To Tap Cause Marketing’s Huge Potential, Do Less Of It

This piece was originally written for and published on Reach Students.

If 94% of Millennials condone cause marketing why do only 53% report buying a product that benefits a cause in the past year?  The first finding is compelling, the second certainly is not, particularly given that in many stores you’d have to struggle not to buy cause-related products. So what explains this gap and what can your company do to close it?

The gap exists because cause marketing is predominately used by companies as a short-cut to boost product sales and consumer good-will. So we typically see cause marketing campaigns developed in a stand-alone manner, rather than as one element in support of a company’s larger social mission. Instead, companies should look to influence their selected cause or issue through deep-rooted commitments and multiple points of engagement.

“Cause-related marketing, as we know it, is dead. It’s not about slapping a ribbon on a product any longer.…Americans seek deeper involvement in social issues and expect brands and companies to provide various means of engagement,” says Carol Cone,  managing director of Brand and Corporate Citizenship at Edelman.

Genius brands like TOMS Shoes, Nike and RockCorps Orange and Boost Mobile have closed this gap by building programs around their long-term commitment to an issue and giving consumers the opportunity to participate through volunteering, advocacy and education. Many of these companies’ initiatives aren’t even tied to product purchases. They understand that creating deeper and longer-term relationship with consumers is much more valuable–in terms of products sales and brand perception, visibility, sustainability and  social impact–than an immediate cause-marketing success.

Here are 7 strategies you can use to close the gap:

  1. Define your mission.
    Before you think about how to create a smashing campaign, choose a cause that means something to your brand or consumers. Then be specific about who you want to benefit and what you ultimately aim to achieve, both in affecting social or environmental change and in impacting your company.
  2. Invest in the cause longterm.
    A long-term commitment to a cause or organization helps define what your company stands for, enables a greater social impact and makes it easier for you to measure this impact. The whole idea of engaging consumers in your social mission is to take them on a journey of awareness and participation, through which they begin to associate your brand with real impact, action and commitment to good. Switching up the issues you care about confuses your message, weakens your impact and leaves consumers rolling their eyes at another ill-fated attempt to influence what they buy by way of their heartstrings.
  3. Lead with impact, not branding or splash.
    A quick way to turn off consumers and taint your brand is to use customers as a pawn in a high-on-glitz-but-low-on-impact campaign in the name of doing good. RockCorps‘ partnerships with Orange and Boost Mobile, in the United Kingdom and United States, respectively, focus on community involvement and volunteerism rather than cell phone ownership and use.  “You can’t buy a ticket, you have to earn it,” is RockCorps’ tagline and mission. These RockCorps partnerships organize A-list concerts with a unique ticket policy: tickets can’t be bought, only earned by volunteering for several hours at a community event organized by RockCorps. This model shifts the focus to giving back to your community, rather than who can and can’t afford which phone or a ticket to hear Busta Rhymes.
  4. Be specific.
    Sixty-one percent of consumers take the time to learn the details of a corporate-nonprofit partnership before deciding whether to support it. The more specific your commitment is, the stronger the appeal. A commitment of one donated vaccine for every t-shirt purchased is stronger than a commitment of 10% of sales (how much is that?), and 10% of sales is stronger than “a portion of the proceeds.”Here’s one suggestion from a 16-year old American woman, “On the label, [there should be] a little paragraph about why the product is helping the environment and how it is made differently. That is something a new, limited-time organic Target brand did and it was very neat to know what special process went into making the clothes,” (quote taken from Alcatel Teen Lab).
  5. Connect customers to the cause.
    While 81% of consumers still want to support your company’s cause through transactional purchases they also want opportunities to volunteer for the featured cause (72%) and to provide feedback on the product or campaign (75%), per Cone Inc.’s 2010 Cause Evaluation Study. TOMS Shoes is known for its transaction-focused buy-one-give-one model.  But the company has also done an excellent job of providing customers opportunities to act, for example, through Style Your Sole shoe painting parties and annual “One Day Without Shoes” events that mobilize thousands of students to go barefoot for the day.

    Nike has partnered with Ashoka’s Changemakers to run several online competitions that challenge young social entrepreneurs to develop ways to leverage sport for positive social change. The initiative is completely independent of product purchases. By separating its commitment to sports for social change from its products, Nike is using its brand to motivate change and empower athletes and entrepreneurs. In the longterm, this visibility and consumer association could translate into product sales, but product sales are only one potential outcome–the other being social impact.

  6. Don’t exploit the cause or your consumers.
    Your cause is indicative of the impact you want to have. Don’t play fast and cheap with it, which means no pictures of abandoned dogs and ravaged children. Instead, find ways to communicate the urgency of their needs with dignity. The same is true for your consumers. When reporting on the brilliant success of your campaign, stay connected to the impact you’ve had and the ultimate change you’re determined to make, not how your campaign spiked product sales or utilized a new technology.
  7. Report on impact.
    Seventy-five percent of consumers want to hear more about the impact of corporate-nonprofit partnerships. How much money was raised and who did it help? How many people were served? How were they specifically affected?  The desire for feedback means you’ve successfully involved the customer in the cause. They feel personally connected to it and are interested to know how what they stood behind made a difference to someone. As a company, this is the best part because you’ve created a unique opportunity for an individual, or a million individuals, to make an impact.

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Leave a comment
  1. Evert Jan Koning December 20, 2010 at 4:51 am #

    Fantastic list Olivia, and a great website! Hope to read a lot more from you.

  2. Olivia Khalili December 21, 2010 at 4:20 pm #


    I really appreciate it! Here’s to more useful and hopefully provocative content.