10 Steps for your company to embrace cause marketing — and be believed!

cause marketing

I’ve often said that marketers flock to whatever is popular until they ruin it. And the latest thing that’s popular is cause marketing.

Predictably, the marketing airwaves have been filled with news of inappropriate and tone-deaf miscues as companies race to support the cause du jour.

This is a big issue and that deserves a big blog post. How should your company approach cause marketing in a way that is believable? I have 10 considerations for you today.

The business case for cause marketing

First, let’s examine why cause marketing is so important!

There’s a good business rationale behind companies wanting to align with cause marketing. Research conducted by Edelman showed that 67 percent of consumers will try a brand for the first time solely because they agree with its position on a controversial topic, and 65 percent said they will not buy a brand when it stays silent on an issue they consider important.

The study, which polled 8,000 people in eight countries, found that a company’s position on a social issue can drive purchase intent just as much as the features of a product.

Today’s consumers are vocal about social issues, and they are quick to take disingenuous corporations to task. A majority of Americans of all generations — 60% of the U.S. population — say that how a brand responds to racial justice protests will influence whether they buy or boycott the brand in the future. Additionally, 60% say brands should take steps to address the root causes of racial inequity and 57% say brands must educate the public.

There may be increasing pressure to show a compassionate front and jump on the cause bandwagon during the pandemic when some many are in need.

Consumers are holding brands and companies to a higher standard than previously, favoring those perceived as doing more for society. Companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, whose portfolios include hundreds of brands, have no choice but to pivot in response. Brand loyalty can no longer be taken for granted, and brand repositioning may be necessary in many cases.

Cause marketing is on the rise

And Millennial and Gen Z consumers have expectations of brand authenticity that far exceed those of generations before them. These adult consumers are the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history, and they want corporations to stand for something beyond traditional consumer benefits and product quality.

A new survey found that 69 percent of Millennial and Gen Z consumers think brands should be actively involved in the BLM movement. To connect with these younger consumers, brands need to take a stand against racial injustice in a way that is authentic to the corporation as well as their customers.

When brands speak out, they are rewarded. Nearly a quarter of all consumers will pay at least a 25 percent premium when their values align with a brand, and 51 percent will buy the brand exclusively based on shared values.

The numbers are convincing. Taking a stand through cause marketing – with due diligence – is one of the few remaining paths to consumer loyalty, advocacy, and even premium pricing.

Does this mean every company has to create meaning through controversial stands?

No. Of course not.

Sometimes we just want a car wash because our automobile is filthy or a hamburger because it tastes so good. Hold the onions and angst, please!

What steps should you consider if it makes sense for your brand to take a stand and explore cause marketing?

1. Be clear on your values.

The literature defines brand authenticity as the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful to itself (continuity), faithful to its customers’ expectations for the brand to deliver on its promises (credibility), motivated by caring and responsibility towards the community (integrity), and reflecting values that consumers consider important (symbolism). on its own internal value system.

Here’s a place to start:

  1. Discover your purpose. Why do you do what you do? Start there. Is this grounded in tradition alone, or does the company’s reason for being need to be updated with a modern lens?
  2. Validate social tension. Once you’re clear on your values, how does this connect to your customers? What’s getting in the way of the customers living out their values? Taking aim at this societal tension and aligning it with the brand’s passion leads to a sense of purpose and direction for activation.
  3. Use your unique voice. Having a “true north” expressed as purpose can become a differentiator if the intent is right and the expression fits the brand’s mission and personality. Ultimately, the potential of purpose is to act as a filter for all actions and communications from the brand.

2. Create rock-solid alignment.

Cause marketing today is not just about your “why,” it’s also about your customer’s “why.”

Of course it makes sense for Patagonia to take a stand against legislation that opens up protected land to development. Of course it makes sense for Airbnb to connect on issues of public housing. Of course American Eagle is going take a position that empowers the treasured values of its teen customers (they have a teen board to keep them straight!).

When these companies take deploy cause marketing, it’s logical because the position aligns with their core mission and the values of their customers.

Brand identity has been the single most important factor for increasing sales and ensuring growth since the dawn of capitalism. But a brand today is no longer just a symbol, logo, or tagline. A brand must include the promise of what the customer will experience emotionally and even politically.

3. Take a measured risk.

If you decide to take a stand, you can’t change your mind or you risk becoming a meme – or worse. This decision must be carefully considered based on research and insight.

You’d better believe Nike ran the numbers before making their bold political move with Colin Kaepernick.

Two-thirds of Nike customers are under the age of 35. A large-scale study of the political views of this demographic showed that nearly 80 percent hold liberal to moderate views on social issues. A young consumer who can afford $200 shoes likely has substantial disposable income and lives in a city. The term for this demographic? Progressive.

Nike knew there would be a backlash and risked a sizable portion of its business to strengthen the relationship with the young consumers who account for 90 percent of its revenue.

And, indeed, there was a backlash. In one day, Nike’s market value dropped by nearly $4 billion dollars. But one week later, its market value was even higher than before the volatile campaign began.

The math? Nike just did it.

4. Be congruent.

Cause marketing tends to backfire if it appears that the stance is a one-off or an attempt by the company to selfishly grab attention. In every case the cause marketing strategy has succeeded, the company has demonstrated its values in many ways, continuously over time.

A values-based marketing strategy will only work if the values are aligned not just with the consumers but also with the actions of the company itself.

Human rights, racism, civil liberties, global warming – these are extremely complex issues that aren’t going to be solved through a sensational ad campaign.

Marketing isn’t just about making promises, it’s about keeping promises.

5. Emphasize action over words.

Most people believe that brands have more power to solve social issues than the government.

But they want more than words in an ad campaign. Companies need to be active and visible in their customer communities, fighting for their preferred causes.

Microsoft Chairman Satya Nadella wrote in his wonderful book Hit Refresh:

“Multinationals can no longer be the memes they’ve become – soulless, bloodless entities that enter a nation or a region simply to take rent from the locals. The job of a multinational is more important than ever. It needs to operate everywhere in the world, contributing to local communities in positive ways – sparking growth, competitiveness, and opportunity for all. How can we help our local partners and startups grow? How can we help the public sector become more efficient? How can we help solve the most pressing issues in society?”

6. Take care with creative treatments.

The presentation of these brand/consumer values must be confident but sensitive. It would be arrogant for a brand to suggest they are a solution. They can be a bridge to a solution or a platform for discussion. This must be supported through expert creative treatments.

Nothing can undo a brand image faster than good intentions presented in an inappropriate perspective.

7. Be ready for the heat.

The organization must be completely aligned at every level and prepared for repercussions when, predictably, certain consumer groups rebel against the idea. Can your corporate culture withstand a controversy? Can your career?

And don’t forget to be prepared for the internal reaction. If you take a stand that your customers love but your employees hate, can you still operate as a company?

Employee voices are increasingly playing a role in whether companies take sides on political issues. Tech companies, for example, had little to gain strategically by opposing U.S. immigration policies. But Microsoft and Google found it impossible to remain silent in the face of employee demands for a response to what they regarded as an assault on company values.

8. Consider the first-mover advantage.

If your customers expect you to take a position to align with their values and you don’t, that is, in effect, taking a stand.

It may also make you vulnerable. What’s the risk of not taking a stand on an issue and then having your competitor roll out a meaning-based campaign?

Nike made a bold move. Would a values-based marketing campaign by a competitor like Adidas or Under Armour seem unoriginal, or even desperate?

There are only so many “values” to go around. American Eagle’s research led them to a highly focused strategy supporting gun control and civil liberties. I don’t think a competing retailer in their category could now mimic their aggressive and consistent strategy. AE is owning the hearts of core customers by aligning with their values and by being the first to do it.

I want to emphasize once again that I’m not being prescriptive. You have to make the right decisions for your business. I’m just laying out the options.

9. Have a crisis plan.

In our fast-changing and complex world, it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality. It’s difficult for even seasoned professionals to predict what could suddenly ignite into controversy. So, hope for the best and plan for the worst. If your company decides to take a controversial stand, have an executive team and PR professionals standing by for a few days after the announcement.

10. Cause marketing: Get involved

Taking a stand that demonstrates your values doesn’t have to be expensive, risky, or complicated. But the focus has to be on fewer slogans and more actions!

Find groups in your community that share your values and need your help. Sponsor their events, donate your services, and better yet, show up. Let people see how you care. Don’t just lend a hand. Be the hand. That’s what people want and need from you.

Remember, the most human company wins!

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of several best-selling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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