Cause Marketing Works

Apr 18, 2013 9:45 AM ET

by Mike Swenson, President of Crossroads

The era of consumer participation has clearly arrived. With enough blog posts daily to fill The New York Times for the next 19 years, consumers have a voice — and social, digital and mobile technologies will continue to enable their participation.

Nielsen reports that smartphones now account for more than 50 percent of the U.S. mobile phone market and of course that number continues to climb.

This has big implications for marketing communications, especially when it comes to cause marketing campaigns, and it’s just one of three core reasons Cause Marketing is more important than ever before:

  • Consumers Have a Voice – As noted above, consumers are adopting social technologies in record numbers. They can connect directly to other consumers and the brands, which wasn’t possible 20 years ago. They are expressing themselves both online and in their shopping patterns. According to a recent Nielsen Global Online Survey on Business Ethics and Fair Trade, well over 80 percent of the world’s Internet users think it is very or somewhat important that companies implement programs to improve the environment (88 percent) and/or society (84 percent).
  • It’s the Economy, Stupid – Consumers care about the companies that support the causes that matter to them. More importantly, many consumers are less financially secure and are looking for brands they purchase to join them in making contributions to charitable causes. Brands that do will be rewarded. Studies continually find that anywhere from three out of four to four out of five consumers will consider a brand they don’t normally buy if it supports a cause. And two out of three say they will pay more for a brand that supports a cause.
  • Commoditization and Lack of Differentiation – As more copycat brands appear and the functional benefit gaps decrease between brand innovators and followers, the emotional connections that brands can create with participants become even more critical. The best way to create those emotional connections is with cause marketing.

Let’s look at the seven rules of cause marketing:

Rule #1: Start by Listening to Your Core Audience (Participants)
Companies should start by taking a look at what matters most to their core customer, not their CEO. It’s not that the CEO shouldn’t have a voice, but good old-fashioned research should be your top priority. Most customers will be with the company longer than the CEO.

In addition to your ongoing consumer research, conduct a comprehensive social media audit to find out what is being said about your brand online. This audit will provide insights that will help you determine which causes really resonate with your consumer.

Once you have your baseline audit, begin regular social media monitoring to stay on top of consumer conversations. At this juncture, you should also develop a strategy for engaging with customers in social media proactively as well as reactively.

Rule #2: The Cause Program Must Connect Emotionally
As most CMOs have seen, competitors will always try to copy your products’ functional attributes and benefits. Gatorade and Powerade might have similar hydration capabilities, but the brands may have completely different emotional connections with their consumers. An effective cause marketing program can cement these brand connections, creating stronger consumer loyalty. Two out of three (66 percent) of American consumers claimed they would purchase a brand that supported a worthy cause, according to the Nielsen Global Online Survey on Business Ethics and Fair Trade.

Rule #3: If Your Program Is in a Silo, It Will Likely Fail
Too often companies put cause marketing on a checklist without looking at how they will integrate it into their marketing efforts, employee communications or even packaging. The best programs communicate with the appropriate audiences in the appropriate channels and don’t sit in a separate team that isn’t integrated into the core brand activity. Corporate leadership is essential in making sure that support and marketing of the cause permeate the entire organization.

Don’t forget that your employees can be the most valuable advocates you have in promoting your cause initiatives. Make sure they are well informed and invested in the program. People want to work for companies that care. Cause marketing is becoming a critical strategy to create a motivated workforce.

Rule #4: Start with ROI Metrics
Before you launch your cause marketing program, you must have a conversation about ROI. Not everything you do will impact the bottom line, but increased customer loyalty clearly matters. Companies utilize many measurements for their cause programs, and these three often bubble to the top:

  • Purchase intent
  • Brand preference
  • Employee engagement

No matter what kind of cause program you ultimately choose, it is vital to discuss and formalize your metrics before you can engage in a thorough planning process.

Rule #5: Consumers Want to Participate
Pepsi Refresh was a great example of a program that enabled a high level of low-effort consumer participation.

Here are five tips for ensuring consumer participation:

  1. Toot your own horn. Don’t hesitate to promote your cause program and let your customers know how they can get involved. Make sure you spread the word via all your available marketing channels.
  2. Empower consumers. Let consumers guide you in developing a program that resonates with them and makes sense for your brand. Make them aware they have a stake in the success of the program.
  3. Keep it simple. The more steps you add to the process, the fewer consumers will follow through.
  4. Help consumers spread the word. Word of mouth can be your most powerful ally. Give consumers the ability to tell their friends about their participation via one click e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other means.
  5. Be transparent. Consumers want to know where the funds are going and how they will be used.

Rule #6: Mirror Images, Not Mere Images
You must be a mirror image of your brand’s truths, not a mere image.

Creating mirror images is a lot easier than trying to make mere images hold up over time. If you aren’t sure that what you are saying will be true about your brand in five years, then you’d better rethink whether it is a truth. Consumers have enough tools to kill a program that isn’t built on “being real.”

If you are going to play in the cause space, then walk the walk. It’s vital you choose a cause that is compatible with your known business practices, corporate culture and reputation. Consumers will be alert to any disconnect between your cause message and the realities of your business, and they won’t hesitate to speak up.

Rule #7: A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Will Not Work
A cause branding program that works well in the United States has no guarantee of being equally successful in China or Italy. Consumers in different markets are markedly different in their use of social media and their interest in cause marketing.

An article in the Harvard Business Review quoted data from the Trendstream Global Web Index that spelled out significant differences in online behavior between various cultures. For example, Chinese and Indian Web users are three times more likely to microblog than American users and twice as likely to share videos, whereas Western users (North America, Europe and Australia) are more active when it comes to photo sharing and managing social network profiles.

The fact of the matter is that a successful cause program in the United States may need to be materially different to impact consumers in other regions of the world.

A carefully planned and executed cause marketing program can have significant tangible and intangible benefits for a brand.


Mike Swenson