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Cause Marketing: What Came First, the Fan or the Page?

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Nellie Stadtherr

Cause marketing has boomed in the last five years. From high-profile companies like Pepsi to small non-profits, it’s almost impossible to update your online status without being inundated by organizations promoting their issue. Clearly there are many differences between a corporate giant like Pepsi and a non-profit, the causes they are advocating being one of them. But what all of these diverse companies have in common is that they all A. have a cause, and B. are using social media as their primary platform to gain support.

Cause marketing is nothing new. The Ronald McDonald House has been campaigning since its launch in 1984 (MediaSauce, 2010) and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure has become one of the most successful fundraising events in history, investing almost $2 billion since its inception in 1982 (komen.org, n.d.).

So why all the buzz about recent social cause initiatives? Is it that far of a swing from the greed and corruption we were so burned by in the late 1990s that we’re all in shock to see companies actually contributing to the greater good? Well…yes. But perhaps even more so is due to the high visibility these campaigns have garnered through their use of social media. The myriad of free and expansive platforms make it possible for organizations of any size and budget to build a following and gain attention for their initiative. The perpetuation of consumer demand for brands to engage in socially responsible behavior has made it just plain bad business to not engage in CSR of some sort, with 84% of Western consumers believing it is a company’s responsibility to create a positive impact in the countries they do business in (JWT, 2011). Combined, these trends create the perfect recipe for a healthy social cause cocktail. As a response, in 2010 over 66% of brands were integrating cause marketing into their strategies, an 8% increase from 2009 (causemarketing.com, 2010). Add the nonprofits and start-ups like TOMS shoes who built their company through social media and you have an explosion of philanthropic investments just a “Like” away.

An interesting effect of the presence of cause campaigns on these platforms is the legitimacy it has provided to social media. Once, in the distant past of the mid 2000’s, companies had policies against using MySpace on the job. Now there are social media specialists commanding top-tier salaries and the general society is recognizing social media not only as a social or even a branding outlet, but a driver of real social change. Would we have been able to unite as a global society to support the victims of Haiti or the empowerment of Egypt without social media? Doesn’t that say something to the evolution of the medium?

Which raises the question, has social media breathed new life into cause marketing, resurging our societies’ ability to do good? Or has cause marketing shifted the way people use social media? I think the answer is both – cause marketing campaigns are successful because they resonate with the innate compassion within people. Social media builds communities and unifies wider networks, which is necessary to spark the compassion which make these campaigns successful. And if the impact social media has had in our society is any indicator, this relationship won’t remain “it’s complicated” for long.

Want to learn more about Presidio and this project? Click here.