In 1983, American Express launched a national campaign to fund restoration work on the Statue of Liberty in preparation for its 1986 centennial celebration: Every time existing customers used their cards, Amex donated one cent to the Statue of Liberty Restoration Fund. The campaign raised $1.7 million, resulted in a 45% increase in new cardholders, and is considered by many to be the first cause-related marketing program. Many companies have since followed suit, developing programs to support causes ranging from breast cancer research to poverty to education.
So, as cause marketing prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the question for companies isn't whether they should develop a cause-related program. Countless surveys, including PRWeek's annual Cause Survey, have shown that consumers view companies that support causes more favorably than those that don't, their buying decisions are influenced by a company's commitment to cause, and they believe companies are obligated to give back to the community in some way.
Instead, companies need to figure out how to create a cause-related program that will truly stand out, especially as the "ribbonization" of America continues. Slapping a logo on a product or presenting a big check in times of need is not enough. Consumers are increasingly skeptical of corporate motives behind supporting a cause, so cause-related programs must show both authenticity and sustainability in order to resonate with consumers and inspire them to take action.
This year's PRWeek/Barkley PR Cause Survey (see page 16) found that corporate marketers consider consumer engagement the most important part of a cause-related program. This isn't surprising considering that some of the most successful cause programs today - Yoplait's "Save Lids to Save Lives" or the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women," for example - call for consumer engagement.
But there is another component of cause programs - one that may sometimes be overlooked - that is just as important: employee engagement.
It's a subject that came up during PRWeek's first-ever Cause Roundtable, which assembled a group of agency, corporate, nonprofit, and media professionals to discuss the state of cause marketing and where it can go from here. Eva Blum, SVP and director of community affairs at PNC Bank, recalled that when the company was trying to find a cause to support, it began by surveying employees, who overwhelmingly replied, "Children and education." And so, PNC's "Grow Up Great" program - a 10-year, $100 million commitment to help prepare children for school - was born.
And just as a cause-related effort can boost a company's reputation among consumers, it can also do the same among employees. In fact, as Kathy Rogers, VP of cause initiatives and integrated marketing for the American Heart Association, noted during the roundtable, companies should not think of consumers and employees as two different audiences; all employees are consumers, and all consumers can be potential employees. With the need for good talent stretching across industries, those programs that can resonate with consumers - and in the process inspire a company's employee base or recruit new staff - are the ones that ultimately benefit everyone.