Monday, September 21, 2020
Lynette Von Minden

How cause marketing has become more than just another promotional strategy

Over the years, we’ve had many green industry clients – as well as clients in other industries we serve – ask us about “cause marketing.” And we’ve recommended cause marketing as a potential strategy, particularly when clients look for ways to connect with their audiences on a more personal level. However, recently, cause marketing has evolved from simply sponsoring a charitable event or giving money to a foundation and calling it good. As millennials and their younger “siblings,” Generation Z, have come of age, their passion for altruism and “giving back” has made it necessary for marketers to reevaluate cause marketing – what it is, how to do it right and whether it’s a smart move for their businesses.

The basic idea behind cause marketing is that people are more willing to do business with companies that support their favorite charities or causes. After all, making the world a better place is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, and if companies can do that and improve their bottom lines at the same time, it’s truly a win-win situation.

The concept of corporate social responsibility isn’t new – for decades, businesses have contributed significantly to causes of all kinds, from fighting cancer to eliminating homelessness and everything in between. Certainly, those businesses that made solid efforts to publicize their philanthropy were able to strengthen their brands and win over some customers who may have previously been on the fence.

However, today, everyone claims to support SOMETHING. It’s not new; it’s not groundbreaking. And, simply saying you support something isn’t enough. Millennials and Gen Z have observed this type of corporate behavior their entire lives. They can see right through cause marketing activities with the sole purpose of selling them something. They’ve become far savvier and more skeptical about brands that say they’re behind a particular cause but don’t do much to back it up or engage with them about it on an ongoing basis.

I recently read an article that said we need to leave cause marketing in the dust. Instead, it’s “purpose” marketing that resonates with today’s socially sensitive consumers. Purpose marketing supports positive change rather than being against something, and that positive change has to be something that your corporate culture and your customers both truly believe in. It has to make sense. It can’t be a purpose you choose simply because you think a lot of people will like it. Consider what your business stands for, besides making money (which, let’s face it, has to be one of your goals or you wouldn’t be in business in the first place.)

In the green industry, it’s relatively easy to choose a purpose like “saving the environment,” “beautifying the world” or “stamping out hunger.” But it’s HOW you demonstrate your support that will either resonate or fall flat. In the past, corporations would publicize their cause marketing efforts using traditional media – placing ads or news stories where they thought their audiences would be most likely to read them. However, millennials and Gen Z are not big consumers of traditional media. They grew up with social and experiential media, which rely on direct engagement and interaction rather than passive, one-way communication. Authenticity and action are extremely important to them.

Consider these findings from the Case Foundation’s Millennial Impact Report which were gathered by surveying that generation over a 10-year period. According to the report, three main factors make millennials’ behavior different from previous generations:

  • They identify more directly with issues than the entrenched institutions.

  • They believe a bunch of small and even virtual acts can add up to larger social shifts.

  • They won’t publicly volunteer or donate until the specific cause group earns their affiliation and respect.

Let’s say your company sells seeds and vegetable plants to nurseries or garden centers. You could donate money to a local soup kitchen – that’s cause marketing. Or, you could find a way to establish and nurture a community garden in your hometown that helps provide low-income residents with a healthy food source. And, perhaps that community garden also donates excess produce to a local food bank that feeds people all year round. You could create a team of helpers by engaging employees and other supporters in your hometown to donate their time and energy to keep the garden productive all summer long, backed by your company’s knowledge and gardening expertise.

That’s just one example, and purpose marketing doesn’t always have to be quite that complex or labor intensive. Still, purpose marketing isn’t easy. It’s something that brands have to put a great deal of thought and energy into if they’re going to make it work. It takes time and careful consideration, particularly in today’s ever-evolving social landscape. And, honestly, it’s not a good idea for every business. But when it’s done right, you can create a wealth of authentic social media and PR opportunities. You can build elements of your purposeful brand into your other marketing communications as well. By doing so, you’re proving that your company doesn’t just talk about helping people – it actively engages with like-minded individuals and makes a difference.