Today's consumer is very aware of the methods companies use to gain their attention and loyalty. So when brands align with causes, the battle for trust has only just begun. Randi Schmelzer reports on the results of PRWeek's first-ever consumer survey, the PRWeek/Barkley Public Relations Cause Survey
Every October for the past 13 years, shoppers at Marshalls department stores have played a role in ending domestic violence, just by filling their carts with clothing, shoes, and household goods. On the day Marshalls hosts its annual "Shop 'Til It Stops" benefit, the retailer donates 1% of all sales from its 700 stores to the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF), providing support to the FVPF's efforts to prevent domestic violence and help victims nationwide.
This year, not only did Shop 'Til It Stops Day generate more than $300,000 to fund public education and training programs, but it also raised awareness among hundreds of thousands of shoppers about the issue of domestic violence against women and children.
"There's no doubt that consumers today are wanting companies today to give back," says Mike Swenson, president of Kansas City, MO-based Barkley Public Relations, AOR for the FVPF. "Companies are understanding it is part of their role to do good, [and] cause programs create opportunities for people to get engaged. When they're done right, nothing but good can come out of these things."
For the first time, this year's PRWeek/Barkley Public Relations Cause Survey polled consumers on their thoughts about the work that companies do - or don't do - to support charitable and social efforts.
The consumer survey was based on a sampling of 225 adults, split evenly between males and females, and divided into three generations of respondents: Generation Y (18-29); Generation X (30-41); and baby boomers (42-60). And the results back up the efforts that companies such as Marshalls make: By a wide margin (87%), all respondents think that it's important for companies to support causes and charities. Women are even more likely to agree: 96% say it's important.
The best at doing good
For any marketers who are concerned that their cause-marketing efforts may be overlooked by consumers, the survey shows that there is a good level of unprompted recall for the companies that truly strive to make a difference.
Consumers were asked to name any corporation that came to mind that did an especially good job of supporting a charity or social cause, and there were 10 companies who received two or more unsolicited mentions.
At the top of the list by a wide margin is Microsoft, which has recently been a part of one of the biggest philanthropic stories of the year when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was the recipient of a $31 billion pledge from Warren Buffett over the next 20 years.
It's clear the headlines linger with consumers, and while many explain in their answers that they are aware of the separation between Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the size of the company made all the efforts admirable. One person, for example, praises Microsoft for "[publicizing] why they support a charity."
While "making a difference on big problems that could have a global impact" is important to consumers, all three age groups clearly prefer to support programs that make an impact in a "tangible and noticeable way in my local community" - results they could see in their own backyards, Swenson says.
Indeed, coming second and third in the list of companies whom respondents praised for their charitable efforts are Target and Wal-Mart, respectively - both of whom are known for their local and community efforts.
Brad Fisher, senior director of the Wal-Mart Foundation, says, "Our philosophy has always been to give back locally to the communities that support us and shop at Wal-Mart stores and at Sam's Club. Since the Wal-Mart Foundation formalized that in the early 1980s, that's helped us focus [these efforts], but prior to that, our stores were already giving back locally."
While Wal-Mart does have some guidelines as to what charitable efforts they will support, it is very much left up to the local stores to discern.
"We drive our volunteerism program [centrally], but we don't necessarily require [stores] to focus on any particular area," explains Fisher. "That's just something that [is decided upon] community by community."
Giving locally is a key component in Olive Garden's Pasta for Pennies initiative, says Jane Grant, partner at Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Pierson Grant Public Relations.
Now in its 13th year, the program encourages teachers and students to become actively involved in their own communities by collecting pocket change at schools on behalf of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society; the school that collects the most change receives an Olive Garden pasta party, as well as prizes such as computers and sports equipment. Last year, Grant says, Pasta for Pennies raised $4.2 million in nickels, dimes, and quarters.
In addition to raising money for an important cause and teaching children the value of charity, Grant says, the Pasta for Pennies program both supports Olive Garden's core, family-focused message and introduces younger generations to the brand. Those components, she says, help the client meet key business goals.
The next three on the list of companies that consumers state are known for supporting a charity or social cause are all well-regarded for their support of a single and/or highly focused cause.
In fourth place is McDonald's, and all the respondents who cite the fast-food giant praise it for its creation and support of the Ronald McDonald House Charities. While this is not the only charitable endeavor McDonald's supports, it is one that has not only a national aware-ness, but a highly localized one, as well, in the communities that are in the houses' neighborhood.
Yoplait, which is tied for fourth, and Avon, in sixth place, are both companies that are closely associated with the extensive work they carry out on behalf of breast cancer research and support.
Also among the top 10 companies are a pair of brands that seemingly have social responsibility in their DNA: Newman's Own (tied for sixth) and Ben & Jerry's (eighth). One respondent, however, does state that while they were aware that Ben & Jerry's was built on a foundation of giving to causes, they were unsure whether the ice-cream company was still functioning in this way since being bought by Unilever.
Helping the comms cause
Cause-related marketing is a big business, according to IEG, a Chicago-based consultancy that tracks corporate sponsorship practices. In the US alone, for-profit businesses spent more than $1 billion in sponsoring nonprofit causes in 2005, up from $733 million in 2001.
For many nonprofits, part of the reason cause marketing is so successful is because it helps expand the group's charitable message outside its established donor base, introducing the nonprofit to a new demographic.
As it did last year, the PRWeek/ Barkley Public Relations Cause Survey also surveyed people working in communications and development at nonprofits to gauge their views on the efficacy of cause-marketing partnerships with corporations. The key tangible benefit of cause-branding programs, they say, is PR results, which can indeed go a long way toward introducing the cause to new audiences.
One example of this is Save the Children, a Westport, CT-based group that in the US works to develop school-based literacy programs among impoverished, hard-to-reach populations like California's Central Valley, Appalachia, and Navajo reservations.
Wendy Christian, head of the group's public affairs and communications team, says that since 2003, Save the Children has partnered with clothing line Rocawear - owned by urban culture mogul Jay-Z - to create an annual line of $20 T-shirts, for which $4 each goes to the organization. This year, literacy-themed shirts will be emblazoned with messages about the importance of reading, and complemented with colorful hangtags explaining Save the Children's mission.
"It's important in today's world for companies to have social responsibilities built right into their business plans," Christian says. "Why select one over the other? Make the world a better place while making a profit."
When it comes to purchasing choices among similar products, a company's perceived social responsibility can be the tiebreaker. The survey results show, in fact, that about two thirds of Gen X and Gen Y consumers have "voted with their checkbooks," says Swenson, "and purchased one brand over another because they know that it supports a cause they believe in."
The survey also shows, Swenson notes, "Generation X is much more skeptical" of corporations' cause-related marketing motivations. And while nearly half of boomers (45%) believe that most companies follow ethical business practices, only 24% of Gen Xers agree.
Further, the nonprofit pros who were polled agree that of all age groups, the group of consumers (and, incidentally, employees) who in their view were the most attracted to their cause-related efforts were the boomers.
"Because Gen X is really now coming into charge and beginning to assert its leadership role, it's interesting to note that the generation is less trusting," Swenson says. Whether it's because of general upbringing or recent corporate scandals, "what that means for cause issues is you have to make sure any type of cause program is very transparent and everyone can see that it is exactly what it says it is."
"To really gain trust among consumers, cause [programs] must be part of the internal nature of an organization, no matter how big or small," says Arlene Fairfield, director of DDB Brand Identity Group. In its recent corporate trust survey, the Seattle firm found that "if a company truly tries to incorporate its social causes into its business purpose, that's where you start seeing success."
Though "what giving back means is going to be different for each company," she adds, more and more, consumers are demanding greater accountability and responsibility from corporations across the board.
"People don't expect a company to be perfect," she says. "They do want to see that a company is making steps in the right direction, owning up to things that it's done in the past, making real corrections along the way. People respond positively to that."
Wal-Mart, for example, is a company that's suffered years of negative press for its employment policies and effect on small businesses. Now, however, it's "making some traction" in the social responsibility arena, says Susan Puflea, SVP in corporate citizenship/social responsibility and change practice at GolinHarris, Los Angeles. "That's starting to resonate with stakeholders and consumers."
Indeed, Wal-Mart is finding that its charitable work, spearheaded by The Wal-Mart Foundation, goes some way to counteracting some of the negative press the corporation inevitable attracts.
"We definitely find that the awareness of what Wal-Mart gives back to the community is an important part of the information [consumers] use to form their perceptions of the brand," says the Wal-Mart Foundation's Fisher. "The customer's knowledge of local efforts [such as Teacher of the Year, volunteerism, and community grants programs] helps balance what others write about."
Says Swenson, "To be viewed in a positive light is a benefit that companies should expect from giving back." And for companies deciding whether they should be getting involved in a cause, it's "a little extra savings in your account, to use in situations [if] you find yourself in trouble."
Despite efforts, some companies will always be burdened with certain challenges or issues by their very nature, says Puflea. Behaving as responsible corporate citizens, though, can be a genuine asset.
Golin client The Dow Chemical Company "is always going to be a chemical company, [and face] the issues that go along with that," Puflea says. But it can do its part to be socially responsible.
From a cause-marketing standpoint, Dow recently partnered with the Blue Planet Run Foundation to launch the Blue Planet Run, a 100-day endurance run to help raise awareness and funds for safe drinking water projects around the world.
Now, Puflea adds, cause marketing isn't a choice. "The expectation from consumers is that all companies need to be doing this," she says. "Consumers do appreciate it, do trust companies more, and are more loyal to those" companies which engage in good corporate citizenship. And the corporations who don't "will fall further and further behind."
Role of celebrities
Another way companies are attempting to gain awareness and trust on the path to good corporate citizenship is with the use of celebrities, says Lisa Paulsen, CEO and president of Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF).
LA-based EIF partners with corporations and brands to bring Hollywood resources together to raise awareness and funds around social and health issues including colorectal cancer, smoking cessation, and women's cancer efforts.
While stars can be "enormously helpful," Paulsen says, "[EIF is always] very careful in identifying performers, careful to make sure that the people involved have a strong knowledge of the cause, and, more often than not, have a personal reason to be involved."
One EIF partner, Merriam, KS-based Lee Jeans, is the sponsor of Lee Denim Day, a nationwide, annual event to benefit breast cancer research. Now in its 11th year, the program has raised more than $66 million, says Liz Cahill, Lee Jeans' director of advertising and PR. Barkley has handled this effort for a number of years.
The concept, Cahill explains, is simple: Participants pay $5 to their employers in exchange for wearing jeans to work on the first Friday in October. With more than 29,000 companies involved - and more than 1 million jeans-wearers - "it's an extremely impactful way to show how your $5 does count," Cahill notes.
This year, Lee worked with EIF to enlist the promotional aid of actor Pierce Brosnan and the entire cast of NBC's The Office, all of whom had been personally affected by breast cancer in some way.
"The celebrity aspect definitely helps," Cahill says. "It makes it so much more personal, above and beyond. If it had been disingenuous, [consumers] could see through that."
"Where the cynicism comes is when companies don't walk the talk," says Lynne Doll, president of LA-based The Rogers Group. She explains that in crafting cause-marketing efforts - such as its nationwide partnership between Safeway and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse - her firm demands corporate commitment "from the president down" to make programs a success.
Effect on employees
Indeed, a strong majority of survey respondents - about 70% - say it's important for the head of a company to be visible in supporting a cause or charity. (Gen Y and Gen X are slightly more likely to agree with that than boomers.)
"It's extremely important; it needs to come from the top levels of the company and extend through the ranks," agrees Pierson's Grant. When the passion comes from the top, she says, it ensures that adequate resources- both financial and emotional - will be applied to the program.
It also means that it will seep into all aspects of corporate culture, helping companies attract and retain good staffers, says Barkley's Swenson. "People have positive feelings about working for socially responsible companies," he says. "We all love to love our jobs."
By a slight margin, survey respondents said they would rather earn less money, but work for a company that's very involved in social causes. Still, according to a 2004 survey on corporate community involvement by Deloitte & Touche, when deciding between two jobs with identical location, responsibilities, pay, and benefits, 72% of employed Americans would rather work for a company that supports charitable causes.
Involving employees in cause-related marketing campaigns can help them feel more connected to the brand and, consequently, make them feel great about where they work, and increase retention and loyalty, regardless of their generation, says Jeff Smith, CEO of LA-based JS2 Communications.
"We have seen this with [client] The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf," Smith says. "They have been involved with The Help Group, a children's nonprofit that focuses on learning disabilities, for years. Likewise, getting team members involved in team-building, community-building exercises can increase productivity."
Save the Children has seen similar results in its internal work with Starbucks, says Christian. In that relationship, employees visit Guatemala to assist in building schools "where the coffee is coming from," then share their experiences with co-workers.
"Building a relationship with the entire corporation allows us to reach out to staff members, make them part of the effort" and develop lasting relationships, Christian says. "It means so much more than a one-time donation, [or] a check arriving in the mail."
Another benefit of developing a holistic cause-marketing relationship, says Scott Pansky, GM and co-founder of Allison & Partners' Santa Monica, CA, office, is that it never has to be "cookie-cutter."
"The more creative the campaign, the more [the company] can engage the consumer and their employees, the better it's going to be," Pansky says. "Even though things are turning pink, things are turning pink in unique ways."
That's a reference, of course, to the Komen Foundation's ubiquitous pink ribbon, the international symbol of breast-cancer awareness, and nonprofit partner of brands from Dirt Devil to M&M's. While there is the possibility of getting lost in the pink, Pansky says, if a corporation is keenly aware of the rationale for its cause marketing, it can stand out.
Companies including Yoplait, Holland America Line, and Campbell's Soup have each found unique ways to differentiate themselves in the sea of pink.
"If you can't own a cause, you need to focus on being able to carve out a niche," notes Swenson.
Owning a cause
David Hessekiel, president of New York-based Cause Marketing Forum, says, "Ownership, in recent years, has really been raised in terms of program sophistication. Twenty-five years ago, the idea of [pairing] a company and a cause was newsworthy" in and of itself. Today, cause-branding efforts must be "more engaging, creative, and well thought-out" - by both the brand and the nonprofit - to generate consumer excitement.
"That doesn't mean you can't have multiple partners for a single cause," he continues. But to be effective and resonate in a crowded field, cause-related marketing efforts must take advantage of previously unattempted opportunities in media, message focus, and execution.
"It's something a lot of companies struggle with, how focused should they be," notes Golin's Puflea. "If you're spread too thin, you may not be able to make as big an impact. Stay focused and stay committed."
While about two-thirds of respondents say it is important for them to know why a company has chosen a particular cause or charity, overall, consumers didn't have a strong preference for a "logical connection between the company and the charity."
"That may be one of those things that's in the subconscious," says Swenson. Logical connections may not be important on the surface, but if a program is "tied to your business, it's easier to make that connection with core customers, attract new customers, and remind loyal customers that there's a reason they're loyal."
The PRWeek/Barkley Public Relations Cause Survey was conducted by PRWeek and Millward Brown. E-mail notification was sent to approximately 15,435 consumers and nonprofit professionals and a total of 292 people (225 consumers and 67 from nonprofit organizations) completed the survey online between August 30 and September 21. Results aren't weighted.
Based on the sample size, the results are statistically tested at a confidence level of 90%. This report provides selected highlights. Full results - offering additional data - are available in PDF format for $150. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org .