11/18/2011 12:44 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

Cause Marketing That Moves

Quick. What do you think of when you hear the term "cause marketing"? If I were to venture a guess, I'd say your mind went right to the color pink and breast cancer. (It has been only a few weeks since the pink month of October, after all). While that is just one of many worthy causes, there are plenty of others that also address our world's significant and continually emerging social and environmental issues. And smart businesses should be hot on the trail, supporting the causes that most fit their corporate missions and partnering with non-profits.

That said, what if there were one cause that could potentially influence long-term disease diagnoses, decrease carbon emissions, produce calmer, more fit individuals and bring people back to a more local perspective in their daily lives (among other things)? What if that same cause had so many angles to it that many companies and non-profits could partner to support it at the same time, with each still reaping the related benefits along the way? If you read my last piece, you may have guessed where I'm heading: all these things point to the biking\cycling movement. The Clif Bar & Company's CLIF BAR 2 Mile Challenge (2MC) program is a shining example of cause marketing around just that.

Admittedly, it was my own recent return to urban living and the wonders of getting around by bike (speed! convenience!) that prompted me to take note of 2MC, and I'm glad I did. Launched in 2007, 2MC continues to encourage people to consider riding their bike for trips that are two miles or less from their homes. It is about inspiring the average person, not the lycra-suited racer, to think about biking a few of their various weekly trips. Measured in that way, the 2MC site currently notes that some 65,000 car trips were avoided this year by people choosing to ride their bikes instead of driving their cars, which translates to more than 430,000 pounds of CO2 being saved by those bike trips. (See their "get the facts" video for more information).

So, how does all of this connect with non-profit partners? Well, 2MC participants are encouraged to register on the site, join a "team" (aligned with one of three non-profit partners in the walk/bike arena) and log their miles as a way to accumulate points. Clif Bar & Company (Clif Bar) is committed to supporting bike advocacy at the grass roots level, and while the various organizations they fund may rotate year to year, their plan is to always give a total of $100,000 annually. The whole program, including the blog, Twitter feed and Facebook page, is run like a lean and mean pedaling machine, with one person, Ryan Mayo, at the handlebars. His charge is to keep people motivated about biking more, and cheer on each additional mile entered into the database.

I could go on and on, because I see so many good things in this mix. But, I also got the take of expert Megan Strand, the Director of Communications for the Cause Marketing Form. She considers 2MC a very innovative mash-up between a message-focused campaign (promoting an overall message -- in this case a "fight global warming" one) and a digital voting contest (with pre-selected charities). But, it is this point of Strand's that seems to mean most for how other businesses and nonprofits could effectively partner in the future: "What I like most about it is that it's asking consumers to participate in a meaningful way TO the cause (e.g. by getting on their bikes) instead of just casting an online vote."

Key to this entire endeavor is that Clif Bar sees 2MC as a long-term commitment and journey, with no predetermined, final endpoint. Instead, they researched and developed the program very carefully, but then moved forward knowing it probably wasn't perfect. Mayo and his Clif Bar support team trusted that it would organically refine over time -- and it has -- integrating the voices, experiences and inputs of participants. After all, as Mayo noted, Clif Bar was "practically born on a bike," and the fun, freedom and climate change message of the 2 Mile Challenge is very much in line with corporate values. Though it began in pre-digital form with a traveling van, the effort is now mainly online. Still, where 2MC goes from here could take on many shapes. (Doesn't it sound like a great employee engagement program, for instance?)

Of course, there are reasons biking might not work for all people, and there are plenty of circumstances where none but the most extreme cyclists would bike more than four or five months a year (in states like Vermont, for example). And, of course, hauling kids to and fro by bike has many complications. As well, it would surely be very easy for a 2MC participant to enter miles they didn't ride. I hear you, naysayers!

However, the point of this program, and my writing about it, is not to preach about biking versus all other modes of transportation, or to make it a political issue. The point is to get a few more people, every week, to give it a go. Then, some of those people may be inspired to sign on to the idea of the 2 Mile Challenge (whether they actually log on and enter miles or not). Those people could then be inclined to talk about what they are doing, and so influence neighbors or friends to consider doing it themselves for their next quick errand ... and so on.

Each new enthusiast, no matter the clothes they wear or the type of bike they ride, becomes an ambassador. Each car trip avoided means that much less carbon goes into the atmosphere, and the biking movement overall raises awareness of how fitness might work its way into a person's daily life. Given how many societal and environmental ills there are to worry about today, it's exciting to think that the creative collaboration exemplified by Clif Bar's 2 Mile Challenge program could inspire attitude adjustments that might just lead to longer term behavioral shifts. The ways in which businesses and non-profits could partner to address similar issues are infinite. And, while biking isn't the only social cause of this kind, the 2 Mile Challenge certainly makes an inspiring mind and body-moving case study.