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Cause-Related Marketing: Just Plain Ol' Marketing?

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Cause-related marketing is arguably one of the first "fields" that brought the nonprofit and for-profit worlds together for mutual benefit. Appearing at about the same time as microfinance, the first cause-marketing campaign occurred in 1976 through a partnership between Marriott Corporation and the March of the Dimes, a nonprofit that works to prevent birth defects in babies. March of the Dimes' goal was to increase fundraising for its chapters in the Western U.S., and Marriott's goal was to generate cost-effective PR and media coverage for the opening of their family entertainment complex, Marriott's Great America in Santa Clara, Calif. The campaign was a hit. Since then, cause-marketing expenditures by companies have exploded from almost zero in 1983 (when IEG first started tracking cause-related activities in the U.S.) to an estimated $1.57 billion in 2009.

As a member of the Millennial Generation, cause-related marketing seems like plain ol' marketing to me. It's commonplace. I'd guess that most of us have worn pink ribbons in October to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign started by the Susan G. Komen Foundation's Race for the Cure in 1991; or we've sported the iconic yellow silicone wristband for the Lance Armstrong Foundation's LiveStrong campaign launched in 2004; and we've probably bought something from Product Red, a campaign launched in 2006, and most notably promoted by lead singer of U2, Bono, to help fight AIDS. But do most of us know what our easy support of these causes has contributed to? And maybe this is the more important question -- do we truly care about where our money's going when we buy into a cause-related marketing campaign or is it just really good marketing?

Well, in terms of hard cash, these campaigns seem to generate a heck of a lot money for their causes. Product Red and its corporate partners such as Dell, Apple and Gap, to name a few, have contributed more than $140 million directly to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (100 percent of the funds go to programs). The pink ribbons for the Susan G. Komen Foundation raise about $30 million a year through 130 corporate partnerships, and Ford Motor Company executives estimate that they've funneled more than $100 million to the cause over the past 15 years. And what about those yellow plastic bracelets that only Lance could have made cool for boys to wear? The LiveStrong campaign has raised over $70 million for cancer research from those things. Seventy million sold at $1.00 a piece. (Hmm, I wonder how much space that takes up in a landfill.)

So if we put the $1.6 billion that companies spend each year on cause-marketing and the lesser known $7.6 billion per year that large American nonprofits spend on marketing and public relations, we have a fast-growing $9 billion plus sector focused on getting the attention of consumers through cause-related marketing. I'd say this number is something to think about. What type of return on investment does the $9 billion that goes into marketing "for good" generate for its respective causes? And how are we measuring this impact?

Given the load of well-articulated articles against cause-related marketing or "consumption philanthropy", including one by Angela Eikenberry published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review over the summer, I thought it would be nice to hear from the other side on the issue. My friend Simon Isaacs heads up the cause-marketing division for ignition Inc and works with major corporate (think Coca Cola) and nonprofit brands (think United Nations Foundation) to develop and launch global awareness, fundraising and marketing campaigns around issues such as clean water, malaria, HIV/AIDS and education. In fact, in a few days, Simon's off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for clean water with Jessica Biel and Lupe Fiasco in his stead. I thought I'd catch up with him and give him a hard time before he goes on another one of his amazing cause-marketing adventures.

Q: Simon, as someone behind some of the world's most famous cause-marketing campaigns, and, more importantly, as the deeply conscious global citizen that you are, tell me more about how you are changing the world for the better through marketing.

A: Wow, that's nice of you. For the most part, my team at ignition helps large consumer brands to develop and launch cause-marketing campaigns. I am passionate about this work because I believe that consumer brands can serve as catalysts and critical platforms for broad public engagement and support for a cause or organization. But I don't want to overstate the role of cause-marketing. We will not solve the AIDS crisis through the purchase of a t-shirt or find the cure for cancer in the grocery aisle; but we can use the reach and tools available to us as marketers to spark people to get involved and raise awareness for an issue. Not only is cause-marketing proving effective for causes and nonprofits, it's also incredibly effective in driving the bottom line for our clients as the consumer brings their social and environmental values to the market place. This work isn't just about the business of good -- but it's also proving to be very good business. I hope we are changing the world for the better. I know we are trying.

Q: Does cause-marketing always revolve around consumerism? For instance, how do these campaigns help with environmental causes when consumerism is generally bad for the environment? In the past, cause-marketing campaigns have been associated with initiatives by big companies to re-brand their sooty images. Remember BP/Amoco's $200 million PR and advertising campaign in 2002 where they came up with the slogan "Beyond Petroleum" and tried to make us feel warm and fuzzy with a green, yellow and white sunburst logo? Clearly, BP didn't change anything about the fact that they remained an oil company through-and-through, deriving the vast majority of their profits from drilling rig to oil tanker to refinery to gas station which clearly has contributed to a global environmental crisis. However, BP did throw money at green groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, which allowed BP to brand itself with NWF toys and logos. In retrospect it seems naïve that a company would think that by associating itself with a nonprofit or a cause that the consumer would be easily conditioned to believe that the company must be good or, at least, not so bad. Thank goodness the consumer was smarter than those campaigns and could see past the marketing! Since then has anything changed in the way a company spends PR and marketing money to associate themselves with causes? How do we know when a company that says they're supporting a cause is being authentic?

A: We are seeing a major spike in the number of companies and brands integrating environmental or social messages into their corporate communications and advertising campaigns. Too often, these campaigns lack any real credibility. This is what is known as "green-washing" or "cause-washing." Fortunately, consumers are paying close attention and rewarding those who play by the rules and punishing the "sinners" who don't. Consumers don't want to simply be told that a product is "green," they want proof. Winning in this space demands a deep commitment to "proving it" and being open and honest. Put simply, consumers are demanding transparency and authenticity. Last month, a Chase Bank found itself in a world of trouble related to a Facebook campaign they ran. You can check out the drama here. In addition to consumers, governments are now paying attention and regulating these claims -- which is really terrific.

Here are five things consumers need to watch out for:

  1. Fluffy Language: Words like eco-friendly or "good for you", which fail to provide any specific meaning to a claim
  2. Silly Pictures: Suggestive pictures to promote an unjustifiable green image, like flowers in exhaust pipes
  3. Unproven or Irrelevant Claims: Unproven sustainability claims or playing up one green or cause-related achievement of a company's operations, while other areas are lacking
  4. Fake friends: Made-up third party endorsements and labels
  5. Just downright not credible: Promoting the social or environmental benefits of "harmful" products like cigarettes

An authentic and effective cause-marketing campaign is a win-win for the brand and the cause/nonprofit partner. To answer your first question, "winning" for the brand does not necessarily always mean direct sales. It can also be about corporate reputation, brand love or employee engagement, but it does need to connect back to the business.

Q: I definitely see that consumers are becoming more discerning of cause-marketing campaigns. To me, it seems like changes in the way companies approach corporate citizenship are driven by the consumer. Are companies banding together at all to create standards or metrics by which we can measure a "successful" cause-marketing campaign? Are there market leaders -- companies that are pioneering a new brand of corporate social responsibility that comes from within the DNA of the company as opposed to being externally motivated (like PR)? I immediately think of the new B Corporation companies, but I don't believe that any of the multilateral companies you work with are B Corps. Why do you think this is? Can you give me some examples of what you would consider a "successful" cause-marketing campaign?

A: I don't know of any companies banding together on standards. There are, however, cases where companies are creating and publishing scorecards for sustainability commitments. Chevron and Timberland both do a good job here. There are also some efforts to rate individual products. Most of this is on the product or operational sustainability side and less on cause-marketing campaigns and efforts.

The B Corp movement is very interesting. I grew up in Vermont around brands like Ben & Jerry's, Seventh Generation and Stonyfield Farm. These were some of the original B Corps. Companies, like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Walmart, etc are learning a tremendous deal from these smaller brands. Coca-Cola, for example, has begun their Live Positively sustainability journey that is about redesigning the way they work and live to bring sustainability into the DNA of the company and its brands. To do this authentically, it takes a lot of time and a lot of investment. That's why there are not any major multinational B Corps. For me, working bit by bit with the bigger guys to weave sustainability into their DNA is more interesting (and impactful) then working with the "super green" companies who already get it.

There are a lot of cause-marketing campaigns that I find inspiring -- I don't know where to begin. I will say, the best cause-marketing campaigns are those that ladder-up to larger sustainability efforts of the brand, relate to the brand and the target demographic, are brought to life through as many channels as possible (e.g. online, on packaging etc.), are authentic, have significant ROI for the cause and partner organization, and, finally, are a bit of fun.

Q: Hmm I can name a couple of new cause-marketing campaigns I'm fond of. How about the Give a Day, Get a Disney Day campaign? That one's a lot of fun. Beginning January 1, 2010 Disney Parks will commemorate the volunteer spirit with a free one-day admission ticket to a Walt Disney World Resort in Florida or Disneyland Resort in California theme park to the first one million people who volunteer a day of their time. I like that you bring up the concept of ROI (Return on Investment) for cause-marketing campaigns. For this Disney one, it seems pretty straightforward -- 1 million volunteers * 1 day of their time = x dollars contributed to the nonprofits involved. Is that what you mean by ROI?

I also think the Summit on the Summit expedition that you're involved in to raise awareness for the billion people worldwide who lack access to clean drinking water is a pretty cool cause-marketing effort too. You're off to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with a bunch of celebrities, including Jessica Biel and Lupe Fiasco, for the cause in a few days. Sounds like a lot of fun and celebrities definitely bring attention to issues. What's the ROI from this campaign? As a group have you defined some concrete goals for the expedition? I am always curious how much it costs to pull off a big campaign like this versus how much the campaign actually raises for the cause. Have you guys thought about this for Summit on the Summit? How will the group be measuring their impact?

A: The Disney program is beautiful on so many dimensions. It builds upon a growing movement around volunteerism. Yes, the ROI here is huge for ALL who are involved. Disney is creating real value for their nonprofit partners by encouraging their consumers to volunteer, and in doing so, create direct (and hopefully long-term) relationships with those causes. The consumer gets a high level of return by getting something of real value -- a day at the park. And, in addition to the overall reputation gains for Disney's brand, I believe the campaign will channel more people to the parks -- as those who've volunteered will likely bring others who will pay full price (not to mention the in-park food, beverage, accommodation and merchandise). Finally, I LOVE the Give a Day, Get a Disney Day ads -- they are in true brand spirit and fun.

For Summit on the Summit, the return is somewhat different. Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft's Windows are amongst the main sponsors -- and each of these brands is leveraging their support for different purposes. In addition to the return that the sponsors are looking to see, I think it is important to look at the campaign as a continued part of an awareness-raising effort around the water issue. That's really the point here. Water is life -- it is vital to our health, to empowerment of children, to the development of economies, but tragically, one-fifth of the world's population is without clean water. The global community has ignored this problem for far too long. We need to do whatever it takes to raise the bar for awareness on this issue. Through the involvement of people like Jess and Lupe, this issue is popping up for the first time on the pages of mass media magazines such as US Weekly, Okay, MTV, and E! We need to do more of this. When stars started to wear the red ribbon for AIDS awareness at the Academy Awards, there was a massive shift in public awareness and support for the issue, which led to changes in policy and governmental funding for those in need. We need to see the world's most pressing challenges popping up in unconventional places, from Seventeen Magazine to NASCAR, because only together can we make the difference that's required to shift the needle.