For CMOs, Cause Marketing Is a Way to Innovate in an Uncertain Time

The Category Is Set to Change Dramatically

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Mike Swenson
Mike Swenson
While most CMOs have laid forth their plans for 2010, many are still seeking a way to innovate in a time of uncertainty. Where are the opportunities? With the recent dramatic drops in marketing spending, there has been one category that continues to grow. Throughout 2009 we saw the launch of many national cause-marketing programs (see sidebar: Dawn, H&R Block, Pepsi, Sonic Drive-In) at a time when marketers were watching budgets more closely than ever. With this rise in popularity comes the question: Where is cause marketing headed in 2010? While the rules of a successful cause campaign remain solidified, the category is set to change dramatically in 2010.

The biggest dynamic impacting cause in 2010 is that it is becoming a mature marketing option. As the newness continues to wear off and the number of cause programs continues to increase, so too grows scrutiny of these programs: What is the ROI of a cause program? Is the charitable partner truly receiving a real benefit from the cause program? And so on.

Programs that monitor nonprofit organizations, such as Charity Navigator, have existed in some form for quite a while. However, the launch of programs such as Goodness500, which measures a brand's social responsibility, will only continue to rise in 2010. Case in point: The January 2010 issue of Ladies' Home Journal contains their first-ever Do Good Awards. Expect to see more of these watchdog groups in the coming year.

The importance of transparency
Programs run the right way and in place for the long term can stand up to this scrutiny. If a program is to survive in 2010, it must follow one of the most important tenets of cause branding: transparency. This is an important trend as we head into the second decade of the 21st century. Because it is no longer a new method of branding, cause marketing will be held to the same standards as other methods of branding. And that is good.

While brands experienced sweeping change in 2010, so did nonprofits. They, too, are challenged with an entirely new consumer landscape. Research shows that the majority of Americans care about health, education and their local community. While consumers will continue to support these core causes, expect some new issues to rise where there tends to be a lack of programs -- specifically U.S. troops and homeless pets.

At the same time, we will likely see fewer charities as the economy continues to take a toll on smaller organizations. Look for charities to merge and consolidate this year in order to stay alive. This activity will also create opportunities for companies looking to support causes. A boost from a corporation via a cause program might be just what a charity needs to keep its mission alive.

The economic upheaval we are still in the midst of has forced us all to change the way we operate. In a year when volunteering went up as charitable donations went down, consumers are clearly demonstrating that they still want to give, but in different ways. Look for brands to develop programs that engage consumers instead of simply cutting a check or asking for donations.

Let consumers know what you're doing
For years, generally accepted beliefs led brands to avoid being boastful about their good works. Yet smart brands have recognized that consumers expect to hear about what a company is doing to contribute to the greater good. Educated consumers demand to know every facet of your business -- and that includes your cause. Take, for example, the 2009 Super Bowl. We saw major advertisers such as McDonald's use premium, paid ad space to showcase its long-standing commitment to charity. In 2010, we will see more programs supported by ad dollars, point-of-purchase and on-package.

With more marketing dollars supporting cause programs, you can also expect to see a link between a brand's loyalty marketing programs and its cause programs. We know that cause programs build new bridges between a brand and its consumers by creating more loyalty. When loyalty and cause programs are tied together, both will work harder for the brand.

The third integrated trend to watch will be more multilevel deals between nonprofits, brands and media properties. In the year that the queen of philanthropy, Oprah, will go off the air, we will see more room for media/cause deals to take place. Programs such as Stand Up for Cancer, from the Entertainment Industry Foundation, take cause support to a new level and provide opportunities for corporations to work together for one cause.

The ultimate winner from all these trends will be nonprofits. More support means more visibility and more dollars for their missions. However, in order for charities to truly benefit, brands must treat their cause programs with the same level of business acumen they do their other marketing outreaches. If more brands take that philosophy to heart, then we will see an even larger growth pattern for cause in 2010.

As evidence to the rise in cause marketing, the following four brands launched comprehensive cause initiatives in the fourth quarter of 2009. While the brands are very different, they all chose causes that make absolute sense for their brand, supported it with marketing and engaged consumers to act.

Dawn Saves Wildlife: The P&G dishwashing brand has been supporting wildlife causes for 30 years. Yet July 2009 was the first time the brand ever touted their efforts with an integrated marketing campaign. The program engages consumers by allowing them to register a $1 donation at for every bottle they purchase. Dawn supports the program with a mix of national media, social media and PR.

H&R Block Dollars & Sense: This past fall, the tax-preparation company launched a program focused on increasing the financial fitness of high-school students. The brand is providing more than $1 million in personal finance curriculum grants to high schools nationwide and rewarding students with college scholarships. Despite a tough economy, H&R Block committed to funding and launching the program at the start of the 2009-2010 school year.

Pepsi Refresh Project: In November 2009, the global beverage giant created a cause campaign that provides "Thousands of ideas. Millions of grants." Pepsi placed national ads to support the launch, announcing they would donate millions of dollars in grants to the best ideas from consumers about how to make the world a better place.

Sonic Drive-In Limeades for Learning: The QSR launched their first cause branding program in September 2009. Because the brand is such a strong part of the communities where its more than 4,500 locations are situated, Sonic chose to fund local teacher programs through The program, which has funded $640,000 to date, was supported with national TV and print buys, as well as extensive online and PR outreach.

Mike Swenson is chief marketing officer of independent agency Barkley. The agency's cause clients include L'Oréal Paris, Lee Jeans and the March of Dimes.
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