The high fives and facepalms of cause marketing in 2019

Some of last year's campaigns were gems, while others were more questionable says Meredith Ferguson, MD at DoSomething Strategic.

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Getty Images

It is increasingly common to read headlines about young people looking for brands to take a stand on key social issues and lead with purpose. They expect it; some 58% say a brand's association with a social cause or platform impacts their likelihood of purchasing its products.

The majority of brands have wised up to the benefits of cause marketing and it’s no wonder; research shows that purpose-led brands grow at two times the rate of other brands.

Not surprisingly, the growth of cause marketing has been explosive with brands scrambling to communicate that they are deserving of consumer’s purpose-seeking dollars. That growth has generated a number of campaign gems but also campaigns that make you ask yourself, "What were they thinking?"

The goal of these campaigns may have been well intentioned, but the execution often fell flat or, at worst, defeated the purpose entirely. Here is my roundup of the biggest cause marketing high fives and facepalms of 2019.

High Five, Patagonia: Patagonia gets a high five for its decision to close for business on September 20 in support of the Global Youth Climate Strike. The company took it a step further with a campaign that highlighted prominent youth climate activists and ended with a direct call to action for consumers suggesting they contact their representatives and get involved in other tangible ways.

Facepalm, Burger King: For Mental Health Awareness month, Burger King launched its #FeelYourWay campaign, which included "real meals" like the "Pissed Meal" and the "DGAF Meal." It was an attempt to convey the message that it’s okay not to feel happy all the time.

The campaign was a conversation starter for sure. But without a call to action it was unclear what consumers could do about the issue, other than purchase a sad burger with a side of anxiety fries. If you're talking about mental health, you need to include resources for those who might be struggling, which this campaign initially failed to do.

Because of that lack of substance — underscored by criticism from Burger King employees about the company’s mental health policies — the campaign came across as an inauthentic marketing ploy that seemed to make light of a big issue.

High Five, Ben & Jerry's: When they released the Justice ReMix’d flavor, Ben & Jerry’s did more than simply slap purpose on an ice cream carton. They also spent $1.2M on Facebook ads to promote criminal justice reform and support the efforts of organizations like Color for Change.

Ben & Jerry’s checked all the boxes; they created a great product while demonstrating a commitment to the cause and offering people a way to take action (on their website) by joining other consumers supporting this cause.

Facepalm, Dior: As our population becomes more diverse, it’s a no-brainer that brands will attempt to reflect that diversity in their marketing. But sometimes the attempt can be a total miss. Case in point: Dior’s male cologne Sauvage.

The product’s marketing campaign was said to be "an authentic journey deep into the Native American soul in a sacred, founding and secular territory." Yet the backlash was swift on this one for using Native American motifs along with the word ‘Sauvage.’ Take this as a lesson in cultural appropriation 101.

High Five, Cottonelle: Now this commercial gets all the feels. Cottonelle took a common and shared human anxiety of meeting your partner’s parents to make a commercial about toilet paper that featured a gay couple.

But the ad isn’t about being gay; the product is the hero here. This isn’t Pepsi at the front lines of a protest, this is just an ad showing a real couple using a real product.

Representation is done right when it reflects the diversity of the audience without making it about the diversity of the audience. And, even more impressive, the brand stood strong in the face of homophobic Twitter trolls.

Facepalm, Adidas: For Black History Month, the brand decided to release an all-white shoe. Now, color aside; what was more problematic was the shoe’s name, ‘Ultraboost Uncaged’ which might be a strong competitor to Dior in the regrettable names category. The shoe was pulled shortly after release due to intense criticism.

High Five, Mattel: The last high five goes to Mattel for releasing gender neutral dolls. Gen Z is over gender norms and according to the Pew Research Center, almost 60% of young people believe forms that ask about gender should include options besides man or woman."

This is the Mattel audience, and the brand rightly knows you can’t design products that don’t reflect your audience. They’ve stepped up and stood up to expand beyond those man or woman boxes. Bravo.

The ultimate 2019 facepalm: Dunkin' Brands: Last and certainly least, Dunkin’ takes the prize for the biggest facepalm of 2019 for trying to counter the cause marketing movement.

"We are not Starbucks, we aren’t political," Dunkin’ VP of product Drayton Martin reportedly said at the 2019 International Trademark Association meeting. "We don’t want to engage you in political conversation, we want to get you in and out of our store in seconds. It’s donuts & ice cream — just be happy." Sigh, we wish!

The reality is the responsibility of brands has changed. They have incredible power to shape and change society as we know it. And so we’re looking to them to do something.

You don’t need to blanket every coffee cup with a different cause. But don’t dismiss purpose as a trend. If you do, you might be a goner. Don’t take our word for it. To quote Matthew McCarthy, Ben & Jerry’s CEO: "Go like hell after purpose. Businesses that don’t do the thing they set out to do and tackle a real social challenge may actually be dead, they just don’t know it yet."

Meredith Ferguson is managing director of DoSomething Strategic, the social impact consulting arm of which helps brands engage young people around purpose. Ferguson is also an adjunct professor of Public Interest Marketing at Fordham University.

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