Products from soup to nuts will be sporting pink ribbons in October. They're supporting breast cancer research, and the Pink Ribbon campaign is one of the most visible business/charity partnerships around.
These initiatives may be called social responsibility programs or cause marketing, but the idea is the same: to do well by doing good. Helping a charity can encourage customers to purchase and to feel a greater emotional connection to your business.
But if it's not done right, a cause marketing program can fall flat, or worse, backfire.
Social media consultant Chance Chapman of Mercury 11 helped Momma Dean's Soul Food Restaurant develop its Meal for Meal program. For every meal the Fayetteville, Arkansas restaurant sells, it gives another away to someone homeless or living in poverty.
"I ate there regularly for three years, and noticed that Momma Dean was feeding about 10 people a day out of the back door of her restaurant. She had asked me a few times to help her franchise the business, but I suggested that we go one louder and start a community movement instead," Chapman says.
The program paid off with over 2,000 Facebook fans in 30 days, a major increase in sales, donations of volunteer time and clothing from members of the community, and international news coverage by CNN for the restaurant.
Some research shows that there's a strong consumer appetite for products and services with a social good component. A December 2010 study by corporate social initiative consultancy Do Well Do Good found that the average American consumer would drive almost 11 minutes out of the way to buy a cause-marketing product, while consumers who said they were willing to pay a premium would pay an extra $4.53 for a $50 cause-related item. A 2010 study by strategy and communications company Cone found that 41 percent of Americans have purchased a product in the past year because it was associated with a social or environmental cause.
However, as cause marketing grows, so does consumer skepticism. The 2011 MSLGROUP Social Purpose Index found that 74 percent believe that there is often too much of a disconnect between the causes companies support and the brands and products they sell.
"Choose a cause that's a good fit," says Paul Jones, principal of Alden Keene, a marketing and communications consultancy for businesses and nonprofits that specializes in cause marketing. In today's attention-deficit world, he says, "If consumers have to do a lot of mental work to draw the relationship between the cause and the sponsor, they're not willing to do that."
After he sold his software business, Salah Boukadoum wanted to use his money to solve social problems. He invented the Good Returns model and, in 2009, co-founded Soap Hope, an online retailer of body and home cleaning products, to demonstrate it. For the first year, the company invested 100 percent of profits into programs that provide micro-loans to women living in poverty, allowing them to start their own businesses.
In the Good Returns model, before investment returns are paid to shareholders, every dollar first spends one year in service as an interest-free loan to a sustainable social enterprise.
"If you're going to be a socially oriented business, you have to be absolutely committed and consistent with what you're saying you're trying to accomplish for others. It can't just be lip service," Boukadoum says.
Spread the word
Let's be clear: a cause marketing campaign is promotion, so you should work to maximize results as you would any other kind of promotion, Jones advises. If you can get permission, put the charity's logo everywhere you can: print and electronic media, your newsletter, signage and ads.
"The challenge is how to get the message out and find the advocates of the brand to help spread the word," Chapman says. When he began promoting Momma Dean's in 2009, people 55 and older were the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook—as well as the demo that was her best customer.
Chapman cleaned up inconsistencies in branding, such as different spellings of "Momma," to help online searchers and also posted the URL of the Facebook page in the restaurant and within ads.
Businesses that do a lot of advertising will likely get the best results from social-good initiatives, as will pleasure-oriented products, according to a study by Michal Ann Strahilevitz of Golden Gate University. She found that charity incentives work significantly better with products that are perceived as frivolous, such as a chocolate sundae or a cruise. She thinks this is because the emotions of joy and guilt both complement the emotions generated from charitable giving behavior.
Back it up
Once the promotion is over, don't stop promoting it. "You should promote how well you did," Jones says. "It's a chance to get your name out again and tell your story. It does show you in a positive light with the cause again—and it shows that good work was accomplished."
To this end, Soap Hope includes stories of the people it's helped in every customer communication: On the website, the company's mission takes up nearly one quarter of the home page. If you order a bar of soap, it will include an insert that falls out when you unwrap it that explains micro-lending. Your invoice will have a story attached of three women who were helped. When you get a customer satisfaction survey, it will include information on the mission.
Says Jones, "Transparency is a big deal in cause marketing." And helping others is a deal your customers can get behind.
Image credit: HowardLake