While the definition and nomenclature around cause marketing varies considerably, there are certain elements that everyone can agree on from an execution standpoint. It must be a) transparent, b) authentic, and c) integrated. The belief is that if a cause marketing initiative upholds these tenets, it will be effective in connecting the consumer, company, and cause in ways that benefit all parties. The consumer feels good about doing their part and supporting a socially conscious company. The company elevates it’s brand position by outwardly demonstrating a commitment to core values and strengthens relationships with both customers and the non-profit partners it supports. And the cause gains greater visibility and awareness in the market, and access to the funds and resources needed to drive change.
But Phil McCarty, Founder of McCarty Partners, seeks to take that formula one step further by insuring that the personal connection to the cause is intricately woven, not only in the external marketing efforts, but in the behind-the-scenes activities that the consumer may never even see. In that spirit, Phil and his team work tirelessly to match up nonprofits with companies to create a deep, sustainable connection that transcends a singular promotion or campaign. Somewhat of a nonprofit matchmker, Phil seeks to forge the relationships that change lives. From shareholders to C-level management to human resources and employees, McCarty Partners solidifies ties where the entire origanization is personally invested — and contributing — to the outcome. Innovating change, McCarty Partners takes the mechanics of cause marketing and infuses them with meaning to make them both memorable and measurable.
McCarty Partners refers to this concept as “cause innovation.” How do you distinguish that from more traditional cause marketing efforts?
We started as a cause marketing agency, but as we began to engage with clients, we quickly saw that their needs surpassed traditional cause marketing initiatives. Organizational and resource development became key to many of our clients, as did a need to integrate fundraising disciplines to provide the most innovative approach to fundraising and cause marketing. We take a holistic approach – we look at the entire organization from fundraising to awareness to brand – and we utilize these strengths to build what is unique, yet realistic, for each organization.
We like to look at cause innovation as taking corporations and nonprofits to the next level. We are a partner that has a passion for our clients’ causes, and we know the difference between what’s been done, what’s merely doable and what’s truly innovative. We know the difference because we’ve sat in that chair – we’ve been nonprofit and corporate cause leaders, and we use those experiences to the advantage of our clients.
How do you define cause marketing and social responsibility for clients? Where do you think they overlap? Where do you think they differ the greatest?
From a corporate perspective, we view social responsibility as “how” a company does business. Corporations have a role to play when it comes to bettering our society, whether it be immediate, actionable items like fair labor practices and employee benefits or long-term solutions like how to leave the smallest footprint on our environment for generations to come. Cause marketing can certainly become part of these social responsibility efforts. When a company looks holistically at its social responsibility, cause marketing becomes a key component of these initiatives.
What types of companies typically engage your services?
Our clients are not typically looking for an ad agency, PR firm or fundraising consultant. They are really looking for a partner that can take them beyond the traditional and work with them as an extension to their team. It really does go back to the innovation. Our clients are organizations that have had success and realize they need to move to the next level in order to remain leaders and make a more powerful impact on their respective missions. We work with organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Heifer International to name a few. We’ve also counseled corporations in cause alliance development and have created several large-scale corporate cause marketing campaigns.
Can you provide an example of a successful cause marketing program that you recently implemented? What were the key components that made it a success?
Still one of my favorites is the Thanks and Giving campaign we launched while I led the corporate alliance efforts at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It has become a model of success, and there was tremendous learning that I gained through directing this program.
The success of the campaign was due to many factors. The obvious is the fact that marketing, advertising, PR, interactive, social media, and many other fundraising disciplines worked together to create a national campaign with measurable impact for the St. Jude brand and the partners that participated. But the real success was people working together to make it happen. The Board of Directors, the organization’s staff, and volunteers around the nation joined forces to make it a reality.
How do you advise your clients to communicate the impact of their efforts to customers?
This is where an integrated approach is critical. If causes do not have consistency in brand messaging and mission communication, there will be a breakdown. We work with clients to help them understand that all fundraising disciplines must work together, and we show them how this is truly a mutually beneficial process. When everyone is communicating the same message, you are going to see greater results in the marketplace.
Beyond messaging, measurement is key. We no longer have donors, individual or corporate, that give for the sake of giving. They want to know results. And the results need to be measurable. You’re not “changing lives.” Show how many you’ve changed, how you arrived at this metric and what you are doing to track long-term success of your efforts.
The term “cause washing” is starting to pop up as more companies seem to be hopping on the cause marketing bandwagon to take advantage of the brand perks with no clear tie to the cause. How do you help clients avoid this pitfall, and more importantly, how can companies demonstrate authenticity among a skeptical audience?
When working with our nonprofit clients, we develop a comprehensive due diligence process to assist in selecting corporate alliance partners. We work with them to engage in long-term partnerships and campaigns. But our first rule of corporate engagement for nonprofit clients is to develop a relationship with a corporation that has a passion for your cause. I think that is where we are seeing failure in cause marketing and the so-called “cause washing” issues of skeptical consumers.
From my personal experience, the best relationships have been those where the cause is treated as part of the corporate family. If a company believes in a cause and is passionate about the mission, they are typically activating in a very meaningful way – and the corporate family is engaged at all levels. Consumers are savvy now, and I think they can see through the “one off” promotions and identify those that are real. When you have companies that are more concerned about the mission and making an impact and less about the benefits and assets that the nonprofit can bring to the table, you have a beautiful, authentic relationship that can last — and make a difference.
Outside of marketing, what other activities should businesses employ as part of their cause-related initiatives?
There are a host of ways to ensure success in these initiatives, and you can start with public relations. To me, PR results are a testament to the authenticity we touched on earlier. It’s one thing to activate through paid media and marketing efforts. It’s another thing to tell your story and see the results through editorial coverage in print and broadcast – a testament that your efforts are newsworthy, compelling, and engaging.
Another area that is critical to success is employee engagement. When we are developing cause marketing programs, it is always refreshing to see a human resources team that values the cause alliance as much as the marketing and communications team. Employees are the voice of the alliance, and they become incredible champions and volunteers when they know their company is passionate about the cause and devoted to propelling positive change.
How can companies measure the results of their cause marketing programs?
There are several cause marketing firms that are conducting studies on this subject. Most of these show how the general consumer responds to cause marketing. But companies need to customize their approach to measurement through pre- and post-cause engagement studies. And consumer perception and activation is just one area that should be measured. Brand awareness, employee satisfaction and loyalty, shareholder perspectives, and vendor relations are just some of the areas that should be evaluated. Beyond that, impact is critical. The nonprofit must be savvy when it comes to measuring corporate impact on the mission.
In the spirit of developing authentic relationships, this is an ideal opportunity for a corporation to lend its expertise or resources. So often we think of raising funds through cause marketing, but successful corporate/cause alliances go beyond fundraising. If a company has an outstanding research and measurement team, or a resource for such, this could be built into the assets they can provide to further the nonprofit’s mission.
The Thanks and Giving program for St. Jude’s Research Hospital featured Jennifer Aniston. Do you think celebrity endorsements are important for advancing cause efforts among a mainstream audience?
Celebrities certainly serve as an excellent resource to garner attention for a cause. However, this goes back to authenticity. The celebrity relationships that work best are those that can be validated through celebrity action and heartfelt involvement with the cause. There are several points to keep in mind here. First and foremost, while celebrities get attention, studies with some of our clients have shown that donors are not giving because of the celebrity. They are giving because of the cause. The celebrity simply serves as what might be deemed a “point of entry” to entice donors or prospective donors to want to learn more about the cause. Second, nonprofits should develop relationships with celebrities just as they would donors. We are not proponents of nonprofits paying celebrities for appearances, and this is not a valuable use of donor dollars.
Where does Public Relations fall as part of a cause marketing strategy? Is it an orchestrated element of the program, or a by-product that results from campaign exposure?
It is a critical element in a cause marketing strategy. An integrated approach to campaigns is key and PR plays such an important role. You can tell only so much of your story through campaign marketing elements and advertising. But PR allows you to tell the whole story – to compel readers and viewers to take action, get involved and donate. A quick story… a nonprofit we work with received fabulous editorial coverage in a major publication and received a $1 million planned gift from a woman who read the article. Before reading the article, she had never heard of the nonprofit. Her decision was made from this exposure. Now that’s the power of PR.
What advice would you give a company seeking to integrate a cause into their marketing efforts?
Find your passion point. Do this by talking with your stakeholders and learning what they view as important when it comes to cause. Don’t make decisions behind closed doors, and don’t select a cause because it happens to be the favorite in the C-suite. Choose a cause that resonates inside and outside of the company. Make sure you are identifying your cause first. You are creating what is deemed a “cause platform.” Once the platform is determined, identify the nonprofit(s) within that cause realm that perform the work to the highest standards. This should be performed through a stringent due diligence process.
To bring the platform and partnership to life, go beyond marketing. Create an internal task force, of sorts, to develop the platform and the nonprofit relationship. Bringing voices together from marketing, PR, community relations, HR, sales, IT, and others provides that truly integrated approach that is so important to the success of cause initiatives.
What is the biggest mistake you see companies making from a cause marketing perspective?
As mentioned earlier, “cause washing” is certainly the result of what I see as the biggest mistake. Many companies are developing cause marketing programs to gain what they hope will be quick results and benefits. And these same companies are relying on the nonprofit to bring it all to life, with very little activation coming from the company. This is about building a long-term relationship with a brand partner (the cause) that resonates throughout the company and is mutually beneficial in all facets of the partnership.
What trends have you been observing in cause marketing and social responsibility? Where do you see the market shifting as these efforts continue to play a greater role in corporate strategy?
More nonprofits are taking the fate of corporate relationships into their own hands rather than waiting to see how and if a company will align with their cause. Nonprofits, now more than ever before, are deciding it is time to invest in creating their own platform campaign that they can bring to a company, or several companies, for participation. As this kind of tactic takes hold, the consumer should see fewer one-off campaigns cluttering the marketplace and more substantial initiatives playing out in high profile integrated activities within a set time frame. Simply put, nonprofits are becoming savvier when it comes to strategic planning and long-term vision.
What would be your dream cause partnership?
I have to say I’ve experienced many dream cause partnerships. A dream cause partnership for me always goes back to a relationship that is built with a company that is passionate about the cause. So many times we look for the splash and sizzle elements in these partnerships, and many consumers never experience the “behind the scenes” of a partnership. I’ve seen it. I’ve watched CEOs build houses and distribute food because they want to do it, not because the press is watching. I’ve seen employees emotionally compelled to raise dollar after dollar because they’ve heard the story of a struggling child or family and know their efforts can make a difference, not because their manager is mandating these efforts. I’ve watched corporations utilize every asset possible to promote and execute the cause campaign because they want every dollar raised to go back to the cause. When the passion and authenticity are there, the other elements of partnership – brand awareness, incremental revenue, impact measurement – become very natural elements of the relationship. This is my view of a dream cause partnership.
As Phil demonstrated, the greatest results come not from hitting your consumers over the head with your “do good-ness,” but by creating a foundation focused on a mission that is simply a natural extension of everything your organization does. And building a team that shares those values, whose investment extends beyond marketing, will magnify your efforts without needing to cast an overt spotlight on them. At the end of the day, it’s authenticity that shines through, not a glossy print ad or splashy marketing campaign, so companies should spend more time cementing relationships with causes and nonprofits as a pre-cursor for promotions, not the impetus for them.