“Fake it until you make it” is an adage that might be appropriate for fleeting moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. However, when applied to cause-related marketing campaigns, it’s a recipe for disaster that could ultimately result in your brand being painted with a term that’s more in keeping with the modern vernacular: Cringe.
This marketing technique can be a powerful one, but your efforts must be authentic. Let’s take a look at a few cause marketing campaigns that hit the mark and a few that give us second-hand embarrassment.
What Is Cause-Related Marketing, or Cause Marketing?
Cause marketing often refers to marketing activities undertaken by a business to promote a social cause instead of simply soliciting purchases. Of course, higher sales over the long run are often an end goal for these marketing activities, as is promoting brand awareness and burnishing the company’s reputation. Historically, a common tactic for cause-related marketing has been to promise additional corporate giving based on consumer transactions.
How Has This Type of Marketing Evolved Over the Years?
Cause-related marketing is widely considered to have started with an American Express campaign that offered additional company donations to a fund for restoring the Statue of Liberty based on how many times cardholders swiped their AmEx during a specified period in 1983.
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In 1982 I had the honor of being hired to photograph the Statue of Liberty by American Express and launch the private sectors effort to raise the funds for the renovation and preservation of the Statue for its centennial in 1986. I got to sleep on the island at dawn I photographed this tight shot of the face of the Statue of Liberty. With my Nikon F2 600mm f4 * * #nyc #newyorklife #explorer #explore #iloveny #newyorkcity #instatravel #travelphoto #citylife #fineartphotography #newyork_instagram #lonelyplanet #nycphotographer #nikonusa #newyorker #topnewyorkphoto #newyorkstateofmind #travelnyc #newyorker #StatueofLiberty #AmericanExpress #landmark #tbt #monument #nationalmonument #park #vuescan #analogphotography #kodachrome #freedom #art
While the credit card company coined the term in response to that specific campaign, others pointed out that similar efforts were taking place about a century earlier, also in connection with the Statue of Liberty. For example, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer published the names of donors who contributed to a fund for the construction of the monument’s pedestal.
Cause Marketing Today
Since the 1980s, cause marketing campaigns have often embraced social responsibility in ways that may have been deemed too divisive to address in the decades past. At the same time, while corporate sponsorship is still a common component of cause-based marketing, companies are wary of commercializing important issues. As a result, more general social advocacy is often a popular approach.
On the other end of the spectrum, bland awareness campaigns that aren’t backed by additional action often ring hollow to the modern consumer. Today, earning brand loyalty and increased profit from a cause marketing strategy requires time, commitment and authenticity.
Cause Marketing Campaigns: The Charitable and the Cringe
If you’re looking for a way to put corporate social responsibility in the spotlight, increase awareness and maybe even boost your profit margin along the way, a cause marketing campaign is a great place to start. Let’s take a look at a few examples of digital marketing hits and misses when it comes to social responsibility:
Best Cause Marketing Campaigns
Even while faced with the challenge of figuring out how to market during a crisis ever since the pandemic, many business leaders still manage to pull off interesting and exciting cause-related marketing campaigns. They bolstered their brands by finding nonprofit partners that aligned with their established identities. Think back to our original example: It would be difficult to find a more fitting complement to American Express’s brand than the Statue of Liberty.
Along with supporting specific nonprofit organizations, successful cause marketing campaigns are often simple and contain a clear call to action for loyal customers and other stakeholders.
Starbucks Steps Up to “Fuel Our Democracy”
In addition to integrating voter registration resources into the Starbucks app and their new website, FuelOurDemocracy.com, the coffee giant announced a plan to work with employees on ensuring that they have the resources they need to register and vote on or before election day.
Starbucks is taking a major step forward to make sure no partner (employee) will have to choose between working their shift or voting on or before Election Day. Learn more about Starbucks plan for supporting voter engagement here: https://t.co/iFCJLnaUT7
— Starbucks News (@StarbucksNews) August 27, 2020
The plan supports conversations between managers and employees to verify that workers are all able to vote, advocacy for polling place accessibility and more.
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The NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats”
This partnership brings together the NFL, team franchises and individual players to support causes chosen by the athletes. Custom-designed footwear raises awareness for a nonprofit selected by the player. Often, they’ll share a personal story that explores their connection to the issue.
.@Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower was raised by an incredible single parent and understands the struggle.
That’s why he’s supporting @onefamilyinc, which creates opportunities for single parent families by taking them from homelessness to college. #MyCauseMyCleats pic.twitter.com/5xsBVLAFBr
— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2019
Players can then donate the cleats to NFL Auction. Fans bid on these special items, and proceeds go to designated charitable causes. There’s a strong alignment between player, team and league brands because of the authentic connection that each athlete has with their chosen charity.
Pepsi and “One World Together at Home”
Pepsi was one of the co-sponsors for Global Citizen’s “One World Together at Home” streaming and broadcast special featuring big-name performers like Jennifer Lopez, Stephen Colbert and Beyonce. The idea was to support the World Health Organization and front-line workers while promoting responsible practices that help slow the spread of the virus, like staying in.
Stay in with us April 18th to join the fight against COVID19. We’re partnering with @GlblCtzn to bring together some of the world’s biggest stars to celebrate the heroic efforts of health care workers. One World #TogetherAtHome https://t.co/W9PokwvKkE pic.twitter.com/lw34HUjPBb
— Pepsi (@pepsi) April 6, 2020
In conjunction, Pepsi launched a related campaign, #StayInWithUs, which included cheeky cross promotions, like a short video from Shaquille O’Neal encouraging viewers to order pizza from Papa John’s and use a Pepsi promo code. The organizers created an air of familiarity and comfort around the essential practice of social distancing during what was an unsettling transition period for many people. Pepsi was able to stick to what it does best while their partners at Global Citizen gave participants in the campaign actionable next steps about how to help fight COVID-19.
The FDA and “The Real Cost” Campaign
It’s not every day that you see a government entity jumping into the marketing landscape, but that’s exactly what the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does with its award-winning “The Real Cost” campaign. According to the FDA, this marketing strategy uses “teen-relevant communication channels” to target young audiences who may be starting or continuing to use tobacco products.
In this example, posters have been placed in a high school bathroom, using casual language and relevant information to raise awareness about “the real cost” of using tobacco products. It’s a marketing strategy where the only real profit is a safer, healthier country.
Worst Cause Marketing Examples
Cause marketing campaigns can be undone by a lack of authenticity or misalignment between the values of a company and its partner organizations.
Even if you have a worthy cause you want to promote, ineffective marketing efforts can easily backfire with your target audience.
In the rush to be timely, businesses can make mistakes. Take a look at these cause-related marketing examples as cautionary tales, and learn how to avoid some common pitfalls.
T-Shirts From the Starbucks Black Partner Network
This summer, widespread demonstrations about racism and police misconduct swept across the nation. Initial reports indicated that Starbucks refused to allow employees to wear pins or apparel that supported Black Lives Matter. The company eventually reversed course, announcing it would ship T-shirts designed by the Starbucks Black Partner Network to hundreds of thousands of employees.
Black Lives Matter. We continue to listen to our partners and communities and their desire to stand for justice together. The Starbucks Black Partner Network co-designed t-shirts with this graphic that will soon be sent to 250,000+ store partners. pic.twitter.com/Wexb45RcTE
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) June 12, 2020
As many commentators indicated, the corporation’s actions had already created a different narrative, one for which the T-shirt alone may have not been a sufficient response.
The NFL’s “End Racism” End Zone
As the football season returned this year, fans noticed the words “End Racism” had been stenciled into the end zones of the field at Arrowhead Stadium, home to the Kansas City Chiefs.
End racism. #ItTakesAllOfUs pic.twitter.com/IU4G626FvQ
— NFL (@NFL) September 10, 2020
Many viewers found the visual somewhat at odds, since the team name, “Chiefs,” appeared, in much larger letters, right next to the anti-racist directive. The use of Native tropes and imagery in professional sports has been controversial for some time, and given the lack of a clear message about what concrete steps the viewer was supposed to take to “end racism,” it seems safe to say that this message did not achieve its intended outcome.
Pepsi’s “Live for Now” Campaign
This commercial was widely derided for oversimplifying the narrative around recent protests. The short film seemed to suggest that civil unrest could be solved by simply sharing a soft drink. Pepsi’s 2017 “Live for Now” campaign appeared to flop so badly that the company wound up essentially apologizing to the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kendall Jenner in the same breath.
We at Pepsi believe in the legacy of Dr. King & meant absolutely no disrespect to him & others who fight for justice. pic.twitter.com/rM8W8i0Euu
— Pepsi (@pepsi) April 5, 2017
Some topics require a great deal of gravity that doesn’t mix easily with certain brand identities. In this case, a quiet press release that disclosed tangible company policy priorities and corporate giving strategies would have made a much more convincing, if smaller, impact than a flashy, misguided ad.
Burger King on International Women’s Day 2021
Although shock value has been used effectively in many marketing examples, that wasn’t the case in this 2021 Tweet by Burger King.
The message of the thread was ultimately positive, promoting the restaurant’s new scholarship program and celebrating corporate social responsibility. However, because the first Tweet appeared alone, some readers never saw the follow-up.
This is an example of a potentially powerful marketing strategy marred by an ineffective utilization of the social media platform. For example, if Burger King had chosen to fit more information in a single Tweet, it would have been much more difficult to take the original statement out of context.
Why Do Brands Run Cause Marketing Campaigns?
Brands may use cause marketing campaigns to create a distinct brand identity in a field where competitors can seem similar at first glance. Additionally, cause-based marketing can be a way to encourage employee engagement and drive support up and down the supply chain. People want to feel like they’re working for, or doing business with, an organization that supports social responsibility.
There’s another more practical reason behind cause-related marketing, too. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the things we once took for granted can become weird and uncanny in a flash. Even seeing people shake hands in TV show reruns seems momentarily perplexing. To a certain extent, if brands don’t respond to crises, they can risk seeming completely out of touch.
Pros of Doing a Cause Marketing Campaign
First of all, the biggest pro of an effective cause marketing campaign is that charities and nonprofit organizations stand to benefit. These institutions do a lot of good for the world, and they rely on individual donors and corporate partners to achieve the impact they desire.
It’s perhaps not surprising that many nonprofits readily welcome cause marketing. Groups like the Greater Cleveland Food Bank directly seek out companies looking to launch cause marketing campaigns.
Thank you to our partners that are hosting cause marketing campaigns to benefit the Food Bank! We’re so grateful for the continued support during these challenging times! Want more info on our current campaigns or hosting a cause marketing campaign? Visit https://t.co/PH0DmQOuZf! pic.twitter.com/QfvHMjSKph
— Greater Cleveland Food Bank (@CleFoodBank) July 20, 2020
Second, cause marketing campaigns can be a great way for a company to demonstrate social responsibility to customers and other stakeholders. By using clear messaging that addresses contemporary social issues and taking concrete action, businesses show that they’re willing to be ethical corporate citizens who care about more than just making a buck.
Cons of Doing a Cause Marketing Campaign
Depending on the details of your cause marketing strategy, you could look insincere, muting your impact, or worse, bringing negative attention to your missteps. Today, companies operate in a saturated social media landscape where their every move is scrutinized not just by consumers but by influencers as well.
To get it right, businesses need to:
- Find a cause that aligns with their brand identity.
- Commit to the cause deeply, including with concrete actions.
- Carefully craft their messaging.
- Time their campaigns well.
That last point is a little trickier than you might think. For instance, in the U.K., a survey found that only 25% of respondents thought companies were being sincere when they showed support for LGBTQ causes during Pride month. However, 38% believed brands were genuine when they demonstrated their support at other times of the year.
While it’s important not to ignore major social events as they happen, you have to make a long-term commitment. Otherwise, you could be seen as a bandwagon opportunist.
Create a Cause Marketing Campaign Without the Cringe
We’ve seen the good and the bad — now it’s time to make sure your cause-based marketing campaigns fall firmly in the former category.
Remember, the trick is to “read the room” — or, in this case, social media and other relevant platforms. You need to know how the world is responding to an event before you add your voice to the conversation. Perhaps most importantly, it’s key to use a proper tone in all your messaging, especially during a crisis or in the midst of a significant social debate.
If you’re looking for inspiration that will help you stand out from the crowd without the cringe, you’ve come to the right place. Subscribe to our newsletter for all the latest marketing examples, ideas and things to avoid.
Editor’s Note: Updated September 2022.