The next phase of cause marketing

July 30, 2012

By TRAY creative

This is the first in a four-part series examining how companies are leveraging their influence to drive social good, and joining their customers and fans in a demonstration of shared values—all through social media.

Brands and customers joining forces for social change

In 2010, Pepsi raised a lot of eyebrows when it decided to forego advertising in the Super Bowl for the first time in over two decades, instead focusing on a cause marketing campaign—driven largely through social media—called the Pepsi Refresh Project. It was the clearest sign yet that savvy businesses are waking up to a new expectation: American consumers are eager to team with their favorite brands in supporting and promoting social causes.

In fact, the 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study found that more than 8 in 10 consumers say they wish more of the products, services and retailers they use would support causes. Nearly as many say they are likely to switch from one brand to another—price and quality being equal—if the other brand is associated with a good cause. And the clincher from an ROI perspective: More than half say that when choosing between two companies that each benefit a cause and sell equivalent products, they would pick the company that allows them to impact the donation by tying it into a purchase.

Those in corporate boardrooms seem to get it, at least on a broad level. According to the PR Week/Barkley Cause Survey of 2010, 75 percent of companies surveyed now engage in some form of cause marketing.

Yet in some ways the corporate conception of cause marketing still lags behind the consumer public: Only around one-third of the companies surveyed actually engage their own customers in cause efforts, and even fewer engage their own employees.

That’s a crucial missed opportunity.

The birth of a new era in cause marketing

Cause marketing, of course, is not a new concept. Its current form dates back to the ‘70s, when Marriott Inc. conducted a $2.5 million campaign on behalf of the March of Dimes. Since then, brands as diverse as American Express, Crate & Barrel, Lee, Nike, Gap and Starbucks have continually upped the stakes, using cause-related sales to collectively raise hundreds of millions of dollars for health, education and other social endeavors.

Then came Pepsi. As part of its Refresh Project, the global behemoth asked users to nominate and vote on specific nonprofit groups that would receive grants from the company. Pepsi handed out $20 million to causes in the U.S., and eventually expanded the program internationally.

What made this initiative different from its predecessors is the way in which Pepsi solicited participants: primarily through social media channels. It was one of the first high-profile cause campaigns that largely bypassed traditional media to reach its audience. The effort paid off in terms of consumer connection: Not long after the launch of the campaign, Pepsi had more than quadrupled its total of Facebook fans. And according to Advertising Age, Pepsi’s key brand attributes improved measurably over the course of the campaign.

Pepsi showed that simply writing a check for charity or even producing a cause-related product is no longer the best way to make a difference; far greater impact can come from harnessing the social energy of a brand community. Just as important, it also demonstrated that a brand doesn’t need expensive media buys to have a direct, meaningful conversation with consumers.

Coming in Part 2: How to build your own social media-driven cause campaign