You may not be familiar with the term cause marketing, but you’re probably familiar with brands of all sorts touting the Black Lives Matter hashtag or a similar cause they believe in. Brand have participated in cause marketing since 1974 when 7-11 convenience stores issued collectible cups to commemorate the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Since then, many brands seem compelled to align themselves with a cause.

When the cause is chosen with care and aligns with the company’s brand positioning, mission, and vision, it can be a great boost for the company.

However, just because a cause is popular doesn’t mean it’s right for every brand. Before you append that hashtag, add a frame to your company’s profile picture, or drape your website in blue/pink/green/black/or rainbow colors, think carefully. There are many considerations to weigh to ensure that cause marketing supports rather than detracts from your brand.

What Is Cause Marketing?

The original meaning of cause marketing was to align a for-profit brand with a non-profit to support the missions of both. The purpose of cause marketing is to showcase a brand’s corporate social responsibility while simultaneously generating positive feelings in the general public.

There are several benefits that brands receive when they participate in cause-related marketing campaigns.

What Are the Benefits of Cause-Related Marketing?

  • Positive public relations. Consider the Avon 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk, which almost always generates lots of positive publicity for brand. Photos of women of all sizes, shapes, colors and ages walking in solidarity to raise money for their sisters suffering from breast cancer is a powerful image and seen throughout October as walks continue across the nation. This form of cause marketing raises over $115 million annually for breast cancer research.
  • Increased visibility. Along with the positive public relations comes increased visibility, which also boosts the company’s brand awareness among their target consumers.
  • Additional marketing opportunities. How many companies participate in awareness campaigns? Supermarkets are “pink washed” in October as breast cancer awareness month and the subsequent alignment of brands ranging from yogurt to frozen meals takes front and center. Affixing the cause’s pink ribbon, special color, or other visual identifier to a company’s public advertising and marketing helps it stand out and may lead to additional marketing opportunities.
  • Increased sales. Some people prefer doing business with companies that align themselves with specific causes. Goya Foods voices its support for President Trump, and while liberals predicted a slump in sales, the brand experienced a temporary boost as supporters poured into markets and bought canned Goya foods. PetSmart gives local animal shelters space to show pictures (or the actual pets, as in the case of cats) in their stores. If people adopt the pet, they certainly need food, toys, and other equipment for their new family members. Supporting the cause ends up supporting the brand and increasing sales.

Drawbacks to Cause-Focused Marketing Campaigns

There are also several drawbacks to cause-based campaigns.

  • Skepticism: Given how many brands rushed to declare themselves woke, equitable, and fair to all colors/creeds/sexual preferences in 2020 in the wake of the riots and other racial unrest in the United States, it’s no wonder that the public can be skeptical. If a brand’s values and attitudes do not align with the cause, consumers can spot it a mile away. A line of inexpensive clothing produced in Pakistan that suddenly declares itself against the exploitation of workers may get hoots of laughter instead of support because clearly, to produce a $5 t-shirt they aren’t coddling their workers. Similarly, a company known for its antipathy to female workers that suddenly calls itself equitable or voices support for more women on boards of directors is also opening itself to criticism.
  • Money: Consumers also want to know exactly how much money a company does indeed give to support a cause. If they choose a more expensive brand because it supports a cause they believe in, how much of their purchase goes towards the charity?
  • Oversaturation: Too many brands leaping into cause marketing has led to consumers feeling jaded by all the colorful ribbons, slogans, and hashtags. They are overly saturated with messages about problems and how brands support, solve, or stand strong with whatever. It leads to message numbness in the marketplace.
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Choose Your Cause Carefully

Given the pros and cons of cause marketing, brand would be wise to choose their causes carefully.

When I worked for Martin Viette Nurseries, one of the top nursery and garden centers in the nation, their specific ’cause’ was the local Mental Health Association. The company donated the beautiful location on Long Island to host an annual gala.

Now, there is nothing wrong with supporting this charity or another health-related charity if you’re a garden center. It certainly was a great cause. But it did absolutely nothing to support the brand. A charity gala is just one step. To successfully convert the event into a cause marketing campaign, other relationships could have been developed.

  • The garden center may have hosted workshops on how gardening improves mental health, with speakers from the mental health association
  • They may have donated gardening tools, supplies, or landscape design to the local mental health hospital
  • They may have put signs around the nursery during mental health months etc.

Just hosting the gala was one way to align with a cause but not an effective form of brand marketing.

Should You Jump on the Latest Social Cause?

As I mentioned before, many companies leaped before they looked at the cause marketing scene in 2020. They pinned hashtags to their posts, demanded that their employees forswear allegiance to organizations, and promoted their own version of social justice warriorhood to their employees and customers.

There are several problems with this (lack of) strategy, however:

  • Before trumpeting support for any cause through your corporate communications channels and aligning your brand with a cause directly or indirectly, make sure you are completely aware of all of the connotations and denotations of the cause.
  • Ask yourself: Is this cause something that my avatar or target customer would support? You’ll lessen the risk of brand/cause mismatch by taking the time to understand who your target customers are and what they care about (hint: it’s not what YOU care about that matters).
  • Does this cause align with my brand’s mission and vision? If you don’t have a stated brand mission and vision, work on that first before declaring your undying love of a cause.

Alignment Is the Key to Cause Marketing Success

Cause marketing is a powerful way to boost both a for-profit and a non-profit by aligning both together to share a value-driven message. It goes awry when there’s a mismatch and it thrives when both resonate with the target customer. Consider carefully this alignment before jumping on the cause campaign train.