<img src="//bat.bing.com/action/0?ti=5065582&amp;Ver=2" height="0" width="0" style="display:none; visibility: hidden;">
Amil Husain 11 min read

Cause Marketing: Selling Products Or Social Good?

Since the days of Edward Bernays, marketing has attempted to convince consumers of their hidden desire to buy products.  Have fifty years of manipulation run their course?   Many leading members of the cause marketing industry feel that consumers are beginning to demand corporations not only provide quality products but also become responsible members of the community.  Can your nonprofit afford to not become part of a cause marketing campaign?  I spoke with three leading practitioners of cause marketing to find out.

The way people view the role of corporations is constantly changing. Today many of the leading Fortune 500 companies have enacted pro-social campaigns.  Everyone from Exxon to Wal-Mart have initiatives that engage non-profits and local communities.  Corporate America’s sudden enthusiasm for doing good is being backed up by statistics as well.  According to the 2008 Cone Cause Evolution Study, 79% of respondents said they would switch brands (provided price and quality were equal) to the one that is associated with a good cause. Carol Cone, one of the pioneers in the cause-marketing world attributes the change to trust issues and a changing demographic, "Consumers expect companies to have profits with purpose and there are many reasons for it.  The first is because Millennials are the most pro social demographic since WW2.  The second is because of the tremendous erosion of trust in big corporations.  So companies are now expected to not just make a profit but also become engaged in social issues."

Enter Cause Marketing

Unlike corporate philanthropy, cause marketing is really about the collaborative effort of companies and nonprofits to achieve things they could never do alone.  Take the Nothing But Nets Campaign, a collaborative effort of the UN Foundation and a number of corporate partners including the National Basketball Association and VH1 to stamp out Malaria.  Nothing But Nets successfully leveraged the UN Foundation's expertise in infectious disease with their corporate sponsors money and celebrity resources to create a vibrant campaign that distributed over 2 million bed nets in 2008. 

Cause Marketing can be a highly effective method for nonprofits to increase their reach, but only if they partner with the right company.  Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy in detecting the PR stunts from authentic campaigns.  Dan Mannix, President of LeadDog Marketing elaborates on the trend, "Campaigns that are saying they will give x percentage to a cause are getting stale. Consumers are beginning to question what the actual percentage is and if they spend millions of dollars promoting themselves and only give a small amount to a nonprofit, is that really doing any work?  If cause marketing isn’t part of your company's mission and ethos it might not work very effectively.  If Goldman Sachs started to suddenly sponsor a charity event people might hold it into question because of their current bad publicity."

Getting a Cause Marketing Partner

Let’s say your nonprofit is sold on the idea of cause marketing and you want to bring on your fist corporate sponsor.  Industry experts advise the first step should actually be to take a step back and make sure you understand the strength of your own brand.  Carol Cone’s advice to nonprofits, “So the first thing you need to understand is your own brand meaning. Then you need to know who you are and what you can you offer to a corporation.”

Once you have a firm sense of your own brand, the next step is to start doing some homework on potential partners.  The name of the game is shared value here.  You have to make sure that your nonprofit is aligned with the corporation’s mission.  If you are a nonprofit working on breast cancer, Exxon might be able to fund a big marketing push, but is the partnership creating added value?  You’ll have a better chance to target five or ten high quality companies than a hundred that are a bad fit.  

Mark Feldman, Principal of Cause Consulting offers his suggestions for nonprofits, “The best way to go about it is enormous amounts of networking.  Really use the board, friends, etc. you want to get into a dialogue with the company rather than just cold calling.  You need to garner enough information to tailor your strategy.  For smaller non profit look locally and regionally, there are many smaller opportunities out there for you.”

Non-Profit Redundancy?

If more companies are entering the nonprofit space, does this mean we will get to a point where companies no longer need their charity partner?  Probably not.  Mark Feldman explains why we will be able to keep our jobs, “We're seeing more companies taking on more responsibility and building their own structure but there is always the issue of credibility and expertise. When you get to the point of needing to solve social problems you really need the nonprofit partner's expertise.  Even if you're an expert in technology you might not be an expert in technology in low-income areas. They shouldn't and can't do it alone.”

Cause Marketing isn’t going to save your nonprofit, but it could be a powerful method of reaching audiences that you haven’t been able to penetrate before.  Smaller nonprofits might consider looking locally first to test the cause marketing waters before plunging into a full fledged national partnership. For some examples of successful cause marketing campaigns take a look at some of these resources:

Any other great cause marketing stories out there?

*Amil Husain is a online strategy consultant for non profits living in Washington DC.  You can read his blog at www.futuremediachange.com

You should follow Frogloop on Twitter.