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Cause Marketing: Corporate Accountability Goes Global

“Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will save … that malfunctioning corporation called the USA. … The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

– Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 movie “Wall Street”

Corporate America has a long and, in many ways unfair reputation for greed. Many of the nation’s founders were businessmen in agriculture and America’s embryonic industries. The contemporary villification of “Robber Barons” like Carnagie, Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt and Morgan has long since been stripped away through the lasting impact of their charitable and community works. Billionaires today – Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Warren Buffett, Paul Newman, Ray & Joan Kroc – are equally generous with their legacies.

The latest incarnation of this tradition of corporate responsibility is embodied in a relatively new term: “Cause Marketing,” a brand-marketing concept that evolved out of predecessors that include Philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Corporations that long have found it profitable to share their wealth with their own communities are now broadening those efforts to a global scale.

American Express was the first major entrant into cause marketing. Today, beneficiaries of cause marketing programs are as varied and diverse as their corporate partners: the March of Dimes (Marriott), Literacy Volunteers of America (Famous Amos cookies), Susan G. Komen for the Cure (organizations that include Yoplait and American Airlines), Muscular Dystrophy Association (coalition fostered by comedian Jerry Lewis), and even the ubiquitous Product Red, which turned cause marketing upside-down by creating a cause in search of the marketer.

What is cause marketing, and how can it help you?

Cause marketing demonstrates social awareness to a marketplace that increasingly values corporate contributions to popular causes – a significant share of consumers express willingness to switch to a brand associated with a good cause.

From a PR standpoint, cause marketing can be a huge status builder for companies whose community “give-back” has been underemphasized in media coverage. A strong public campaign can enhance the word-of-mouth and web-viral reputations for both the for-profit and nonprofit entities.

To be sure, cause marketing carries a price tag in money and man-hours. And, it can be risky if a nonprofit becomes controversial, for example, or if the marketing relationship is perceived as “too commercial.”

But consider the huge upside potential: A shot in the arm for employee morale, increases in sales and brand loyalty, plus a boost in fundraising and public support for the cause beneficiary. Cause marketing is a powerful way for your company to differentiate itself from the competition while performing measurable public service.

TOMS Shoes of Santa Monica, Calif., for example, has developed a highly personal cause-related marketing promotion. When a customer purchases a pair of TOMS shoes, another pair is given to a child who needs them – often in developing countries where soil-transmitted diseases and injuries to barefooted kids are major problems. In many cases, such children previously had been unable to get an education because of school dress codes mandating shoes be worn. TOMS reports hundreds of anecdotal endorsements from its customers … customers who by all accounts continue to buy its footwear over and over and over again.

Consumers think highly of socially responsible brands

A comprehensive 2009 report by the Edelman, a New York-based PR firm, provides extensive research about cause marketing. The third annual Edelman goodpurpose Report discusses the intrinsic value to companies and consumers, the evolution of cause marketing, and its importance in today’s fragile world.

Among other observations, the Edelman study says:

  • Brands are expected to play greater role in social issues and companies, and a significant share of consumers say they would shift their purchases to brands that exhibit a social conscience
  • Consumer values shift: economic and values reset (less may really be more)
  • Social purpose is the new social status
  • Mutual Social Responsibility and Return on Involvement are shifting the CSR/Cause conversation

Today’s vision of corporate responsibility boils down to a Corporate America that takes responsibility for needs that traditionally fall far outside its perview. In the words of President Obama: “We can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

The image above shows some cause-conscious corporations cited in the Edelman report.