What can Vodka Do for Social Impact? Cause Marketing and Why It's a Good Thing

04/28/2016 03:25 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2017

Cause marketing - where brands associate themselves with a non-profit cause to entice you to buy their product - is nothing new. In fact it probably hit the mainstream in the early 80s - American Express coined the term cause related marketing in a campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty.

When you bought a pair of Rockport Shoes, you were supporting the Rockport Walking institute. When you bought Pampers diapers, you could vaccinate a child.

And then it seemed it went out of fashion - maybe it had a little to do with some of the scandals re. child slavery in the shoe and garment supply chain or contaminated milk. What these brands did in terms of good was only marketing really, and some of them used that to hide the bad they were doing, or so the cynics said.

Corporate social responsibility and sustainability emerged as thoughtful antitheses to cause marketing, with detailed reports of carbon emissions and community involvement, with fair trade certifications and anti-slavery coalitions.

Today, corporates go further and it's all about shared value where a business aligns the core of its operations to do good while making a profit. Social and environmental impact is moving out of the marketing or communications department and into the real meat of the business, although that's only for the most advanced businesses.

Yet, in this era of shared value, cause marketing is having a comeback. It mostly started with TOMS. For one pair of nice slip-on canvas shoes you buy, a pair of shoes is given to children in need. They've now distributed over 50 million shoes. Every pair of eye glasses you buy at Warby Parker, funds the cost of sourcing the equivalent number of glasses by their non-profit partners trained to give eye exams. They've now distributed over a million pairs of glasses to people in need. From the beginning, cause marketing was core to these brands' marketing strategies, and have seemingly helped them achieve great success. Now these 'Buy One, Give One' models are popping up all over the place.

Much has been said about the TOMS model, with a lot of criticism regarding TOMS destroying the local shoe industries in poor countries, and whether the shoes given out were actually having an impact in the children's lives. And this may partly explain why TOMS has revised its business model for other products it sells, for example coffee: for every TOMS Roasting Co. product you purchase, TOMS will help provide safe water to a person in need.

Despite potential misgivings, I do on balance believe the 'Buy One, Give One' renewal of cause marketing is great overall, if it's done in the right way.

Absolut Elyx, Absolut's premier vodka, is a very interesting example of some of the things you can do right in cause marketing. It's an interesting example because you would not necessarily say 'what can a vodka brand do in terms of social and environmental impact?', but that's exactly what Tom Roberts, Director of Social Impact at Absolut Elyx sought to answer. For every bottle of Absolut Elyx sold, their partner NGO, Water for People will provide a week's supply of water for someone in need. More broadly, the five year partnership aims to provide sustainable water for 100,000 people. Here are a few reasons why I think this model works well:

1. Tom thought long and hard about the values of the brand, and since the beginning found that social and environmental impact was truly a part of the brand's DNA. He went back to the history of Absolut in the 80s when the vodka was one of the first commercial brands to openly embrace the LGBT community and stand up for equal rights. He visited the farm and distillery in Sweden that produces the vodka (the Råbelöf Estate, which dates back to 1408...), which operates strict water conservation practices (even to the point of re-using water runoff from the factory roof) - a very forward example of environmental sustainability.

2. For Tom, the right partner was the key. He did not think Absolut Elyx had the best knowledge, ideas or capabilities to help people get access to water nor should he have, and instead looked at who might be the best partner on water access. After extensive research and discussion, Absolut Elyx settled on Water For People whose track record, grassroots model and commitment to sustainable solutions made them aligned to Absolut's goals. "Partnering with a respected implementing NGO allows to avoid many pitfalls and unintended consequences in the "Buy One, Give One" model; we can thus be truly additive rather than duplicative of the great work already being done on the ground" says Tom.

3. Having a brand that has social and environmental impact as a core value was also a recognition that the market he was targeting was millennials, a demography that has been shown to care more about impact than the previous generations. For a luxury product such as Absolut Elyx where decisions are not based on price, social and environmental impact thus matters a lot because it matters to millennials.
Overall, when done right, cause marketing including "Buy One, Give One" models can be good - both for brands and for the world. I care about social and environmental impact, and if price and quality are not sacrificed, I want my purchasing decisions to reflect my values. Being able to buy products - whether that is shoes, glasses, soap or vodka - that help in a thoughtful way is all good for me.