Making the Benefits of Cause Marketing Last

When companies champion a cause, their efforts often have a “rented” quality. It’s time to ramp up authentic, lasting connections between companies and social impact.

For a generation now, cause marketing, or cause-related marketing, has paired corporations with nonprofits, directing billions of dollars in fundraising and consumer buying power toward social impact. We can all celebrate this innovation. It’s estimated that advertisers will spend roughly $600 billion in 2015—and wouldn’t it be great if more of that went to supporting good causes instead of television ads? Moreover, the design and execution of cause marketing has improved over time, as a modest media and professional infrastructure has emerged to support the field.

As cause marketing looks ahead to its second generation, an opportunity exists to redefine how companies and causes find mutual benefit. Specifically, brands and nonprofits can evolve their partnerships from “rented authenticity,” where a company rents some of the halo of the charitable organization, to “owned authenticity,” where companies do the hard work to align their brand with a cause.

To understand rented authenticity, consider most of the cause-marketing experiences you interact with as a consumer. Chances are you’ve faced choices like adding a dollar to your holiday purchase at dozens of retailers to support St. Jude’s or selecting the Product (RED) headphones from Beats By Dre. You may have been one of over 100 million votes directing more than $30 million in grants during the Pepsi Refresh Project (which GOODcorps helped design and implement).

Each of these campaigns merits praise, as do the nonprofit and company professionals who are bringing them to life, but how could companies doing this work reach a new level of impact and brand loyalty by “owning” issues closer to their core business? Could Carnival, which participates in St. Jude’s point-of-sale campaigns, limit the environmental impact of its fleet or serve passengers more-sustainable onboard meals? Wouldn’t Beats By Dre be perfectly positioned to help solve the crisis of music education in schools? Especially in light of Coke’s recent struggles, could Pepsi make a bold move to ensure kids under 18 don’t drink full-calorie soda?

Here’s how companies can begin to make this shift: 

Look inward. Connect the dots between the hard work happening within often-siloed departments—like brand marketing, HR, volunteering, corporate philanthropy, supply chain responsibility—to generate greater brand value. Starbucks can survive the tactical challenges of its racial dialogue campaign, #RaceTogether, because it has established a strong foundation of consumer trust. Customers are aware that the company has led initiatives addressing issues like ethical product sourcing and job creation.

Be consistent. If your company’s internal values are consistent with the causes you support, then supporting a cause isn’t a marketing tactic—it’s a brand characteristic. Creating that consistency enables your company to develop seamless brand experiences for customers, connecting with them through shared values because “cause” is just another component of your brand’s personality, just like its utility or accessibility. By pioneering the “1-1-1” model and having a CEO who is consistently vocal on values, Salesforce has cemented a sense of brand goodness rare for a software company. Cause is evergreen, not seasonal; nonprofit partnerships are strategic, not transactional; companies are leaders, not simply funders. 

Chose a single focus that makes sense. For some brands, one issue is central enough to the brand personality to merit a singular focus. For example, the crowdfunding and awareness effort Sports Matter (led by our client DICK’S Sporting Goods) rose $4.5 million for 184 youth sports teams in 2014 and will reach thousands in 2015. Meanwhile, Dove has built a franchise from its topical, authentic, and beautiful Real Beauty campaign.

Develop a personality. A brand can foster a “personality trait” by embracing a range of issues that are not directly linked but express a generally similar view of the world. (Just note: This type of positioning can also narrow your customer base!) Ben & Jerry’s, for example, applies humor and unabashed progressivism to its consumer communication and action on campaign finance reform, gay marriage, and climate change. Patagonia’s CEO believes “business can be an agent of change” and proudly puts the brand behind “any fight worth fighting,” from removing river dams to changing the denim industry.

As cause marketing heads into its next decade of evolution, there is much to be proud of, both for businesses and partner organizations. Most exciting, though, is the potential to connect even more deeply with consumers, enabling brands to own their authenticity and unleash new business and social impact results.

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  • Your sentence: “Cause is evergreen, not seasonal; nonprofit partnerships are strategic, not transactional; companies are leaders, not simply funders. was particularly poignant for me.

  • GOOD/Corps's avatar

    BY GOOD/Corps

    ON August 28, 2015 03:06 PM

    Thanks so much, karen. I’m glad you found it poignant and appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  • BY Joe Waters

    ON August 28, 2015 04:23 PM

    Great post, Grant. I share your hopes for nonprofit and for-profit partnerships! The good news is that it’s already happening.

    The challenge is that “cause marketing” isn’t a term that can really encompass all the cause-related activities that nonprofits and for-profits can engage in. We have all sorts of new language for this: CSR, Shared Value, Sustainability and just PURPOSE.

    If cause marketing seems rented, transactional, promotional and campaign-focused that’s because it is! The good news is that there is plenty of room along the cause continuum for all sorts of win-win partnerships. And cause marketing is a darn good place to start or a way to complement a deeper, long-term efforts.

    The goal for businesses is to put PURPOSE on the same level of PROFIT. And businesses are because they’ve realized that in the new world purpose comes first, then profit.





  • BY Charles Best

    ON August 29, 2015 12:55 PM

    Awesome article, Grant.  I love the concept of “rented authenticity” vs “owned authenticity” and suspect the distinction you’ve coined will become common parlance.

  • Great article Grant. Nonprofit and for-profit partnerships work for the best for all concerned. Keep up the “GOOD” work.

  • Thanks for this post, Grant. I am currently working on several CSR programs, with my company as the centralizing platform, and this article is really helpful.


  • BY Patrick ONeill

    ON September 13, 2015 05:45 AM

    Great article, Grant.  One of the risks company’s must pay attention to is when the non-profit they are renting from overstates the impact.  Both the non-profit and the company can benefit from overstated results in the short term - so there is some pressure in this direction.  In the long run, this will effect the credibility of both.  If companies make the shift the owned authenticity, it will be in their interest not just to define what they give, but to measure its impact.

    We have developed a online giving model to facilitate goods based giving that provides complete transparency and accountability that eliminates the risk of overstating impact.

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