Brands from KFC to Gucci are Jumping on the Cause Marketing Bandwagon

Cause Marketing is Hot, but Does It Pay to 'Do Good'?

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Cause marketing is big. Brands as diverse as KFC and Gucci are jumping on the bandwagon. Clients are asking if they should, too.

Well, what's really working? Google "cause marketing," and you'll find plenty of research that confirms it: People want to buy from companies that "do good." Yet a great deal of cause marketing fails to make an impact. The issue is that often people find cause marketing to be confusing at best -- and flat out dishonest at worst.

What's missing in the conversation is who's doing it right -- which cause campaigns are breaking through. There are plenty of expert opinions, but no real research on consumer impact. Which messages are sticking and which brands are consumers opening their wallets for?

So our agency Traction decided to conduct a study to start unearthing answers. Here are some highlights:

The biggest loser -- Gucci's "Chime for Change"

This was a surprise. Gucci's "Chime for Change" has received incredible media coverage. It was launched with great fanfare at TED with the celebrity firepower of Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini. Its mega-concert last November was headlined by Beyonce, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. The press gives it high marks for being "innovative" in engaging consumers using a crowd-funding platform called Catapult.

So what impact did this star-studded, tech-trendy approach have with consumers?

Virtually none.

Not a single one of the people we surveyed had ever heard of it.

The big winners: Toms, Patagonia and Product Red

In contrast, Toms' "One for One," Product Red and Patagonia's "Common Threads" initiatives have made a huge impact. Many people bring up Product Red and Toms unaided and have purchased from them because of the causes they support.

Patagonia's "Common Threads" initiative is not as well known (only 29% awareness vs. Product Red's 74% and Toms' 64%). But among people who have heard of it, its persuasive power is incredible: two-thirds of consumers who have bought Patagonia tell us they chose it because of the causes it supports.

What's going on in the consumer's head?

To understand what's driving these results, we turned to science. In addition to our survey, we conducted an experiment to understand what motivates consumers in cause marketing. We put up a lemonade stand in San Francisco's Dolores Park, and gave people a choice: "regular" lemonade for $1 or "charity" lemonade for $2, with all proceeds going to support the San Francisco Food Bank. Then we asked them to explain their choices. (And yes, we are giving the regular lemonade money to the Food Bank, too)

1) Cause marketing works at the point-of-purchase.

Cause marketing can be an effective way to push consumers to pick one brand over another and "clinch" the final sale. But like other marketing tools that are good at pushing sales (discounts, coupons), "cause-to-close" marketing does little to build brand preference and loyalty.

2) For cause marketing to work on the brand level, it needs to be unique, authentic, talkable and iconic.

That's the magic of Toms -- the "One for One" program (in which Toms gives away a pair of shoes for every pair purchased) is unique to Toms, it's a great story consumers can talk about, and the shoes are distinctive and desirable. That's also why Patagonia's "Common Threads" initiative (where Patagonia takes back worn clothes to recycle) is so powerful. No one has done anything like that before, it's true to the brand's core values, and consumers find it more credible. Supporting causes that are widespread and generic (breast cancer awareness, Fair Trade, etc.) may win the battle temporarily at the point of purchase -- but won't win long-term brand love in people's hearts and minds.

3) Cause marketing messages are failing on the brand level.

That's largely because those messages don't pass the B.S. test. Consumers are skeptical of companies -- especially big ones -- using cause marketing to push products and green-wash brands.

(I don't blame them. Search "Gucci Chime for Change," and you'll find plenty of content about celebrity endorsers and Gucci perfumes. Stories about the causes and the women Chime supports? Not so much.)

Cause marketing tomorrow

One of the key questions we asked about cause marketing was, "Are we due for a backlash as consumers fatigue of all the cause marketing out there?" To our surprise, despite complaints, we learned that consumers continue to be receptive to cause marketing.

They're just better at filtering out and ignoring the messages that don't appeal to them.

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