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Step up or step back: six essential lessons in cause marketing

August 2014

Consumer scepticism and expectation of institutions is at an all-time high, and prominent brands are under more pressure than ever to do good… and prove it, writes Andrew Pederson.

As BP and Nike have learned, anybody with a creative idea and a few spare minutes can create a brand manager’s social media nightmare, and companies like KFC and Chevron have found out the hard way that consumers are increasingly likely to punish companies for missteps, even (perhaps especially) when the brand’s intentions are “good.”

The standards are now higher, and there is good reason to take a second, third and fourth look at the rapidly multiplying efforts to follow Bruce Burtch’s now famous exhortation to “do well by doing good.” But how do we know whether or not a cause marketing campaign will pass critical public examination? The six qualities below are good litmus tests to see whether a campaign is more “marketing” than “cause.”

At risk campaigns:

  • Spread resources too thinly over a large number of unrelated activities
  • Expect a huge sales return instead of intangible brand equity
  • Provide an initially high level of support that cannot be sustained over time

Many organizations simply try to do too much with too little and communicate too much about too many different things. This is risky when many might disagree with the fundamental premises of a brand’s underlying business, i.e., that it exploits non-renewable resources, produces large amounts of carbon or hazardous waste or contributes to obesity or exploitation. Before beginning, it is important to ask, “Does this activity address the root cause of an important issue linked directly to the brand?”

Further, many campaigns attempt to define success by linking the amount of money raised to the number of products sold. This is wasted effort, as the campaign should focus on addressing the root cause of an important issue rather than fundraising or selling more product. If the effort is sincere and successful, count on those who benefit to promote the brand when and where it’s appropriate.

As well, campaigns that rely on large upfront cash commitments are often simply trying to do damage control or hedge against future risk rather than make a considered and intelligent investment to make significant change in the world. Once the issue becomes less prominent, initial goals can fade into the background, only to become liabilities once more in the future. As a final check, it’s important to ask, “Does this campaign set achievable goals over a reasonable time frame?”

While cause marketing has been in vogue for a number of years, IEG projected earlier this year that corporate spending on cause sponsorships will slow to 3.4% YoY growth to an expected $1.84 billion in 2014. This slowdown is likely due to difficult lessons from less successful campaigns and the high costs of quality campaigns. When successful, however, the results are enviable, as Charity Water and RED’s respective celebrity-studded breakthroughs show.

Like Charity Water, successful campaigns:

  • Report directly from the field, linking specific individual examples and general trends
  • Focus on one strategically relevant and proven intervention that can scale
  • Engage reputable experts in the field

Corporate transparency and reporting are still very new and underdeveloped practices, and though most consumers don’t yet have the patience or desire to comb through hundreds of pages of .pdf reports, mobile devices will soon transmit the current reality of any part of any supply chain to whoever is interested in viewing it. Well-designed cause marketing programs with nothing to hide will be able to adapt easily, while competitors who rely on traditional brand communications and mass-media-driven fundraising will be exposed.

No single organization can unilaterally solve even one complex social problem completely, and yet brand and corporate commitments often spread time, money and other resources thinly across a broad portfolio of geographies and topics. Focus, whether on a smaller number of more effective implementing partners or on a single direct investment, is critical to get the most out of scarce resources and avoid later disappointments. Rather than spread smaller contributions across a vast array of nonprofit grantees or field initiatives, campaigns should focus on one relevant issue, ideally the root cause of a significant issue directly related to the production or consumption of the brand’s product.

Cause marketing campaigns often lead companies out of their areas of core competency, and nobody is expecting major brands to become experts in poverty reduction or water policy overnight, if ever. Patagonia’s approach, for example, covers every aspect of their core business, garment manufacturing, yet does not stray into lofty discussions about poverty reduction or infrastructure development. Quite the contrary, brands should find the most capable person or organization in the desired field, let them lead and provide all the necessary support rather than attempt to implement in the field.

Charity Water is an excellent case study in all these respects, and this high standard is what every other cause marketing campaign should strive for.

If a brand is unable to step up to these expectations, then it should step back and let others lead. Coca-Cola, are you listening?

Global | Marketing

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