Be Careful With Your Cause Marketing

Amon Rappaport // Nov 19 // Insights

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To help cure breast cancer, should you: a) watch football, b) gamble, or c) buy corn?

If the cause marketing promotions during the October observance of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month provide any clue, the answer is…all of the above!

Yes, among the myriad pink-ribbon promotions I saw last month were NFL players wearing pink shoes and other gear, part of the league’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign benefitting the American Cancer Society; a “Corn for the Cause” label with the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s logo on a package of corn; and a Susan G. Komen for the Cure logo on a billboard for a San Diego-area casino that featured a gleaming motorcycle and the headline ‘Win this bike, Support a good cause.’

To be clear: these are three highly reputable organizations that, individually and collectively, are doing great work on the urgent issue of breast cancer. And I applaud them, and their corporate partners, for devising creative promotions to engage people in this important cause.

But whether you’re a cause, a company or a consumer, last month’s promotions, as well as the many more we’ll see during the months of "Movember" and December, are a good reminder to be careful with your cause marketing. Here are some of the pros and cons, and questions to consider, before embarking on this kind of journey:

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Both causes and companies get brand benefit from the increased focus on breast cancer during October. Jump on the boat, the conventional wisdom goes, and you’ll get some rise.

Who Do You Want on Your Boat?

  • You can’t do any meaningful marketing on autopilot. It takes some real rowing. So, choose your promotional partners wisely. Make sure they’re not just coming along for the ride (or collecting the fare), but are willing to put some muscle in—even when the waters get rough.

What If the Boat Sinks?

  • What if your partner’s “baggage” is so heavy that you spring a leak or sink? Komen is still weathering a controversy that started when it withdrew funding for Planned Parenthood, a decision it has since reversed. And even the NFL has come under fire for reportedly pocketing more from the sale of each pink gear item than it donated to the cause.

How Will You Stand Out Amid a Sea of Sameness?

  • Most importantly: before investing heavily in a cause campaign, make sure it’s designed to set you apart from every other ribbon-loving brand out there. The reality in a super-saturated world is that most cause marketing efforts will only get you so far.

Building a truly purpose-driven brand that engages your audiences as evangelists is a long-term journey. It takes more than a month-long sprint or even a walkathon. It takes a sustained commitment at all levels of your organization, from marketing and management, to making widgets and everything in between.

The business value of what I like to call “brand purpose” is reinforced by research from Jim Stengel, P&G’s former global marketing officer, which found that brands serving a higher purpose achieve better financial performance.

I recently joined i.d.e.a. as Vice President, Brand Purpose, to help our clients realize that dual promise of creating value while changing the world. Are you along for the ride? If so, here are a few tips to remember as you navigate toward that ideal destination of a higher purpose brand:

  1. You can use cause marketing as one element in your overall approach. But be careful: don’t let it be your anchor and certainly not your lifeboat.
  2. Better yet, chart a course toward your north star—the bright light that attracts you, your company and your cause—and keep rowing.

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