cause marketing
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This October, Rethink Your Cause Marketing Strategy

9 Minute Read

It’s October, which means retail stores are currently awash in orange and black—and just as much pink. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, companies across industries are placing pink ribbons on their products and promising to donate a portion of the profits to support breast cancer awareness and research.

A worthy cause? No doubt.

A great cause marketing opportunity for your brand? Not necessarily.

While there’s no doubt that pink products and awareness campaigns are designed and executed by companies with good intentions, some brands risk participating in the cause only to come off as inauthentic, bandwagoning, or hypocritical.

Many breast cancer patients and researchers are actually getting tired of Pinktober. As Anne Rochon Ford, codirector of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health, put it in an open letter:

An unimaginable array of pink-colored consumer items (some of them laced with carcinogenic compounds) call out to us from all directions. This morning on my way to work I was struck (metaphorically speaking) by a fully pink taxi cab covered in Awareness Month messages. For those of us involved in women’s health who have advocated for a focus on prevention and getting at the cause of breast cancer, as well as for many women who are living with the disease, this can be a most cringe-worthy time.

The problem here isn’t with the cause; it’s with the irrelevant (or even contradictory) relationships many brands have with the cause.

Brands that have nothing to do with women’s health suddenly seem to care (at least about this one disease)—but only in October. Far worse are companies that produce unhealthy products, yet attempt to win consumers’ hearts (and money) by pinking up their brands.

There’s even a term for these inauthentic efforts. Pinkwashing is when a company or organization promotes a pink-ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures, or sells products linked to the disease or an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle.

Consumers and the media may be ambivalent about irrelevant cause-related marketing, but they get downright annoyed with pinkwashing. Many brands have learned this the hard way in recent years. KFC’s Buckets for the Cure campaign and Baker Hughes’ pink drill bits both garnered far more criticism than goodwill. Automobile manufacturers and cosmetics companies—particularly those associated with the Look Good Feel Better program—have also come under fire for pinkwashing.

Should KFC stop selling fried foods because they’re unhealthy? Should carmakers stop selling vehicles because they emit air pollutants? Please, no. I love that “finger-lickin’ good” chicken, and I don’t love walking.

Should these brands stop partnering with charities to raise money or awareness for great causes? Of course not. It’s a powerful way to connect with their audiences while also doing some good in the world. But not every cause is a good fit for every brand.

Why is relevance so important? And how can you find the right causes to showcase your brand?

A Good Cause Is Good for Business

Consumers aren’t just impressed when companies support worthy causes. They expect it. Eighty percent of global consumers believe business should play a role in addressing societal issues, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

And people are willing to reward brands that live up to these expectations. Nielsen reported that 55 percent of global consumers will pay more for products and services offered by companies that make a positive social and environmental impact, and a study by Cone Communications found that 90 percent of US consumers would switch brands to one associated with a cause.

But adding pink stickers to your products or throwing money at a seemingly random charity isn’t enough to get people’s attention or make real connections with your audience.

Nicola Brown shared data that illustrates this point in her Content Standard article, “The Psychology Behind Successful Cause Marketing.” She wrote:

A recent study in the Journal of Business Research reveals some important psychological dimensions to successful corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives (like cause-related marketing campaigns) … It’s not enough for brands and companies to engage in CSR; that CSR needs to be perceived as authentic … Researchers found that the perceived fit of brand and cause and the actual impact of the company’s actions were two of the most important factors in whether or not consumers perceived the CSR efforts as authentic.

How can you find a relevant cause to support? By doing some serious creative thinking about what matters—to your company and your customers.

Five Ways to Get Relevant

Relevance is subjective. The goal is to associate your brand with a cause. So it logically follows that the cause should have some connection to what people associate with your brand. But that could mean a lot of things.

For example, consider how the following key characteristics of your brand might help you identify a relevant cause to support:

1. Your Product

The most obvious brand identifier is your product or service. Start by asking yourself (and your team) which organization or cause would benefit most if you donated whatever it is that you sell.

Sometimes the answer is pretty straightforward, like TOMS donating shoes to people who need shoes. Other times the answer might require a little creative thinking about how your product is used. For example, Dawn donates dish soap to help conservation organizations rescue animals affected by oil pollution. The 30-year-old campaign, Dawn Helps Save Wildlife, raises awareness for wildlife preservation (and the Dawn brand) with TV commercials, social media campaigns, and stories from volunteers who work with birds and marine animals in need of a life-saving bath.

screenshot of Dawn Helps Save Wildlife webpage

2. Your Industry

Product relevance is a great starting point, but you might also broaden your view and think about what matters in your industry.

Walgreens’ Get a Shot, Give a Shot campaign is a great example of health-care-related philanthropy. Through its partnership with the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign, Walgreens donates one life-saving vaccine to a child in a developing country for every vaccine customers get at its pharmacies.

Walgreens promotes the campaign via TV commercials, social media, and a Get a Shot, Give a Shot web page, which features compelling data about the global need for vaccinations and a video showing what people in these communities will go through to get shots for their children.

So far, Walgreens has provided 15 million vaccinations worldwide.

3. Your Area of Expertise

You don’t have to donate products, services, or even money to support a great cause. In some cases, information can be even more valuable.

As an insurance company, Nationwide knows a great deal about accidents—how they happen and how they could have been prevented. So, the company partnered with the American Red Cross to educate parents about the number-one cause of childhood death: accidental injury.

The remarkably robust Make Safe Happen website features videos and articles with tips to help parents make their homes and yards safer for children. Users can search for safety information by children’s ages, by location in the home, or by risk type. The brand also offers an app and in-person events focused on child safety.

Helping kids stay out of harm’s way—now that’s a worthy cause.

4. Your Mission

People want to do business with companies that value what they value. What better way to prove your corporate mission is more than lip service than by putting your time and money where your mouth is?

For example, Massage Envy claims that everyone at its franchises is “passionate in their support of your commitment to total body care.” To prove it, the company partners with the National Arthritis Foundation.

Winner of the Cause Marketing Forum’s 2016 Halo Award for “Best Transactional Campaign,” Massage Envy’s Healing Hands for Arthritis is an annual day-long event where the company donates $10 from every massage and facial, as well as 10 percent of retail sales, to the organization. Each Massage Envy location personalizes the event by thinking up creative ways to raise even more money, including bake sales and raffles. The company also engages its social media followers with information about arthritis and how massage can help alleviate the pain it causes.

Over the past few years, the partnership has raised more than $4 million for the Arthritis Foundation, while also boosting Massage Envy’s sales on both services and products.

Massage Envy Healing Hands Campaign for Arthritis Foundation

5. Your Location

Home is where the heart is—which is why supporting local causes can be a powerful way to endear your company to consumers. This is even true for national brands. While a product may be sold across the country, or even the world, supporting communities where you have a vested interest and a strong relationship with the locals helps to ensure your efforts come across as an authentic desire to help.

In “The Evolution of Content Marketing,” Skyword’s Keith MacKenzie shared a powerful example of local cause-related marketing. In the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Boston Beer—maker of Samuel Adams—trademarked a Boston Strong beer, for which 100 percent of the profits were donated to support victims of the tragic events. The company even invited other brewers to use the Boston Strong trademark, so long as they also donated their profits.

The campaign worked out well for Boston Beer. As Keith wrote, “Samuel Adams’ long-time reputation as one of Boston’s major brewers and an advocate for the city meant it already built a strong loyalty with its following; hence, its Boston Strong trademark was welcomed with open arms.”

But other brands that offered Boston Strong products weren’t met with the same reception. Keith explained:

The flip side is appearing to jump on the bandwagon and coming off as a crass opportunist. While Boston Beer enjoyed considerable attention for its goodwill of donating all Boston Strong-related profits, other corporations furrowed many a forehead with their pledges of 6.17 percent (Mehuna Coffee in Tewksbury, MA) and 20 percent (Chowdaheadz in Woburn, MA) of Boston Strong-related profits to charity. The argument was that, despite being local, these companies were still profiting from tragedy.

This cautionary tale brings us back to breast cancer awareness campaigns. Cause marketing, like any other form of marketing, works best when it’s original, memorable, and authentic. And for many brands, pink-ribbon marketing isn’t any of those things.

That’s not to say companies shouldn’t raise money for breast cancer research. But if you’re looking to really get involved with a cause—to make it synonymous with your brand and to make a real difference—you might try looking a little closer to home.

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Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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