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Ooma Business Blog

Cause marketing campaigns: lessons from American Express, Gap & other companies

By Husain Sumra|Tuesday September 21, 2021

A cause marketing campaign can be a way for your business to create brand awareness and demonstrate social responsibility during challenging times. And it has a dual purpose: to increase the company’s profits and contribute to the betterment of society. The betterment of society objective can take different forms, such as drawing attention to a charitable organization or contributing money to an organization.

Cause marketing campaigns date back to the 1980s. Famously, American Express’s 1983 campaign raised $1.7 million to restore the Statue of Liberty in partnership with the Ellis Island Foundation. American Express promised to donate a penny to the Statue of Liberty restoration for each new card issued in the U.S. during the fourth quarter of 1983. The success of this campaign helped spark the cause marketing trend, which was discussed in a 1988 article in the Journal of Marketing.

Before you start a cause marketing campaign, it is helpful to learn the best practices for this type of marketing. Let’s start by illustrating a few examples of successful and less successful campaigns.

Successful cause marketing campaigns.

The Body Shop, a company that offers beauty and skin care products, partnered with the dating app Tinder in a cause marketing campaign to restore the rainforest. Specifically, The Body Shop created a Tinder profile for Reggie, a red-shanked douc monkey from Vietnam, which included information about the Bio-Bridges program. The Body Shop launched the Bio-Bridges initiative in 2016 to help create corridors where endangered species could meet, mate and repopulate. The campaign was well aligned with the company’s long-standing practice of opposing cosmetic testing on animals.

Cause marketing campaigns: What can go wrong?

In 2019, Burger King’s cause marketing campaign related to mental health awareness, which included company donations to Mental Health America, was criticized because some viewed mental health as unrelated to the company’s brand. In addition, some people questioned whether the company was providing meaningful mental health support to its employees. To avoid the kind of criticism Burger King faced, align your company’s brand with the cause you support. If your cause marketing campaign involves donating to an organization, expect those donations to come under scrutiny. 

Tips for cause marketing campaigns.

To inform the development of your cause marketing campaigns, use the following cause marketing tips. 

  1. Align the cause marketing campaign focus with the company’s history and values.

A cause marketing campaign can work well when it is connected to the company’s long-standing position. For example, The Body Shop has a history of advocating for animal welfare. Their cause marketing to help endangered species dovetails with their commitment to not test their cosmetics on animals. By contrast, Burger King came under criticism for pursuing a mental health campaign that was seen as unrelated to the company’s brand. 

Some brands support a cause in a way that is directly related to their brands. For more than a decade, the shoe company Toms had a “One for One” program where it donated more than 90 million pairs of shoes on a one-to-one model (i.e., when a customer bought one pair of shoes, Toms would donate one pair of shoes) before ending the program in 2019. Today, the footwear company donates one-third of its profits to causes.

As you consider partners and causes, make sure there is no conflict or perceived conflict between your company and the cause you are supporting. In 2011, a KFC franchise launched a campaign to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation based on sales of a mega-jug of Pepsi. The Atlantic summarized the problem of this campaign: “Worst Way to Fight Diabetes: Buy a Giant Pepsi.”

Apply this tip by asking your colleagues what causes, charities and non-profit organizations your company has supported in the past. Those past actions may suggest a potential direction for a cause marketing campaign.

  1. Consider your employment standards in light of the potential campaign.

Launching a cause marketing campaign may prompt people to question your company’s track record.

Take Product (RED) for example. In 2006, the musician Bono launched Product (RED) where “profits from the line of consumer goods are designated to fight the AIDS epidemic worldwide.” Product (RED) involves partnerships with multiple brands, including Gap. According to an NBC News report, former Global Fund executive director Sir Richard Feachem said Gap “knew it had to live up to its commitments to provide workers with HIV antiretroviral drugs at its Product (RED) manufacturing plant in Lesotho.” The same principle would apply in other cause marketing campaigns. For example, a company that supports an environmental cause might face questions about its sustainability practices.

Make a few notes about your planned cause marketing campaign and discuss the idea with others in the company, like human resources officers. Share the Burger King, KFC and Gap examples to illustrate why it’s important to look at your marketing campaign from many perspectives. 

  1. Think through the financial aspects of the campaign.

The costs and benefits of a specific cause marketing campaign may not add up. For example, companies like American Express, Apple and Gap participated in the Product (RED) campaign to raise funds for HIV/AIDS needs. Unfortunately, NBC News has pointed out that “(RED) has been daringly exclusive and surprisingly secretive in disclosing how much its cause and corporate partners each benefit.”

Further, one Product (RED) critic set up a website with “a satirical logo similar to Product (RED)’s and urged consumers to give their money directly to the Global Fund.” Constant questions and criticism about the financial details of a cause marketing campaign may take attention away from the ultimate cause.

Put these tips into action:

  • Apply Warren Buffet’s newspaper test. Ask how you would feel about the cause if you knew the campaign was going to be featured in a local newspaper article “written by a smart but pretty unfriendly reporter.” 
  • Disclose the results. When the campaign is finished, it is best to announce the campaign results (e.g., dollars donated to the organization) to the public. Disclosing the results not only shows your company is transparent, but it can also create further excitement around the campaign.
  1. Explore the legal aspects involved in cause marketing campaigns.

Principles like transparency and disclosure are helpful to keep in mind when planning a cause marketing campaign. Rather than a vague statement like “profits donated to charity,” it is more helpful to make a specific statement like stating a dollar amount or percentage of the purchase price going to charity. In addition, Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi and South Carolina require registration by companies for charitable sales promotions. 

Put these tips into action:

  • Review your cause marketing campaign material for clarity and specific details (e.g., state a dollar amount donated).
  • Check for any state or local cause marketing campaign laws or regulations that apply to your company’s campaign.

Looking for other marketing ideas?

You may already have a cause marketing campaign in action. In that case, consider other marketing plans like direct mail campaigns or start brainstorming now for Black Friday sales.

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