In the modern world of digital marketing and heightened social and political awareness, it seems important for businesses to have a greater mission than just selling products and making money. But the concept isn’t as new as it may seem. American Express coined the term “cause marketing” in 1983, with a campaign aimed at restoring the Statue of Liberty. Some of the oldest cause marketing examples came before the name, such as the 1970s Marriott and March of Dimes collaboration, or the creation of the Jerry Lewis Telethon in the 1960s. What makes cause marketing so appealing? In this article, we cover:
Cause marketing is a partnership between a for-profit organization and a nonprofit for mutual benefit. While that’s the technical definition, a broader one may be a for-profit company that engages in socially conscious behavior to bring awareness to certain issues or better the world around it. Like most other things in marketing, the definition develops with human behavior and trends of the times. Sometimes, cause marketing may even apply to businesses that create their own causes to support, through starting foundations or scholarship funds.
There are multiple ways a company can engage with cause marketing in its campaigns, including:
Some reasons to engage in cause marketing include:
Engaging in cause marketing can make your brand appear more favorable to the public. You may attract new customers who support the causes you promote with your brand. Cause marketing can also increase brand loyalty for current customers or followers who already like your products. They may become more interested in the company if it supports causes they like.
Communities, both on and offline, may benefit from the awareness larger companies can provide for certain causes. This type of marketing creates bonds, partnerships, and sharing of resources to solve social issues. The bigger the partnerships, the more publicity you can get for all organizations involved, further sharing messages and increasing brand awareness.
Related: 7 Ways To Increase Social Engagement
People like to work for good companies. This goes beyond benefits and pay and looks at the leadership to see what they’re doing to take care of their employees and the overall world. If businesses support causes their employees care about, this may increase company loyalty and boost morale and excitement of coming to work each day.
When your company creates a cause marketing campaign, it’s just another way to show your audience how you’re different from the competition. Even if your competitors also engage in cause marketing, you may choose a different social issue to support. Or you may find an individual way to bring awareness to the same cause. In either event, this is a chance to personalize your marketing to stand out from the competition.
You may see cause marketing all around you in your community without even realizing it. For example, local small businesses or even chain restaurants may have sponsor nights where a portion of the sales for that evening goes to a local nonprofit, like a library, or to support a school band or youth sports team. But cause marketing can also take place on a much larger scale, with examples from the corporate world, such as:
Image via Irvine Spectrum Center
BoxLunch is a pop culture retail store, and the leadership built its entire business model around cause marketing. Besides supporting other causes and charities throughout the year, BoxLunch donates a meal to someone in need through Feeding America for every $10 spent in-store and online. Cashiers and automated prompts also ask customers at checkout to round up their totals to the nearest dollar to provide additional meals. This furthers the mission and prevents shoppers from having to carry around change in their pockets.
Aerie is the activewear and underwear subgroup of the American Eagle fashion brand. In 2014, the company launched the Aerie REAL campaign focused on sharing images with untouched or edited models. This went against the normal expectations of airbrushing or using models with the “right look” in the industry. The goal was to promote body positivity by selling products to real people by models who looked like them. Since then, the movement expanded to include models with disabilities, promotions for healthy lifestyles, and partnerships with groups like the Special Olympics and Crisis Text Line to inspire overall wellness and inclusion.
Image via Seek Logo
For over 40 years, the Dawn dish soap company has engaged in a cause marketing campaign to help wildlife affected by oil production and spills. The company claims its product can help clean and save animals, especially birds, caught in oil spills. Dawn has donated bottles of liquid detergent to The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) and International Bird Rescue (IBR) to help with life-saving efforts. The organization supplements this work with commercials about the program and releasing rescued birds back into their natural habitats, and by including images of the animals on the product packaging.
The Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer is a recognizable example of a corporate and nonprofit partnership for cause marketing. The foundation raises money to help with childhood cancer cures and research and has a variety of corporate sponsors, including Applebee’s and Rita’s.
Most corporate partners ask their customers to donate money to the organization upon purchasing other products. The customers get to write their names on or design a lemon to hang on the business’ “Wall of Hope” for the duration of the fundraiser. Rita’s took the partnership further by naming its lemon-flavored ice Alex’s Lemonade, after the organization.
Chili’s has partnered with St. Jude since 2002 to support their efforts of making sure no family with a child undergoing treatment through the network receives a care bill. The restaurant does this through its “Create a Pepper” campaign. Similar to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, patrons can purchase a Chili’s logo pepper coloring sheet for a donation and customize it to hang in the restaurant during the fundraising period. Since the invention of social media, Chili’s added a “Share a Pepper” option and hashtag to use on social media and get even more awareness for the campaign.
Box Tops for Education partners General Mills with participating schools. When the program started in 1996, parents, grandparents, or any participants could clip the Box Tops logo off specially marked packages and donate them to a participating school. The school could then redeem the tops for money to help with needs, such as buying library books or getting new playground equipment. The program has gotten an update in its nearly 30 years. Participants can now use a mobile app to scan their grocery recipes to find products rather than snipping and sending tangible labels.
Image via The Country Daily
The LadyAID Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee is a philanthropic organization from the country music band Lady A. This is a unique example of cause marketing because it’s not sponsored by an organization, but the band isn’t a nonprofit itself. Starting foundations and doing charity work in this way is often popular for musicians, sports teams, and other individual athletes or artists.
The organization supports charitable causes from around the world, like St. Jude and the Boys and Girls club. A secondary brand of the organization, the LadyAID Scholarship Fund, supports students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help break down financial barriers to higher education. The foundation raises funds through online donations and special events like band merchandise sales or product auctions.
Starbucks partners with Arizona State University and offers Starbucks benefits-eligible employees the opportunity to attend college without paying for tuition. Employees can choose from 80 undergraduate programs and schedule their work shifts around their courses. The company started the program in 2018 to bring awareness to the inequality of college affordability and help employees looking to improve their skills or advance their careers.
Image via HeadCount
The Ben & Jerry’s Democracy Is In Your Hands campaign introduced a brand new ice cream flavor, aptly named Empower Mint. it also provided information about voting inequality, voter suppression laws, and the importance of making sure everyone can complete their civic duty. Though the ice cream flavor was a one-time product launch, the company often revives this campaign during each major election season to bring awareness to the issues.
Bandcamp is a website for musicians to upload and sell their music directly to fans. Labels can also host e-commerce platforms for artists. The company typically collects 15% of profits from music sales and 10% from merchandise sales. In 2020, the service started the Bandcamp Friday initiative to wave the company’s share of sales so that artists can get paid more for their materials.
This idea came about as a response to learning that the royalties for music on streaming services are often low and vary from platform to platform. Because Bandcamp hosts many smaller, independent artists who may not tour or have the notoriety of big names, it’s passionate about working to offset the income gap.
Image via AdWeek
In 2019, the razor and body care company Billie started the Project Body Hair campaign to normalize female body hair and redefine beauty standards for women. The company noted that even in advertisements for razors, shaving cream, and related products, they didn’t show women with body hair. Taking the movement a step further, the company is also vocal about abolishing the pink tax, or the practice of companies charging women more for products that could be gender neutral, like razors, by adding feminine colors or scents to them.
Red Nose Day is a nationwide campaign to end child poverty in the United States and around the world. Since it started in 2015, the campaign’s big fundraising event typically takes place in the spring and has a variety of corporate partners. Organizations like Walgreens and Save the Children take donations from sponsors and customers to raise money. Others, like NBC, run special events on their networks, such as an episode of the game show Celebrity Escape Room. Throughout the broadcast, advertisements encouraged viewers to donate to the fund and see real-world examples of the good their donation can do.
Image via Short North Arts District
Eyeglass company Warby Parker’s Buy a Pair, Give a Pair campaign states that for every pair of glasses purchased, they also donate one pair to someone in need across the globe. The company also provides options to sell eyewear at affordable prices and provide vision care for those who can’t afford it. Though Warby Parker temporarily suspended the donation program through the COVID-19 pandemic, it instead switched to purchasing personal protective equipment and preventative health supplies for healthcare workers for every pair of glasses sold.
Like BoxLunch, the entire business model of the TOMS shoe company focuses on investing in grassroots campaigns and organizations in local communities. The company invests a third of its profits in what it calls “grassroots good,” or organizations led by community members rather than political or corporate leaders. Specifically, the company looks for programs that improve three key issues: promoting mental health awareness, ending gun violence, and increasing access to opportunity.
In today’s world, social awareness and transparency can affect a company’s bottom line. By engaging in cause marketing, companies can do good and show how their genuine efforts can better the world around us. This can resonate with the target audience and increase brand loyalty, trust, and sales.
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