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It’s Time to Kill Cause Marketing


By Russ Stoddard

As a marketing guy who’s spent a large portion of a long career forging connections between companies and causes, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the state of cause marketing.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that cause marketing needs to die.

Harsh words from someone who’s generally congenial, but here’s why: Cause marketing, which next year celebrates the 40th anniversary of its advent as a campaign between Marriott and the March of Dimes, has become so transparently transactional and self-serving in nature that it’s less and less meaningful to those who make it work -- people like you and me, a growing segment of people who seek meaning and social good from the relationships they form with companies and their brands.

Cause marketing: A victim of its own success

In some ways, cause marketing has become a victim of its own success. It’s ubiquitous. Practically every new restaurant that opens or big brand with a product line extension promotes the “buy now and we’ll make a donation to …” mantra. The spectrum covers the full range, from a majority that’s well-intentioned to those that carry the whiff of near-shyster.

This occasions a superficial abundance of one-offs, intended primarily to juice short-term sales. If beauty is skin deep, then so too is the commitment these types of cause marketing activities demonstrate.

Enough. Me and my credit card, we’re so over it. (Sorry about that, American Express, which, by the way, actually trademarked the term “cause related marketing” after its pioneering campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty in 1983.)

People want more than one-night stands

I don’t think this approach flies with people anymore. People – I won’t call them consumers here – are looking for deeper levels of commitment in every aspect of their lives, including their purchases.

That’s why it’s time for a different take on traditional cause marketing.

We need to change the dynamic from “if you buy something” to “when you buy something … or even if you don’t.”

The good news is that corporate behavior is already starting to change and giving rise to new type of company, a purpose-driven one.

The rise of the purpose-driven company

Making a business model of this intentional act is the heart of the buy-one, give-one movement practiced by companies such as Toms shoes and eyeglass maker Warby Parker, where cause — not cause marketing — is woven into the fabric of the company and its DNA.

Companies themselves are even becoming the causes in some sense – certified B Corps, public benefit corporations and startups founded by social entrepreneurs, whose products, services or business models seek to solve social and environmental problems.

Companies are also moving beyond top-down, scattershot philanthropy by engaging their employees in volunteering and pro-bono partnerships to create enduring ties with nonprofit causes. More than being just the work end of a shovel, employees are also helping make strategic decisions about which nonprofits they engage with, and how they choose to partner with these nonprofits.

This becomes core or central to a company’s purpose and not a sales activity. Forging long-term relationships with a cause that involves capital, both human and financial, comes across for what it is: real. And people respond to real, often with their hard-earned dollars.

It’s not a transaction. It’s a relationship.

Nonprofits, in their own innocent way, are culpable too and must evolve. Nonprofit organizations need to move beyond soliciting logo-splattering sponsorships for cash. That’s transactional. They need to develop a foundation for deeper relationships where they deliver added value beyond the “one-off” to their corporate partners.

This all comes from a place of love. Really. I’ve started several nonprofits, served on numerous nonprofit boards, and helped hundreds of nonprofits raise millions of dollars.

But it’s time for change. I strongly believe that corporations have a unique and powerful ability to create social impact while at the same time delivering value in the marketplace and a bottom-line financial profit.

There’s a growing sense of corporate obligation here, but there's market opportunity, too. People are looking for companies to provide leadership in solving society’s problems. Millennials and their growing economic clout, with other generations following, are increasingly allying themselves to proactive, socially responsible brands — and rewarding these companies with their financial allegiance because of their leadership and commitment.

Corporations and nonprofits simply need to realize it’s not about sales any longer. Or donations. It’s about relationships. And as any marketer worth their salt will tell you, the latter (relationship) begets the former (sales), and is worth more on a lifetime value basis any day.

And that’s a bottom-line result that feels better, too.

What do you think?

Image credit: Flickr/Anja Pietsch

Russ Stoddard builds brands for purpose-driven companies as the founder and president of Oliver Russell.

3p Contributor

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