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.