Digital Marketing

Cause-related marketing: The best and worst examples we’ve seen

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“Fake it until you make it” is an old adage that might still be appropriate for fleeting moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. However, when applied to cause-related marketing campaigns, it’s a recipe for disaster that could ultimately result in your brand being painted with a term that’s more in keeping with the modern vernacular: Cringe.

This marketing technique can be a powerful one, but be sure that your efforts are authentic.

What is cause-related marketing, or cause marketing?

Cause marketing often refers to marketing activities undertaken by a business for the purpose of promoting a good cause instead of simply soliciting purchases. Of course, higher sales over the long run are often an end goal for these marketing activities, as is promoting brand awareness and burnishing the company’s reputation. Historically, a common tactic for cause-related marketing has been to promise additional corporate giving based on consumer transactions.

How has this type of marketing evolved over the years?

Cause-related marketing is widely considered to have started with an American Express campaign that offered additional company donations to a fund for restoring the Statue of Liberty based on how many times cardholders swiped their AmEx during a specified period in 1983.

While the credit card company coined the term in response to that specific campaign, others pointed out that similar efforts were taking place about a century earlier, also in connection with the Statue of Liberty. Newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer published the names of donors who contributed to a fund for the construction of the monument’s pedestal.

Cause marketing today

Since the 1980s, companies practicing cause marketing have often embraced important social causes that may have been deemed too divisive for businesses to address in the decades past. At the same time, while corporate sponsorship is still a common component of cause-related marketing, companies are wary of being perceived as commercializing important issues. As a result, more general social advocacy is often a popular approach.

On the other end of the spectrum, bland awareness campaigns that aren’t backed by additional action often ring hollow for this era’s media-savvy consumers. Today, earning brand loyalty from a cause marketing campaign requires time, commitment and authenticity.

Why do brands run cause marketing campaigns?

Brands may use cause marketing campaigns to create a distinct brand identity in a field where other product and service providers can seem similar at first glance. Additionally, cause-based marketing can be a way to encourage employee engagement and drive support up and down the supply chain. People want to feel like they’re working for, or doing business with, an organization that supports the social good.

There’s another more practical reason behind cause-related marketing, too. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the things we once took for granted can become weird and uncanny in a flash. Even seeing people shake hands in TV show reruns from a year ago seems momentarily perplexing. To a certain extent, if brands don’t respond to crises, they can risk seeming completely out of touch.

Pros of doing a cause marketing campaign

First of all, the biggest pro for an effective cause marketing campaign is that charities and nonprofits stand to benefit. These organizations do a lot of good for the world, and they rely on individual donors and institutional partners to achieve the impact they desire.

It’s perhaps not surprising that many nonprofits readily welcome cause marketing. In fact, groups like the Greater Cleveland Food Bank directly seek out companies looking to launch cause marketing campaigns.

Second, cause marketing campaigns can be a great way for a company to demonstrate social responsibility to customers and other stakeholders. By using clear messaging that addresses contemporary social issues and taking concrete action, businesses show that they’re willing to be ethical corporate citizens who care about more than just making a buck.

Cons of doing a cause marketing campaign

Depending on the details of your cause marketing strategy, you could look insincere, muting your impact, or worse, bringing negative attention to your missteps. Today, companies operate in a saturated social media landscape where their every move is scrutinized not just by consumers but by influencers as well.

To get it right, businesses need to:

  • Find a cause that aligns with their brand identity.
  • Commit to the cause deeply, including with concrete actions.
  • Carefully craft their messaging.
  • Time their campaigns well.

That last point is a little trickier than you might think. For instance, in the U.K., a survey found that only 25% of respondents thought that companies were being sincere when they showed support for LGBTQ causes during Pride month. However, 38% believed brands were being genuine when they demonstrated their support at other times of the year.

While it’s important not to ignore major social events as they happen, you have to make a long-term commitment. Otherwise, you could be seen as a bandwagon opportunist.

What are the types of results to expect from a cause marketing campaign?

If you’re working with a charitable cause on your marketing campaign, you should strive to develop a sustainable partnership with them. That means:

  • Aligning your messaging.
  • Creating the marketing strategy jointly.
  • Ensuring that they achieve the goals they’ve set for the campaign.

Additionally, over the long term, you’re hoping to see improved customer loyalty. Your cause-related marketing campaigns are not necessarily the core of your business, so you might not see an initial influx of new customers as a result of these campaigns. Hopefully, however, your customers, employees and other stakeholders will appreciate your sense of commitment and your tangible support for worthwhile causes.

What should a cause marketing campaign NOT look like?

Cause marketing campaigns can be undone by a lack of authenticity or misalignment between the values of a company and its partner organizations.

Even if you have a worthy cause you want to promote, ineffective marketing efforts can easily backfire with your target audience.

It happens.

In the rush to be timely, businesses can make mistakes. Take a look at these cause-related marketing examples as cautionary tales, and learn how to avoid some common pitfalls.

T-shirts from the Starbucks Black Partner Network

This summer, widespread demonstrations about racism and police misconduct swept across the nation. Initial reports indicated that Starbucks refused to allow employees to wear pins or apparel that supported Black Lives Matter. The company eventually reversed course, announcing it would ship T-shirts designed by the Starbucks Black Partner Network to hundreds of thousands of employees.

As many commentators indicated, the corporation’s actions had already created a different narrative, one for which the T-shirt alone may have not been a sufficient response.

The NFL’s “End Racism” end zone

As the football season returned this year, fans noticed the words “End Racism” had been stenciled into the end zones of the field at Arrowhead Stadium, home to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Many viewers found the visual somewhat at odds, since the team name, “Chiefs,” appeared, in much larger letters, right next to the anti-racist directive. The use of Native tropes and imagery in professional sports has been controversial for some time, and given the lack of a clear message about what concrete steps the viewer was supposed to take to “end racism,” it seems safe to say that this message did not achieve its intended outcome.

Pepsi’s “Live for Now” campaign

This commercial was widely derided for oversimplifying the narrative around recent protests. The short film seemed to suggest that civil unrest could be solved by simply sharing a soft drink. Pepsi’s 2017 “Live for Now” campaign appeared to flop so badly, the company wound up essentially apologizing to the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kendall Jenner in the same breath.

Some topics require a great deal of gravity that doesn’t mix easily with certain brand identities. In this case, a quiet press release that disclosed tangible company policy priorities and corporate giving strategies would have made a much more convincing, if smaller, impact than a flashy, misguided ad.

What are some examples of the best cause-related marketing campaigns we’ve seen this year?

Even while they were faced with the challenge of figuring out how to market during a crisis this year, many business leaders managed to pull off interesting and exciting cause-related marketing campaigns. They bolstered their brands by finding nonprofit partners that aligned with their established identities. Think back to our original example: It would be difficult to find a more fitting complement to American Express’s brand than the Statue of Liberty.

In addition to supporting specific nonprofit organizations, successful cause marketing campaigns often are simple and contain a clear call to action for loyal customers and other stakeholders.

We’d also like to acknowledge that any organization can make a mistake when it comes to implementing cause marketing campaigns, so we thought we’d highlight some positive marketing examples from the same organizations we discussed above.

Starbucks steps up to “Fuel Our Democracy”

In addition to integrating voter registration resources into the Starbucks app and their new website, FuelOurDemocracy.com, the coffee giant announced a plan to work with employees on ensuring that they have the resources they need to register and vote on or before election day.

In addition to supporting conversations between managers and employees to verify that workers are all able to vote, the plan also includes advocacy for polling place accessibility and more.

The NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats”

This partnership brings together the NFL, team franchises and individual players to support causes chosen by the athletes. Custom-designed footwear raises awareness for a nonprofit selected by the player. Often, they’ll share a personal story that explores their connection to the issue.

Players can then donate the cleats to NFL Auction. Fans bid on these special items, and proceeds go to the designated charitable causes. There’s a strong alignment between player, team and league brands because of the authentic connection that each athlete has with their chosen charity.

Pepsi and “One World Together at Home”

Pepsi was one of the co-sponsors for Global Citizen’s “One World Together at Home” streaming and broadcast special featuring big-name performers like Jennifer Lopez, Stephen Colbert and Beyonce. The idea was to support the World Health Organization and front-line workers while promoting responsible practices that help slow the spread of the virus, like staying in.

In conjunction, Pepsi launched a related campaign, #StayInWithUs, which included cheeky cross promotions, like a short video from Shaquille O’Neal encouraging viewers to order pizza from Papa John’s and use a Pepsi promo code. The organizers created an air of familiarity and comfort around the essential practice of social distancing during what was an unsettling transition period for many people. Pepsi was able to stick to what it does best while their partners at Global Citizen gave participants in the campaign actionable next steps about how to help fight COVID-19.