When is cause marketing a good idea and when is it not? This is a question that continues to vex client marketers and comms professionals alike. It will be interesting to see how many of the 2017 Christmas campaigns – most of which are launching now – opt for some kind of ‘higher purpose’ and how many simply adopt a merry product or value message.
In recent years some of the most successful festive campaigns have chosen cause-related messages: most notably Sainsbury’s, which in 2014 linked its Christmas messages about the armed forces to its longstanding tie-up with the British Legion; and John Lewis, which addressed loneliness at Christmas with Age UK for 2014’s #ManOnTheMoon’.
For many years, and particularly at Cannes, the standout commercial and corporate campaigns have been those with a higher purpose, from Chipotle’s polemic against industrial farming (‘Scarecrow’) to State Street Global Advisors’ mission on gender diversity (‘Fearless Girl’) this year.
And yet cause campaigns in 2017 have proven a mixed bag. We had Pepsi’s disastrous attempt to take a stance on diversity with a short-lived global campaign featuring Kendall Jenner; and McDonald’s ‘dead dad’ ad addressing bereavement but pulled within days. Even the long-proven Dove Campaign for Real Beauty from Unilever ran into major trouble with two executions that led to opprobrium and subsequent apology. Indeed State Street was later slammed in the US over its own gender pay gap.
And this is the point. Authenticity. If the media can spot any inconsistency between campaign claims and corporate practice there will be a backlash. Such is the level of scrutiny in this social media age that many brands are now deciding it’s not worth the risk. Which is why I expect fewer Christmas campaigns to try ‘purpose’ marketing this year.
It is a shame though. When companies get it right, cause marketing is not only highly effective but can be transformative for that organisation. Campaign for Real Beauty helped almost double Dove’s global sales to $4.8bn from 2003 to 2015. Moreover, it shifted attitudes towards the media’s portrayal of beauty and helped Unilever attract top talent.
At a time when trust in institutions is near rock bottom it is incumbent on organisations to take a lead on a better world. But this must be a fundamental ethical corporate strategy. A cause campaign, like (Buster) the dog, should not just be for Christmas.