Boost Your Bottom Line With Social Good:

The Case for Cause Marketing

Cause marketing is receiving increased attention because of consumers’ demand for socially conscious corporate citizens. Consumers, particularly millennials, mothers and minority groups, want to make the world a better place. They choose brands that do the same.

Businesses could ignore the trend, but they would be foolish to do so. Edelman, in its “goodpurpose” global study, finds that when “quality and price of a product are deemed equal, social purpose has consistently been the leading purchase trigger for global consumers since 2008, muscling design and innovation and brand loyalty aside […] Brands aligning themselves with causes are not only securing more consumer consideration, but are also earning their dollars and support.”

It’s not enough for businesses to sign yet another check and carry on making profits. In today’s landscape, social good and cause marketing have to be integrated into the very fabric of a business. Social good must become part of the internal culture, and promoted to consumers in an authentic, transparent and tangible way.

In the past, businesses would set up easy cause shopping campaigns where a small percentage of profits or product would be donated to a charity. If that were enough, every business following the practice would see increased sales and return visits. They don’t because promoting or supporting a cause is not enough of a differentiator.

According to Cone Communications’ “2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study,” “The question is not whether companies will engage in corporate social responsibility, but how they will create real and meaningful impact. If consumers don’t see a tangible result, they are likely to decrease purchases and move their loyalty to a business that is ‘doing (more) good.’”

Cause Marketing Defined

Cause marketing is often used interchangeably with “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), but it is not CSR itself. Cause marketing is a subset of CSR and a way businesses can engage in social good.

Philip Kotler, David Hessekiel, and Nancy R. Lee define CSR in their book “Good Works! Marketing and Corporate Initiatives that Build a Better World…and the Bottom Line” as “a commitment to improve community wellbeing through discretionary business practices and contributions of corporate resources.”

In contrast, cause marketing is, as Joe Waters puts it in “Fundraising for Business,” “a partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit for mutual profit. The partnership is win-win. The nonprofit raises money and awareness and the for-profit earns a halo that enhances their favorability with consumers, which may increase sales.” For Waters, cause marketing equates to nonprofits fundraising with businesses.

How Cause Marketing Impacts Your Brand

In general, consumers see nonprofits as well-meaning and for-profits as self-interested. It’s the case of Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge. One had a heart, and the other was a self-interested person in need of one. How did Scrooge find a heart? He gave to someone in need – Tiny Tim.

The case is similar with for-profits. They must put heart into their organizations, yet they mustn’t become all heart. Like Joe Waters says, “When it comes to raising money with businesses if there is no profit there is no purpose.” If a business partners with a cause to no effect or a detriment, that collaboration has no purpose.

As to “why” businesses should implement cause marketing, the answer is multi-faceted and not purely altruistic. First, companies are in the business of making a profit. Second, consumers say companies have a bigger role to play in society and the environment.

In its “2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study: The Next Cause Evolution,” Cone Communications remarks, “As consumers become increasingly sophisticated about the role corporations can play in society, companies must aspire to meet equally high and diverse expectations. Simply cutting a check isn’t going to cut it.”

Consumer demand may not be enough of a catalyst for some businesses, but increased sales might be. According to Nielsen’s “2013 Consumers Who Care” study, 50 percent of consumers would be willing to pay more for goods and services if the company in question actively supported a cause and gave back to society.

Cone Communications’ findings are markedly stronger. It reports that “eighty-eight percent [of Americans] would buy a product with a social or environmental benefit if given the opportunity.”1

Businesses engaged with a cause often see benefits within the workplace, too. The “2012 Net Impact: What Workers Want” study from Rutgers University finds that 53 percent of professionals and 72 percent of college students would be happier if they felt they were at a job where they were making a social impact.

Businesses also see return visits (i.e. loyalty and increased brand recognition). Cone Communications reports, “When companies support social or environmental issues, consumer affinity overwhelmingly upsurges. Nearly all consumers say that when companies engage in CSR, they have a more positive image of the company (96%), would be more likely to trust that company (94%) and would be more loyal to that company (93%).”2

Implementing Cause Marketing

Businesses shouldn’t leap into cause marketing without looking first. They need to understand the relevant social and environmental issues, and how they can impact those concerns before considering a cause.

Cone Communications notes:

“The mandate for companies to actively support social and environmental issues is loud and clear. But which issue? The myriad causes can be daunting. Selecting the “right” issue is a balancing act, assessing carefully a wide range of factors, including brand equity, business objectives, stakeholder preferences and marketplace needs.3

Once the possible social or environmental issues have been ascertained and limited to one or two, a business can consider causes that address the issues. A grocery store chain like HEB or Albertson’s might decide hunger and poverty are important issues generally and relevant specifically. They would look at local causes addressing those issues, and select one that has potential to bring the most benefit to both the business and the cause.

Think of choosing a cause in terms of the high school prom. While you might be tempted to choose the most popular partner, it can be the wrong choice. Perhaps the date is the wrong height or has two left feet. You both end up unhappy and go home with wilted flowers and drooping spirits.

Instead choose a nonprofit partner that makes both of you look good, and helps achieve your missions. When you do, you and the cause become the only couple on the dance floor worth watching.

To choose the best cause partner, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Choose only a few social issues to support, one of which will become the flagship of any cause marketing partnerships.
  2. Select social concerns that are relevant to you and your communities–both your internal community (stakeholders and employees) and external ones (customers, supporters, brand advocates, et cetera).
  3. Only consider concerns with clear ties to your mission, values, products and services.
  4. Support causes with the potential to bolster your business goals.
  5. Consider causes that can and will be supported long term.

As for working with that cause, you have a few options:

  1. Cause promotion. Provide funds, in-kind contributions or other corporate resources to increase awareness about a social cause or to support fundraising, participation or volunteer recruitment for a cause.
  2. Cause-related marketing. Partner with a nonprofit to create a mutually beneficial relationship that increases sales for the business and generates financial support for the charity.
  3. Corporate social marketing. Support the development of and/or implement a behavior change campaign intended to improve public health, safety, the environment or community wellbeing.4

Your business can work with causes in other ways, namely, corporate philanthropy, employee volunteering and socially responsible business practices, but the efforts fall under an overarching CSR program generally. Because they aren’t a part of cause marketing specifically, they aren’t addressed here.

Choosing which method to use depends on your business. It is akin to sitting out one dance because neither you nor the cause has any expertise in it. You and your nonprofit partner wait for a dance where you can better show your partnering skills to have the most effect.

Be sure to evaluate the cause and the method. You have to choose a method – a dance – that aligns with your mission, values, products or services, and bottom line. It must have the potential to do the most good for your business and the cause.

Overcoming Cause Marketing Challenges

Identifying an issue, a cause and a method are challenges in and of themselves. Once they have been met and overcome, your business still has to meet internal criticism, design a plan with the cause partner, develop a process for responding to external feedback, and decide how efforts will be reported and to whom.

Internal buy-in is crucial. The marketing department may have decided which cause is the best one, but without support from the executive team to the newest employees, the partnership won’t come to fruition or will be fraught with frustration.

Jocelyn Azada and Matthew Rochte remark in their “Workforce for Good: Employee Engagement in CSR/Sustainability”:

“Employees bridge the gap between the company’s sustainability/ CSR goals, and the realization of those goals. It is the personal day-to-day commitment, decisions and actions of employees that direct the intelligence and resources of the largest companies in the world for the good of our planet.”

Working with a nonprofit partner is a challenge, too. Either everybody wants to lead or follow, or nobody wants to lead or follow. It’s a partnership with a learning curve, which means at least a few stomped toes and bruised egos.

In addition, you and the cause have to keep a watchful eye on the campaign. Starting a cause marketing campaign is not like winding up a toy and letting it totter around. Cause marketing is, as Waters says, “work-work, which means neither partner gets a free ride. The nonprofit doesn’t receive an unexpected check, and the for-profit doesn’t write one expecting not to hear from the nonprofit for another year.”

Another challenge that must be worked through is a communications plan. Cone Communications states:

“Reaching today’s consumers requires integrated and ongoing communications. Traditional channels still dominate, with Americans indicating on-package messages (21%), the media (16%) and advertising (16%) as the most effective ways to reach them. Online and mobile channels should be considered central to any CSR marketing effort as well. Together, they represent 22 percent of consumers’ preferred communications vehicles.5

That plan must include responses to positive and negative feedback, as well as identify who is responsible for responding to negative comments. Businesses need only look to Susan G. Komen as an example of what not to do.

When the organization partnered with KFC, the public expressed its outrage. KFC responded; Susan G. Komen did not. While the partnership was never ideal, KFC salvaged some of its reputation by responding to criticism. The nonprofit, in contrast, chose to be silent and continued to lose brand favorability.

It’s paramount that communications be authentic. Consumers know when they’re being fed lines, and they’re becoming increasingly sensitive to them. 

According to Cone Communications, “Nine-in-ten (91%) global citizens are eager to hear about corporate social responsibility initiatives and progress, but […] messages must be honest and clear. 88% believe companies share positive information about their CSR efforts, but withhold negative information.”6

Network for Good puts the matter a different way in “Homer Simpson for Nonprofits: The Truth About How People Really Think & What It Means for Promoting Your Cause”: “Don’t sugarcoat issues. Be explicit about the challenges you face, while remembering to be hopeful. Your audiences will thank and follow you for it.”

Transparency and tangibility are essential, too. It isn’t enough to say funds are going to support clean water in Africa. The message has to be more specific because, as Network for Good has found and noted in “Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits: What Science Can Teach You About Fundraising, Marketing and Making Social Change,” “people give two to three times more money when an intangible need is replaced with a specific impact.”

charity: water, a nonprofit that does work to provide clean water in Africa, is a leading example of how to use authentic, transparent and tangible communications. The organization shares potential results in its general messaging and specific impacts with anyone who donates. Those impacts aren’t generic updates; they state where a person’s funds have gone and how many people will receive clean water because of them. The cause isn’t afraid to communicate hurdles.

Sharing specific information makes the giver feel that he or she is contributing to something meaningful and making an impact. That means the person is both happy with the experience and likely to give more in the future.

Cone Communications says:

“Regardless of the country, the global population wants to understand how the myriad CSR efforts make real and tangible differences. To build trust and deeper engagement, it will be critical for companies to showcase collective return – both from their own programs as well as those actions taken by consumers, from purchasing to advocating.7

Cause marketing partners need to think about how the partnership can be maintained over months or years, too.

Waters notes, “Good partnerships between a nonprofit and for-profit are engaging, ongoing and valued.”

Cause marketing is not speed dating. It’s developing a relationship that benefits both the business and the cause. When the time comes to “break up,” neither party should be surprised. The business should be ready for that transition and have already started the process of finding its next cause partner.

Finally, the business has to report outcomes. Goals and benchmarks have to be set. Consumers and stakeholders need to be made aware of results both for momentum during the campaign as well as for final reports.

Consumers demand proof that their support, in conjunction with the business’ cause marketing campaign, is making a real impact. Stakeholders desire the same information, but with caveats; they need proof that the campaign is bettering the business’ reputation, and leading to more sales and loyal customers.

Doing Well by Doing Good

“Doing well by doing good” isn’t a catchphrase. It’s not even something that would be “nice” to do. It’s a mandate for all for-profits. However, implementing cause marketing should not be seen as a panacea for a business’ ills.

In today’s world, businesses cannot merely say they’re “doing good.” They actually have to “do” and prove it. Businesses have to share tangible results – more meals or volunteers at the homeless shelter; a new home for the young family affected by a tornado; books for the firstgrade class at the nearby elementary school. In doing so, they strengthen their brand, increase sales, improve morale and, yes, better their communities of interest.


1 Cone Communications, “Social Impact Study” (2013), 17.
2 Cone Communications, “Global CSR Study” (2013), 19.
3 Cone Communications, “Social Impact Study” (2013), 8.
4 The definitions listed here are summaries of ones found in “Good Works!”
5 Cone Communications, “Social Impact Study” (2013), 23.
6 Cone Communications, “Global CSR Study” (2013), 31.
7 Cone Communications, “Global CSR Study” (2013), 27.