The practice of cause-related marketing has evolved significantly over the last decade, as has sentiment about corporate America's role in driving positive change. Consumers, employees, and other key stakeholders expect companies to consistently engage in cause-related activities in ways that are meaningful and have long-term impact.
“The passion individuals and companies are showing toward social impact is increasing,” says Craig Bida, EVP of cause branding and nonprofit marketing at Cone Communications. “In 1993, 66% of people found it acceptable for companies to involve a cause or issue in their marketing. That figure rose to 88% in 2010. Companies are leveraging commitments to positive societal impact to create business advantage.”
The 2011 Cone/Echo Global CR Opportunity Study reveals 94% of consumers want to see more of the products, services, or retailers they use support worthy social and environmental issues. It also revealed that 94% would be likely to switch to a brand associated with a good cause when price and quality are about equal and 93% would boycott a company for irresponsibility – indeed, 56% already had.
What consumers care about
Supporting causes that are important to audiences and still align with brand identity is essential. The 2011 study also finds that if a company supports the issue consumers find most important, the likelihood of consumers to trust and recommend it, make purchases, and demonstrate loyalty to the company all increase. Their likelihood to want to donate their own money (or volunteer) and to work for such companies also increased. The most important issues to consumers were economic development and the environment. The former took priority when they were asked to choose only one.
There are several notable trends in cause marketing, the biggest being an expansion beyond just transactional programs and the use of social media to amplify awareness, engagement, and emotional connection.
Beth Ruoff, MD, strategy and planning at Ogilvy PR Worldwide, says purely transactional programs aren't sustainable options, but are part of the larger solution.
“Corporations are committing to a cause for a longer period of time than ever before,” she explains. “You can't just solve a problem by pulling in money. Companies know that. The last thing you want is to give a nonprofit money just so you can put their logo on products. Clients want to be part of the solution. They want to see the impact, understand where their dollars are going, and carve out a unique space they can own.”
A good example is Huggies, for which Ruoff helped establish a program that addresses diaper need among low-income families. There are transactional elements and social media elements, but the brand also committed to a more sustainable solution by helping found nonprofit The National Diaper Bank Network last November and kicking off the effort with the help of Grey's Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo.
Microsoft and Nature Valley view cause-related marketing as more than transactional. Microsoft is focusing on creating opportunities for youth, which senior director of citizenship marketing Ken Ryals notes is a global issue tied to GDP growth and jobs.
“Many years ago it was transactional, more of a point-in-time approach,” he explains. “Now we focus on cause-marketing efforts that are more continuous and connected.
Thinking about audiences and what causes are most important to them is critical to success because it's about creating an emotional connection. When we launch Microsoft stores, we seek to create a connection with local communities beyond a transactional approach.”
Ryals says the company ties in store openings with large-scale donations to local schools and charities. Microsoft has donated more than $1 million through 14 store openings and maintains relationships with local nonprofits and schools that drive social benefits to local communities.
Late last year, Yoplait kicked off its latest Save Lids to Save Lives campaign by promoting the fact that people can generate funds for their community and directly support women in their area. Redeemed Yoplait lids will be tracked by ZIP code, so funds generated through local lid collections support breast cancer programs in the same community. The campaign now also allows people to dedicate a lid to someone they know.
Nature Valley focuses on nature causes, which marketing manager Scott Baldwin says align with the brand's principles and values, as well as with consumer priorities.
Since the Nature Valley National Parks Project debuted in 2010, the brand has donated more than $800,000 to the National Parks Conservation Association funding projects in multiple parks by asking consumers to enter online a UPC barcode found on specially marked boxes. The program uses social media engagement that's rich with videos and photos and a sweepstake with National Geographic.
“It's not like we just want you to buy a box and that's the last you'll hear of it,” Baldwin says. “We want people to see where the money goes and what it accomplishes. Social media is the meat of how we talk to people about the way we support this cause. It absolutely can't be an afterthought.”
Ryals says social media is “absolutely critical” to Microsoft's cause marketing success and he agrees it must be strategically planned. Facebook and Twitter engagement drove significant buzz and results last year for Xbox's Gaming and Giving for Good event in which participants raised money for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals through collecting donations for each hour of video-game play on October 1.
Through a partnership with Give Back Hollywood, celebrities tweeted and played Xbox games at the American Music Awards, while live streams and videos of them playing were posted to Xbox's Facebook page, which reaches more than 15 million people. Microsoft donated to the hospitals on behalf of the celebrity who generated the most tweets.
“We were able to drive significant likes, comments, and shares, all of which helped spur greater engagement and impact,” he says. “An isolated event or isolated social media outreach wouldn't have generated nearly as good results. An unexpected spillover was that audiences including mommy bloggers really spoke positively about the effort. It's an example in which we drove increased product engagement, a deeper connection with gaming enthusiasts, and shaped perceptions – all helping us connect with broader audiences at an emotional level.”
MWW Group's Alissa Blate, EVP and global practice director of consumer lifestyle marketing, notes social media is particularly effective for idea exchange, determining what a brand's audience wants, and for creating relevant content. She adds that it also enables consumers to get involved without the pressure of time and a big commitment.
Social media has allowed for dialogue that wasn't possible before, says Cone's Bida, who cites Pepsi Refresh and the American Express Members Project, two social media programs that solicit ideas from consumers.
Both efforts also exemplify the trend of letting consumers choose among a number of causes. Ogilvy's Ruoff calls it “crowd-sourcing philanthropy.” Microsoft's Bing Rewards program, which allows participants to use points to donate funds to various charities, is another example.
Many high-profile cause-marketing efforts focus on driving jobs, including Starbucks' and Opportunity Finance Network's Create Jobs for USA program and the 100,000 Jobs Mission. Time Warner Cable, recognizing the needs of its own workforce and US education, is using both assets and in-kind donations to help improve children's proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and math through its Connect a Million Minds initiative.
In terms of challenges, Blate notes it can be tough to infuse a cause and a program throughout a company, but several MWW clients are actually using cause to define corporate culture. For example, the agency helped Jimmy Dean establish a partnership with Share Our Strength and a five-year commitment to the No Kid Hungry campaign, which Blate says aligns with the brand's new “Delivering Great Days” positioning. An internal communications program launched in November 2010 to engage staff in numerous activities to promote and support the campaign.
“In the most successful cause-marketing campaigns, the initial – and most important – ambassadors are a company's employees,” Blate explains. “Cause must be interwoven into corporate culture. It's important for companies to take the bottom-up and top-down approach.”
Jimmy Dean began the first external push at the BlogHer conference last August. A transactional element will launch this year.
As more and more companies are getting involved in causes, standing out can be a big challenge.
“You stand out by finding a niche or piece of the larger issue you can own,” Ruoff suggests. “If you can't find a cause that no one else is doing, find one that aligns and figure out a way to address it in a unique fashion.”
Blate concurs, noting that while a cause might not be ownable, programs and platforms can be. “Hunger is very crowded and there are a lot of supporters for No Kid Hungry, so it was critical to own a platform that differentiated the Jimmy Dean brand. We're doing that by not being just transactional.”
Ryals says Microsoft's biggest challenge is having so many distinct brands, audiences, and business goals.
“We're working closely with our business groups to drive efforts that support the specific theme of creating opportunity for youth,” he notes. “It's around picking a theme, socializing it around the company so there's senior-level support, and helping business groups plug into the cause.”
Cause-marketing programs that are authentic, “heart and mind opening,” strongly linked to the brand, and that clearly express impact will always stand out, says Bida.
“If there's no substance to cause efforts, it can be destructive to the brand, partners, and issues,” he adds. “Getting companies to ask the right questions is vital,” as is building robust company/cause relationships, agreeing on a shared goal, and creating programs to meet them.
While it's relatively easy to measure success in transactional cause-related efforts, sales aren't always the primary goal. Bida says some CEOs “aren't counting” and some companies engage in cause simply because it's the right thing to do and part of their culture.
Blate stresses that defining success and establishing effective measurement of the partnership and program up front is the most important thing.
“We're learning more about how to use [cause marketing] in different ways to drive different outcomes,” Ryals says. “Bing Rewards and the ability to donate through it is a way of bringing in users and creating greater affinity and stickiness. [Gaming and Giving for Good] was driving awareness and deeper-level engagement from target audiences. We can track those numbers based on traditional and social media impressions, as well as on particular online audience participation, engagement, and feedback.”
Success of the Nature Valley Parks Program is measured in numerous ways, including boxes sold, share of market, traditional and social media impressions, and number of online UPC barcode entries. Comparing 2011 to 2010, Baldwin reports UPC entries were up more than 200%, media impressions rose 74% to 275 million (on the same PR spend), and social media engagement was up 33%.
“I've seen a change in how important it is for people to go to a company where social good is being done,” says Baldwin. “I talk about the parks cause a lot when I recruit. The National Parks Project has also strengthened the loyalty of our team. You want to feel you stand for something meaningful in addition to just taking home a paycheck.”
Bida says consumers expect companies to apply assets, as well as time and money, to drive positive change, and they view companies as perhaps having a greater ability to do this than governments. The vast majority of consumers – 93% according to the 2011 Cone/Echo study – believe companies have made at least some positive impact on the world. One quarter say impact has been significant.“Look how far we've come from a time in which companies just wrote checks,” Bida says.
Healthy relationships with Feeding America
Feeding America engages with corporate partners in several ways, including custom campaigns specific to a partner's brand and Feeding America proprietary initiatives, such as Hunger Action Month.
“We want mutually beneficial relationships,” says VP of corporate partnerships Leah Ray. “It's about a company hitting marketing or business objectives and
Feeding America continuing to raise awareness and provide meals. Relationships where we walk step by step from idea to execution are the ones that work.”
Criteria for Partnering
• Lead with the issue of domestic hunger
• Incorporate Feeding America's branding
• Create a call to action tied to donated meals
• Use partnership lock-up: “Together We're Feeding America”
Keys to Success Include
• A distinct, concise, compelling call to action
• A motivating consumer concept
• Marketing investment (in-store and consumer)
• Building strong, long-term partnerships
• Leveraging a big stage to get the message out