Throwing your company's weight behind a worthy cause might seem to be a no-brainer for boosting both business and consumer goodwill.
After all, seven out of 10 consumers worldwide say they are more likely to shop with a company "with fair prices that gives back" than a business that has lower prices but doesn't contribute to a greater good, according to a 2010 study by public relations firm Edelman. And the 2010 Cause Evolution Study from Boston-based marketing firm Cone Communications found that 41 percent of Americans had bought a product because it was associated with a cause they supported, up significantly from 20 percent in 1993.
No wonder, then, that North American businesses were expected to spend a massive $1.62 billion in cause-marketing sponsorship in 2011, accounting for 9 percent of all corporate sponsorships, according to Chicago-based consultancy IEG. That's a 6.7 percent rise from 2010, outpacing growth in other forms of sponsorship such as sports and entertainment.
But even a no-brainer concept requires careful thought to ensure that it succeeds. What works well for one marketer can easily backfire for another.
"All other types of marketing are about visibility and getting a name out there," says Boston-based cause-marketing consultant Joe Waters, author of "Cause Marketing for Dummies." "Cause marketing is about favorability"–creating a favorable opinion of your brand in the minds of the public.
The right cause
That's why, of course, not just any cause will do. It's crucial to identify the right cause to support, says Mike Swenson, president of the PR/cause group of Kansas City, Mo.-based advertising agency Barkley. "Talk to customers and employees, look at your competitor set, and do research to identify the right brand."
Include employees as a source of research because they'll need to buy in to the cause a company chooses to support. "Cause marketing is as important internally as it is externally," Swenson says. Especially among 18- to 34-year-olds, "they want to do good, they want to give back–it's part of their DNA. Brands will find it's important to promote their cause initiatives as part of their hiring process."
author of "Cause Marketing for Dummies"
More to the point, if your employees don't support the cause, they're not going to be effective advocates to the public. "You have to have a real commitment to the program," Waters says. "That begins with deciding what you as a business really care about and have a strong emotional connection with."
This sort of emotional connectivity is why so many food retailers and brands support hunger-relief programs such as Feeding America, which has Food Lion, Kroger and Supervalu as core sponsors. A brand might be able to make more of an impact, however, by looking beyond the most apparent tie-ins.
"There are thousands of worthy causes," Swenson says. "Really take time to recognize the right cause and not just jump in to what would be the most obvious. Maybe the way for a brand to make its mark is to focus on a cause that's getting overlooked."
For instance, in addition to supporting Feeding America, Supervalu's Acme, Albertsons, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Jewel-Osco, and Shaw's chains sponsor more than 780 local youth soccer teams, underwriting team expenses as well as donating T-shirts and water bottles to the participants.
The connection to food and nutrition may not be apparent at first, but as Supervalu spokesperson Michael Siemienas explains, "Supervalu is focusing on helping Americans eat well. As part of that focus, we also want to encourage children to participate in physical activities like baseball and soccer." Going forward, the company may begin providing healthy snacks at games to further emphasize the connection.
A cause such as youth team sponsorship also reinforces a brand's ties to the local community. "Whether it's sponsoring youth sports, participating in community parades, or having the local school colors on cakes and cupcakes during homecoming week, we want our customers to see and know that the local community is important to us," Siemienas says.
Waters contends that "the future is local." Just as there is a greater emphasis on buying locally grown and sourced food, many consumers are focusing more on supporting local community efforts, and they want the stores they frequent to do so as well.
Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford, whose 179 stores serve New England and New York, incorporated its support for locally produced food into a cause-marketing program that backs Keep Local Farms, an organization based in Hatfield, Mass., that supports New England dairy farmers. Not only did Hannaford use in-store marketing materials to call out products sourced from local farmers, but it also donated part of the proceeds from sales of reusable shopping bags and solicited customer donations at checkout. The program tied in to the company's longstanding focus on environmental sustainability and healthy eating in a less-than-obvious manner, allowing it to stand out from the crowd.
More is more
Hannaford's Keep Local Farms efforts call attention to another key element of a successful cause-marketing program: It needs to draw upon multiple touch points. Placing collection canisters at each register with a sign declaring "Please give to Cause X" probably won't raise all that much money, let alone earn your brand much customer goodwill or loyalty.
As part of its 2011 Partners in Hope campaign against breast cancer, Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y, which has 61 stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts, solicited customer donations, offering special pink ribbons for $1. But Big Y also donated a portion of the proceeds from its produce and floral departments during October, and from the sale of specially marked products–so-called purchase-trigger donations–in other departments as well. What's more, its pharmacies donated $5 for every new prescription, including those transferred from other pharmacies. In effect, each Big Y store offered numerous reminders and calls to action. And taking its campaign out of the store confines, Big Y co-sponsored mammogram screenings with local health providers and radio stations.
To gain the attention and participation of more customers, try combining elements within a single campaign. For example, have cashiers ask for donations at checkout, and also locate baskets at the front of the store with signage asking customers to donate a can of food. Offering multiple opportunities helps cast a wider net and deflects from any one element's shortcomings.
Purchase-trigger donations in particular are falling out of favor with increasingly skeptical consumers and with marketers as well. "It's easy to say, 'If you buy this product in March, we're going to make a donation.' But from a brand standpoint that's not a good long-term successful play," says Barkley's Swenson. "Simply doing a product promotion that lasts a month and then it's over and everyone forgets about it, that's when consumers say, 'That's a product promotion; that's not cause marketing.'"
Retailers are scrutinizing purchase-trigger promotions more carefully, Waters says. At the same time, more and more marketers are encouraging customers to "check in" via location-based services such as Foursquare by making a donation for each such check-in.
Virtual check-ins and other forms of social media, such as offering to make a donation for each retweet of a message raising awareness of the cause, can have the added benefits of helping to spread the word about your brand's involvement and providing a way to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.
Of course, the amount of money raised in support of the cause is the best way to measure a cause-marketing campaign's effectiveness. The cause itself, rather than the benefits your company can reap from its association with the cause, should be the priority, say experts.
"Companies and brands must make sure the program is transparent," Swenson says. "You need to make sure consumers are 100 percent clear they know where their money is going. It's no longer good enough simply to promote awareness."