Cause Marketing – Ready for Primetime

I recently attended two of the key trade shows related to cause marketing, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). While the ‘dark Greens’ preached the gospel of sustainability, over the past several years, early thought leading companies have proven that there is big potential by being truly Purpose-driven. Here are some of the conclusions I drew from these experiences:

  • From the most capitalistic of perspectives, “Doing well by doing good” is good for the company.  It reduces cost, increases efficiency, and adds to bottom line. This is like Environmental Six Sigma. Countless examples of companies from Nike to Walmart to IBM have proven that re-thinking supply chain, manufacturing, and packaging can result in big savings, which allows dollars to simply fall to the bottom line. Win-win-win: company reduces cost, shareholders win, consumers realize benefits of less environmental impact.
  • The sustainability community is rabid over the impact Millennials will have on spending, and that through their behavior they will force organizations to incorporate sustainability and cause into every aspect of their business. While our research shows that Millenials may be more bark than bite, as they climb their corporate ladders and their household incomes rise it will be interesting to watch whether this cohort who espouse the purpose-driven ethos support these beliefs with their purchases.
  • Speaking of Millenials, big companies that have historically struggled to attract and retain young talent . By focusing in a meaningful way on engaging with local community projects or supporting a Cause that strategically correlates to the company’s core focus, large organizations have realized they can reinvent themselves into companies that are much more appealing to the best and brightest entering the workforce. Think purpose-driven positioning as competitive advantage.
  • Consumers want to do the right thing. The underlying message of one of the trade shows I attended was that the Sustainability community needs to stop marketing products to itself  (they affectionality call themselves the ‘Dark Greens’ at the end of the belief spectrum), and start  marketing in a way that coincides with the beliefs and purchase behaviors of mainstream consumers. This means charging the same price for the green version of a product, not a premium. It means not advertising to consumer based on fear and guilt of impending doom, but how we can all participate in a positive outcome. Bring consumers along on the journey.

What was most revealing to me was the sheer volume of big, market-leading companies that are now five to six years into their sustainability efforts and have significantly reinvented their businesses. This is not Ben & Jerry’s, this is Unilever, Nestle, Coca Cola, Starbucks, AT&T. They figured out a little secret, which is that they now have a really compelling story to tell, and the more they tell it the more successful they’ll be. They’re now ready to tell it, and use their real, authentic commitment to being purpose driven as a strategic advantage.

In the next year, I think we will see a significant uptick in advertising that underscores corporate efforts to be a good corporate citizen (domestically and globally) and emphasizes how products are being manufactured more sustainably. For the leaders, this messaging will become one piece of their overall corporate marketing strategy, but a critical one that will be woven throughout the fabric of all of their campaigns.

To become smarter yet remain subtle, companies will need to find a way to connect with consumers on a deeper level.  Online advertising is an ideal medium for this.  Matching corporate values with consumer values in and communicating with these consumers in the places online where they are more engaged becomes key. In the past, identifying ‘greens’ was enough; in the future, it will become increasingly important to deliver different messaging for those concerned about sustainable forestry than you do for those focused on recycling programs, and yet another message for those focused on renewable energy.

As Cause and CSR marketing becomes mainstream, finding the right audience predisposed to responding favorably will become critical – as we’ve you can only reach a precise audience like this at scale online.

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