Businesses love cause marketing, and the belief is that supporting a good cause translates into stronger sales.
The Cause Marketing Forum has some pretty convincing numbers: In 2009, 72 percent of American consumers said they avoided purchasing products from companies whose practices they disagreed with. Accordingly, two-thirds of brands started engaging in cause marketing in 2010, up from 58 percent in 2009, according to a study by PRWeek and Barkely PR.
Consumers have been taking a healthy shift towards doing good, with 86 percent of global buyers believing that businesses need to place at least equal weight on societal interests as on business interests, according to an Edelman survey. It's not enough to make money—businesses also need to do good.
Okay, so you need to get on the cause marketing train. Unfortunately, the term has received a strange reputation thanks to cries of "greenwashing" and "cause-washing"—the act of hijacking important causes just to sell more stuff.
How do you run a successful cause marketing campaign that reflects well on your brand and also does some serious good? We've got five tips for you:
1. Do your homework
You can't just pull off a cause marketing campaign overnight. It's important to take a look at a several non-profits and causes and make sure that they have enough infrastructure to pair up with your business. This may not seem like a big deal for small business, but if you're Pepsi or Justin Bieber, you need to make sure your non-profit partner can handle the increase in donations and Web traffic without crashing or losing track of funds.
It's also important to properly vet any non-profit to make sure their track record is above-board. Look them up on sites like GuideStar.org or request their financial records so that you know exactly with whom you're going into business. Nothing can deflate your brand faster than launching a campaign that turns out to be a scam.
2. What is your brand about?
Of course, the other part of doing your homework is making sure that the cause matches up with your brand's target demographic and with your brand image. For example, KFC got serious backlash for its partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Many were upset that breast cancer awareness would be associated with an unhealthy food like fried chicken.
By the same token, non-profits need to be careful of their corporate partners. You wouldn't want a heart disease research non-profit accepting money from a cigarette company.
Think of partnerships that make sense. A sports equipment seller could pair up with a non-profit aimed at weight-loss or youth exercise. A technology company could pair up with non-profits focusing on education or startup support in developing countries.
Once you've found a non-profit that matches your brand image and customer base, it's important to give the non-profit organizers a seat at the table, says Susan McPherson, the SVP of Fenton, a business consultancy that specializes in cause marketing and public interest communications. Not only does this show good faith, but the non-profit will know their cause better than you and can give you valuable information about how best to incorporate it into a campaign.
3. Involve your employees
If you business is embarking on a cause-marketing campaign, then your entire team needs to be on board. Talk to your employees about the causes that are important to them and make sure to get them engaged and motivated once you've picked a cause. Some companies offer their employees paid "volunteer" time, allowing them an hour each week, for example, during which they can volunteer at local charities or with the company's partnered non-profit.
Once you've made a partnership, the cause is part of your business strategy. You're not losing money by letting your employees contribute their time.
4. Manage expectations
We've been speaking about cause marketing in terms of a long commitment. Most successful cause marketing campaigns aren't one-offs, but rather sustained, mutually-beneficial partnerships between a business and a non-profit. This will be a less daunting proposition if you've done your homework and found a cause that syncs well with your brand image.
"For a cause marketing campaign or program to be successful, it must be planned and executed as a partnership," McPherson says. "It must not be one-sided, and both the for-profit and non-profit partners must each have a stake to make it successful. Given that, a well-thought out and researched plan with milestones, deliverables and ROI built in needs to be created and agreed to at the get-go."
It's possible to run a one-off cause marketing campaign, but be clear what your goal is: Are you trying to make a difference in the world? Are you trying to sell more product? Are you trying to improve your brand image? These are each valid goals, but keep in mind that consumers are placing more and more emphasis on a business' desire to do good, not turn a profit.
5. If it hits the fan
Sometimes things just don't work out. If a partnership falls apart, it's important for any business to take responsibility to their fans and be honest and transparent about what went wrong. If you find out your non-profit partner isn't doing what they said they would, tell your audience and vow to find a way to keep supporting the cause.
If the partnership just wasn't the right fit, like the KFC example above, tell your audience you made a mistake but stand by the message (being healthier, for example) and find another cause speaks to that message and syncs with your brand (sports training, for example).
Most often, people are turned off by cause marketing because it reeks of marketing lingo and has an uncomfortable PR sheen. Honesty and transparency will help combat this stereotype while drawing in your audience to get behind your chosen non-profit.
Cause marketing is a growing industry, but it can be susceptible to a "business-first" mentality. Anyone undertaking a cause marketing campaign will be fighting an ingrained preconceived notion that brands will just use non-profits to get more cash and fans. But when done properly, these partnerships aren't just about profits and bottom-lines, but about making a real difference and putting brand power behind important issues.
Is cause marketing a win-win or a lose-lose? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Image credit: Daniela Vladimirova