
How to Develop a Cause Marketing Strategy for Your Business
An authentic cause marketing campaign, in the best-case scenario, won’t just promote a specific collection of products, but it’ll hopefully result in a halo effect, improving or reinforcing a brand’s good reputation and increasing brand loyalty among current and new customers.
The formula is simple: Value-Driven Brand + Relevant Cause = Effective Cause Marketing9
A successful strategy is just a matter of properly defining the variables in this formula.
1. Core Company Values
Instead of trying to appease consumers, focus on the core values of the company. What do the employees care about? If these values are rooted in something real, not only will employees be motivated to help, but people will trust the brand’s authenticity.
2. Cause(s) That Align with Values
Regardless of the industry you’re in, find a cause that aligns with the company’s values. Though brands generally partner with causes that are related to their industry, there have been many successful cause marketing campaigns with a seemingly incongruent brand-cause pairing.
3. Companies Can’t Buy Activism
Though fundraising campaigns are commendable efforts and absolutely helpful, take it to the next level to show consumers that you practice what you preach. If your business practices don’t reflect the causes the company claims to support, reevaluate these practices and work towards a more ethical business model. As a company promoting equality, for example, take a look at the diversity among employees and executives and assess opportunities for improvement such as hiring a greater percentage of POC, women, and LGBTQ+ in various capacities.
4. Collaborate with a Non-Profit Through a Branded Partnership
In a branded partnership, for-profit companies and non-profit organizations come together to achieve a mutual goal. This benefits both sides, giving the cause and non-profit organization funds and resources while the business maintains a good standing in the community and promotes its brand. At the same time, the non-profit can offer the business better insight into the roots of the cause and what people are advocating for so the company can determine the best way to get involved and maximize the impact the collaboration can have.
5. Promote the Campaign Using Multiple Channels
Social media has been an absolute game-changer in marketing – that’s where the people are! In order to reach the next generation of activists and convince them to support the cause and your brand, you need to market to millennials and Gen Z. Not only should you include the usual suspects in a social media marketing strategy – Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter – but think about how your company can incorporate Snapchat and TikTok too.
Besides social media, though, consider video marketing on Youtube. It’s a great way to reach millions of people and garner attention for both the cause and your brand – go viral. When people start creating parodies and remixes, you’ll know you’ve made it. Some companies take an even more creative, interactive approach and develop mobile games that entertain people while raising awareness. Dumb Ways to Die, a public service announcement about rail safety created by Metro Trains Melbourne, launched a fun YouTube video in 2013 as part of a safety campaign. Not only did the video go viral, but within a few days, the song reached the Top 10 chart on iTunes and the game app climbed to number one in multiple countries all over the world.10
Benefits of Cause-Related Marketing
Cause-related marketing is a business practice that’s not only accepted but respected as well. There are so many benefits of developing a marketing strategy around a cause your company is passionate about.
- As any marketing strategy is designed to do, it increases sales
- Not only will a company attract a new audience, but a cause-related marketing campaign can foster brand loyalty and the company will gain repeat customers.
- Unlike a standard promotion, a cause-marketing campaign improves a brand’s image and reputation – essentially, it doubles as public relations.
Examples of Cause Marketing Done Right
Cause marketing strategies aren’t new, though; from the first major cause alliance between the Marriott Corporation and the March of Dimes in the 1970s11 to American Express promoting the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in the ‘80s – coining the phrase cause-related marketing12 in the process – companies have been using this tactic for decades. But a brand can’t simply post a graphic on its social media channels and expect to garner brand loyalty from consumers. Instead, a marketing campaign for a cause should be authentic, reflecting a company’s values, and these brands are great examples of cause-related marketing done right.
Environmental Cause Marketing
From the very beginning, Coca-Cola’s marketing strategy has made it one of the most recognizable brands in the world, so it makes sense that the company would use its influence to develop a cause-related marketing campaign to raise awareness about global issues. Among its more successful ventures is the Coca-Cola Round in Circles campaign, partnering with Recycle Now to encourage people to recycle. The idea was to represent the circular economy the brand is working towards by using sustainable packaging as well as to remind consumers that Coca-Cola bottles are recyclable.13
“Coca-Cola has been at the forefront of the industry-wide discussion around the changes in the way we design, produce, use, re-use, dispose and reprocess packaging. While finding the most sustainable packaging solutions is a critical part of a circular model, recycling infrastructure and behaviour also need to be considered a priority.”
– Craig Stephens, Campaign Manager, Recycle Now13
Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand of high caliber, has a loyal customer base in large part due to the brand’s commitment to environmental sustainability efforts. In 2019, as young activists around the world joined the Global Climate Strike, Patagonia not only gave employees the day off to participate but also featured teen activists in their campaign to raise awareness for Climate Week. Though the campaign was mostly digital, the outdoor clothing company was also visible along the strike routes in Denver, Washington D.C., and New York City.14
“Our customers are demanding we act—this generation of youth is not backing down and neither should we. Sharing this common challenge gives us hope. We need to step up, to move forward with optimism and American innovation and ingenuity to invest in solutions and fight the fight of our lives to save our home planet.”
– Rose Marcario, Former CEO, Patagonia15
Campaigns Around Social Justice Causes
One of the most recent and incredibly effective examples of cause-related marketing is Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign, with controversial American athlete Colin Kaepernick as the face of the campaign with the message, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018
Kaepernick is most notable for protesting police brutality against Black people by taking a knee at NFL football games, which received both praise and criticism across the nation and basically ended his NFL career. Though the Dream Crazy campaign wasn’t tied to any specific non-profit organization nor did the brand donate a percentage of the proceeds or anything, it “affirmed that a powerful force in American life was listening and willing to amplify the public message,” offering a stage for a community that wants to speak for themselves. As such, many people, including Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson, praised Nike’s decision to support Kaepernick, fully understanding that it was also a business decision with a financial benefit for the athletic brand.16 On the other hand, in prominently featuring Kaepernick in the Dream Crazy campaign, Nike received a lot of backlash as well, causing many to boycott the athletic brand.
If you think Nike didn’t expect the backlash, you’d be mistaken. Not only did the brand make $6 billion, it also reached an all-time high in the stock market and it was in the public consciousness for at least a week or more.17 This just proves that, sometimes, taking a big risk pays off.
Ben & Jerry’s
In September of 2019, Ben & Jerry’s introduced the Justice ReMix’d flavor in partnership with The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that raises awareness about racial justice issues.18 The ice cream company even spent $1.2 million on Facebook ads advocating for criminal justice reform.19 Beyond using ice cream flavors and creative names to raise awareness and funds, Ben & Jerry’s isn’t shy about their opinions, frequently using social media and their blogs to promote the causes they are passionate about.
Humanitarian Cause Marketing
Though sometimes criticized for overlooking the root causes of the issues plaguing developing countries, buy one give one campaigns raise awareness of global issues and promote humanitarianism while also engaging customers.
The Warby Parker glasses initiative is a great example of cause marketing using this approach, taking their Buy A Pair, Give A Pair program20 further by funding eye care training and awareness in developing countries in two ways. The glasses company provides vision care and glasses to school children and they also offer training opportunities for adults, empowering them to conduct basic eye exams and sell glasses.
Bad Examples of Cause Marketing: What NOT to Do
Though there are fantastic ways companies have stepped up their brand activism and leveraged cause marketing to promote their brand, there are countless companies that are simply jumping on the bandwagon without actually understanding the message of the cause they are supposed to be supporting. Consumers are paying more attention to a company’s statements compared to their actions, which means they are quick to realize whether or not a brand is cause-washing – or woke-washing21 – which means the company lacks authenticity or doesn’t follow through on their promises to support these causes. For example, companies who use the pink ribbon symbol in their marketing but don’t donate profits or even promote breast cancer research are pinkwashing Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
It’s no surprise, then, that these “woke-washing” campaigns often miss the mark. But how can companies get it so wrong?
“Two situations. First is when companies make up campaigns or causes they think will be helpful but aren’t rooted in real people’s needs. The other is when brands try to pat themselves on the back, or in the worst cases, hijack social movements to sell stuff. Look at Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot. It’s obvious that there’s nothing there beyond trying to hijack a cultural moment.”
– Jay Curley, Global Head of Integrated Marketing, Ben & Jerry’s 22
The now infamous Pepsi ad featured model and TV star Kendall Jenner giving a can of Pepsi to a police officer during a protest as a peace offering. What Pepsi thought was an ad promoting unity among people from different walks of life instead was seen as a tone-deaf attempt to cash in on a social justice movement, namely the Black Lives Matter movement – with a privileged white supermodel, no less. Pepsi pulled the ad after just 24 hours and issued a public apology, as did Jenner.23
Barnes & Noble
In honor of Black history month, Barnes & Noble promoted their Diverse Editions campaign, where classic literary covers – written by white authors about white characters – were redesigned to feature the main protagonists as Black characters. The irony of celebrating the history and achievements of Black culture via works by white authors was not lost on the countless Black authors, including L.L. McKinney, who expressed criticism about the campaign, deeming it “literary blackface.”24
Barnes and Noble’s cause marketing campaign failed so spectacularly because they ignored the demographic whose voices they should have amplified instead. A more thoughtful approach would have been to feature classic works by the likes of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and countless other classic authors of color or even more contemporary Black authors as well. The bookselling chain could have also opted to promote modern retellings of classic novels like Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, but written by Black authors with perhaps a different perspective.
Lessons in Cause Marketing
These bad examples of cause marketing campaigns demonstrate that just because a cause or movement has grown in popularity doesn’t mean it’s okay to use it as a marketing ploy without real brand activism dedicated to said movement or cause.
Though many brands often develop misguided campaigns around a cause, it’s just as important for these brands to learn from these mistakes. On May 30, Tiffany & Co. posted a simple message against their iconic Tiffany Blue background, “We are one community and we #BelieveinLove” in what many considered a weak or shallow attempt to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Tiffany & Co. listened to consumers and started turning things around just a day later. After many commented on the lackluster message, the company admitted that their previous post was not enough and pledged to use their platform to make a difference and work harder in the fight against racism. Tiffany & Co. later announced their long-term partnership with the National Urban League, an organization dedicated to the improvement of social and economic outcomes for the Black community.
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We empowered the diverse voices within Tiffany & Co. to identify our partnership with @NatUrbanLeague, a civil rights organization that works through its 90 affiliates nationwide to improve social and economic outcomes for the Black community. As an American institution, we understand there is still work to do and we urge you to continue using your voice to contribute to the conversation.
Brands should be transparent about their purpose-driven campaign and show a genuine commitment to the causes and people for which it advocates. Consumers have access to so much information right at their fingertips and they will not hesitate to stop supporting a brand that’s dishonest about their beliefs, values, and business practices. In light of the momentum that the Black Live Matter movement has gained in the last month, numerous brands made a statement regarding their support for the cause. People are holding these brands accountable, asking for proof that these companies are delivering on their promises to do more by raising awareness, donating to organizations for the cause, and diversifying the board room.
- Forbes – A Tale Of 2 Black History Month Campaigns: Why Barnes & Noble Stumbled And Target Thrived
- People – Spotify Celebrates AAPI Heritage Month with New Hub: ‘Our Roots. Our Sound.’
- StyleCaster – 25 Fashion & Beauty Brands with Pride Collections That Give Back
- CNN – Skittles ditches the rainbow to celebrate LGBTQ+ community for Pride Month
- Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) – Corporate social responsibility
- CONE: A Porter Novelli Company – 2013 Global CSR Study Release
- The Coca-Cola Company – The Coca-Cola Foundation
- GlobalGiving – Cause Marketing Glossary
- Forbes – Avoiding the Ugly Side of Cause Marketing
- Dumb Ways to Die – PSA
- Hartnett, Bridget, Cause Marketing Whitepaper Fall 2016 – Making the Case for Cause Marketing: Impact on the For-Profit and Nonprofit Communities
- Grant Space by Candid – What is cause-related marketing?
- Marketing Week – Coca-Cola uses new campaign to encourage more people to recycle
- Fast Company – Patagonia enlists teen activists to speak out for Global Climate Strike campaign
- Rose Mercario, LinkedIn – Enough is Enough: Join the Climate Strikes & Demand Action
- Quartz – Nike’s Kaepernick ad is what happens when capitalism and activism collide
- Awario – Social issues and marketing: why brands want to cause controversy
- Ben & Jerry’s – Introducing NEW Justice ReMix’d Limited Batch!
- Money – Every Brand Wants to be ‘Woke.’ Ben & Jerry’s Actually Is
- Warby Parker – Buy a Pair, Give a Pair
- The Guardian – Woke-washing brands cash in on social justice. It’s lazy and hypocritical
- Forbes – Purpose at Work: How Ben & Jerry’s Combines Growth And Brand Activism
- The Drum – Cause marketing: examples of the best and worst brand purpose campaigns
- NPR – Author L.L. McKinney: Barnes & Noble ‘Diverse Editions’ Are ‘Literary Blackface’