Taking a look at cause marketing: Principles and keys to success

May 21, 2020
NFP Strategy

What is cause marketing?

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, we have heard near-daily announcements of corporate philanthropy directed to support various causes: health care, food banks, mental health, and more. The question is, do these tremendous acts of generosity equate to cause marketing?  The simple answer is no.

Cause marketing in its simplest form is a marketing relationship for mutual benefit between a “cause”, be it a charity or not-for-profit, and a corporation. Rather than an outright philanthropic commitment, this is the execution of a deliberate marketing plan by two partners with the financial return to the cause coming from the corporation’s sales or promotion.

4 basic principles:

Let’s consider cause marketing as it relates to the fundamental 4P’s of marketing:

The product is the cause itself. In some cases, the cause is a specific charity such as the Canadian Cancer Society, in other cases it could be a larger societal issue such as clean drinking water, hunger, poverty, or children’s health. 

For example, Bell Canada’s popular “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign includes the use of all Bell marketing channels to tackle the stigma around mental health. The campaign engages customers to share personal stories, and grants funds raised to a range of organizations that are working to address the mental health crisis in Canada.

The price is the contribution from the corporation or its customers towards the cause. This can be a direct customer donation, a percentage of sales, or a buy one give one promotion. Corporations may also up the ante by matching consumer donations or rewarding social media interactions. Either way, it is the customer and the corporation working in tandem to support the cause.

Cause marketing campaigns engage customers at the cash, during online shopping, through call centres, via social media, in traditional advertising, and more. At the heart of it, cause marketing encourages customers to support a shared cause through marketing. Campaigns may be on a single day like DQ’s Miracle Treat Day or Bell Let’s Talk, run for a period of time like Indigo’s Love of Reading, or last year-round like Kruger’s brand alignment with Breast Cancer.

When a cause marketing campaign is well-executed by the corporate partner, it helps raise both critical funds and awareness of the cause. It also actively enhances employee engagement and builds customer loyalty.

Sound simple?  It’s not. Like any relationship that involves two parties there are keys to success that can help create a winning formula, achieve the goals of both organizations, and realize maximum value.

Keys to success:

The right fit

Shared values are at the heart of successful cause marketing relationships. Companies should look for alignment between their selected cause and the interests of their employees and customers. A cause marketing campaign needs to feel authentic and make sense to both primary constituents as they are ultimately responsible for the campaign’s success. 

For retail point-of-sale campaigns, the associate “making the ask” has a critical role to play and must believe in the cause.” On average, only 1 in 4 customers will donate. It’s incumbent on the company to keep associates motivated and engaged. The customer also shouldn’t be surprised by the cause they are being asked to support – it needs to make sense.

And it goes both ways. Charities should also do their due diligence. Does the alignment of brands make sense? Do your audiences align? Is the commitment genuine? Is there a potential reputational risk?

Clear expectations and a plan for execution…

Both parties need to be upfront about what they can and cannot offer.  It’s essential to work together to build a clear campaign plan with well-defined goals, roles, and accountabilities. Each organization should be prepared to execute with the same level of commitment to ensure all stakeholders realize anticipated value.

Comprehensive marketing plans should cover details such as development and ownership of marketing assets and collateral, promotional channels, anticipated audience reach, and measurement metrics. Companies should ensure that sufficient infrastructure and technology are in place to track transactions and process donations/matching commitments.

A formal agreement is always important, but it is even more critical that corporate partners take their accountability to cause partners seriously. At the end of the day, the charitable partner is dependent on the corporation to deliver on their commitments.

…And a plan for gratitude

Well-rounded cause marketing programs should include a unified thank you to those who participated. Ultimately, the success of a cause marketing program is the customers’ willingness to donate $1 or $5. Closing your campaign by announcing a financial total and highlighting the impact towards the mission, creates a sense of pride and accomplishment for cause beneficiaries, employees, and customers.

A final thought:

A successful cause marketing campaign will strengthen a company’s brand, enhance customer loyalty, and inspire and engage employees. Causes enjoy a boost in revenue, increased awareness for their cause, and new supporters. To realize this mutual benefit, be strategic, clarify goals and expectations, plan ahead, and don’t forget to say thank you.

Submitted by:

Tamara D. Pope, MBA, CM
Vice President, Marketing and Communications
Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation

Shelley Mayer, CM
Founder & President
Ramp Communications

Tamara and Shelley are both members of the CMA Not-For-Profit Council.




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