Cause marketing moving surely from feel-good to must-have item

As a journalist covering the PR industry, I'm astounded at the number of cause marketing programs currently in the marketplace. Every week, it seems, PRWeek covers a new campaign related to a worthy cause - from cancer research and ending poverty to the environment and education.

As a journalist covering the PR industry, I'm astounded at the number of cause marketing programs currently in the marketplace. Every week, it seems, PRWeek covers a new campaign related to a worthy cause – from cancer research and ending poverty to the environment and education.

As a consumer, it can be confusing – and often overwhelming – to be confronted with, say, a sea of pink each October, as every company out there – from cosmetics companies to office products suppliers – seems to support the breast cancer effort in some way. This is not a bad thing; it's great that so many companies are willing to support causes. But with all of that “competition” in the marketplace, it makes one wonder: Now can a cause marketing program cut through the clutter and actually impact purchasing decisions and brand reputation?

It's a question PRWeek has addressed for five years with its annual cause survey. This year's PRWeek/Barkley Public Relations Cause Survey (p. 15) took that question a bit further. For the first time, in addition to sampling the usual group of senior PR and marketing professionals, we polled the consumer group that's often the target of cause marketing initiatives – women, specifically about 500 of them, split evenly between those with children and those without.

Given the state of the economy, that issue will be a focal point of the study. Both corporate respondents and consumers were asked how the economy would affect their company and personal involvement with causes. Surprisingly, 72% of companies with cause programs reported continuing those programs despite the sagging economy. But, the impact was different on the consumer side, with 22.8% no longer donating to charities and 25% cutting back on their giving to all charities.

This underscores a key point of PRWeek's second annual Cause Roundtable – that the corporate commitment to cause must be consistent to provide ROI for both the cause partner and corporate sponsor. The companies attending the roundtable, all of whom are long-term supporters of causes ranging from cancer research to domestic violence, emphasized this. Liz Cahill, VP of marketing at Lee Jeans, which has supported “Lee National Denim Day” for the past 13 years, probably put it best when she said, “Putting your logo on something – your consumer is going to see straight through that. They're going to know it's not authentic, that there's not the genuine commitment, and then there's the false sponsorship of something.”

As consumer spending drops and companies struggle to maintain brand loyalty, cause marketing should be viewed as a valid business strategy, not a marketing tactic that's also “nice to do.” Like digital initiatives and green PR, it's now a necessity. And like most marketing initiatives, the key is consistency and authenticity.

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