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Dana Weissman 7 min read

How Nonprofits Can Benefit From Cause-Related Marketing

Care2’s Dana Weissman had a great discussion on cause-related marketing with Rob Densen, founder of Tiller LLC, a leading advocacy marketing and communications consulting firm. Densen has developed innovative programs ranging from demystifying the language of Wall Street for AARP Financial to an alliance focused on minority financial empowerment that brings together the ING Foundation with Girls Inc.

DW: Considering the economic downturn, do you think brands will be investing more or less in aligning themselves with causes, rather than concentrating on the tangible properties of their brand?

RD: Actually, it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition. The challenge is finding causes and issues at the nexus of customer concern, organizational expertise and brand equities.

We think we are entering a Golden Age for these sorts of customer-and-business-aligned cause marketing initiatives. Consumers are financially stretched and emotionally bedraggled, more discerning when it comes to purchase behaviors and increasingly skeptical if not downright disbelieving in their attitudes toward corporate America. Companies cannot proclaim their integrity or trustworthiness or concern; those qualities must be demonstrated. American business needs to win back customer trust. It is not a competition of words, but of informed actions. Companies must unsheathe their swords and become a forceful and relentless advocate for consumers on issues that are meaningful to them. Clearly, a greater corporate focus on advocacy and cause marketing represents a tremendous opportunity for nonprofits.

DW: What should nonprofits look for in a corporate partner? What typifies a strong cause partnership?

RD: The first place nonprofits should be looking is inward. A little soul searching never hurt anybody. It’s the rare nonprofit that couldn’t do a better job of assessing its own core competencies and brand equities. Take an inventory. What are we good at? What qualities do we manifest? Who are we serving? How are we different from, and better than, the competition? Then, and only then, should nonprofits look for corporate sponsors.

There’s a crass, financial consideration at work here too. Obviously, the better aligned the cause/nonprofit is with the brand, the more valuable that sponsorship or underwriting is to the corporate partner. On a related note, nonprofits must get more aggressive in coming up with sponsorship opportunities that powerfully underscore their brand value and marketing them aggressively to corporations for whom they make particular sense. When I had responsibilities for charitable giving and sponsorship at a large corporation, I was amazed at how hard I had to work to find sensible, aligned sponsorship opportunities. I had budget dollars. Why weren’t nonprofits knocking down the doors with ideas?

DW: Consumer-generated content (i.e. discussion boards, social networks) has given everyone an opportunity to have a say in what a brand means. How does this play into cause relationships?

RD: Honest dialog never hurt anyone or any brand. At the same time, when it comes to social media, the opportunities for misinformation and outright abuse are obvious. Clearly, consumers and companies alike need to be both vigilant and discerning. Relative to cause marketing, I think social media is awesome. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible for companies to fake their devotion to a cause. There are millions of eyeballs watching what you do – as a business and relative to the issue. That’s probably a good thing.

DW: What vehicles are proving successful in publicizing and fulfilling nonprofit/corporate cause partnerships?

RD: I think successful partnerships are less about the vehicle and more about identifying the right unmet or underserved need at the intersection of what the nonprofit does and what the corporate underwriter stands for and/or is good at. Essentially, that’s what we do at Tiller. We specialize in identifying issues and properties that powerfully and contextually align a company and a cause. Once you find the right platform, there are any number of vehicles that can work.

That said, most of our advocacy campaigns are based on public opinion polling. Those data are used as the basis for a high-profile PR campaign, which, typically, drives consumer interest to a client-generated website rich in content, both information and guidance. We’re big believers in interactive media, particularly websites, which are empowering, allow users to drill deep on an issue, and are both cost effective and easy to update. Obviously, our ability to attract major media attention to an issue is highly attractive to our clients.

DW: Any cautionary notes?

RD: Only one. Corporations need – and their nonprofit partners should insist on – a genuine commitment to the issue or market. The public’s antennae are out. These can’t be empty exercises or crass marketing conceits. Companies need to demonstrate a real understanding of customer needs and concerns and a genuine commitment to meaningfully address them over time. That, in turn, requires a multi-year perspective. These programs don’t work with a quarter-to-quarter mindset. You can’t proclaim your advocacy around an issue one day and not be there for your customers the next.

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