3 Cause-Marketing Trends for Nonprofits and Their Business Partners

Cause Marketing Is Too Important and Big to Ignore

Qantas Unveil A Pink Aircraft For Breast Cancer Month
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Cause-related marketing has become big business for nonprofits and their business partners. Recent research reveals just how popular cause marketing is with consumers, and what the future holds for this booming industry.

Cause marketing, although certainly not new, became well known during the 1980s with the highly visible and fruitful partnership between American Express and the Statue of Liberty restoration project.

Cause marketing and corporate sponsorship has been growing ever since (a $2 billion industry in 2016), becoming one of the most popular ways to raise funds for charities, and a direct route to corporate social responsibility for many businesses.

So what does the future hold for cause marketing? Three trends may predict where cause marketers go next.

Trend #1: More Growth

The trend for cause marketing is definitely up and rosy. Holding business accountable for how they treat the planet, their people, and consumers has reached beyond just a niche audience to a worldwide movement.

With nine-in-10 consumers expecting companies to do more than just turn a profit, Cone Communications dug deeper in its annual Ebiquity Global CSR Study. That survey found that consumers everywhere are on board with corporate social responsibility.

For instance:

  • 64 percent of consumers expect companies to go above and beyond their competitors when it comes to CSR. Only 11 percent of consumers say that CSR isn't important to them or their buying decisions. Everyone else not only notices but may punish companies that do not act responsibly.
  • 90% of consumers surveyed say they are likely to switch brands to support a cause if both brands are similar in price and quality. More startling is that 57 percent would purchase a product of lesser quality if it was better for the environment or society. 
  • Global citizens increasingly believe they can have an impact. Nearly three-quarters (72%) believe that they can make a moderate-to-significant impact on social and environmental issues through their purchasing decisions. 
  • Globally, consumers take CSR even further. More than three-fifths would accept a pay cut to work for a responsible company. This is particularly true of Millennials who, according to one study, want to work for companies that put more emphasis on purpose, not profits.
  • Sharing may replace owning for many consumers. In the Cone study, 62 percent of consumers say they would pass up on owning a product and instead borrow or share products. 

Businesses used to think that CSR was an option. Clearly it no longer is. They need consumers and consumers want to support good causes through their purchases. They also expect companies to be responsible throughout their business operations.

For nonprofits, the trends are also upward. Cause marketing arrangements made with businesses have exploded. One of the brightest spots is not on TV or social media but when we shop. Checkout charity has turned out to be a pot of gold for many nonprofits, even though it doesn't seem glitzy or glamorous.

Trend #2: Companies Start Asking Consumers to Make Changes

David Hessekiel of the Cause Marketing Forum says that companies have sometimes turned the tables on consumers. They ask for behavior changes, not just the purchase of products.

The focus is on leading healthier lives and staying safe.

Examples of this approach include the Quit Smoking campaign by CVS, the It Can Wait pledge not to text and drive by AT&T, and the New Balance SparkStart that encouraged everyone to just move. 

Along with that trend is the related interest in reaching Generation Z. They promise to be even more socially engaged than Millennials, plus they are "digital natives," requiring companies to conquer new ways of communicating.  A sample campaign (tip of hat to David Hessekiel again) was H&R Block’s Budget Challenge. It taught financial literacy with a fun online interactive program The company also awarded scholarships through this effort.

The generational challenge has also forced cause marketing campaigns to become even more multichannel. Conversations and campaigns now include offline advertising, TV advertising, hashtag social media channels, streaming video, and more.

One example was the 2015 #MakeItHappy campaign by Coca-Cola to combat cyberbullying.

#MakeItHappy started with a super bowl ad and then slid into social media where people were encouraged to share "positivity." It wasn't all smooth sailing, though, as Coca-Cola had to suspend its Twitter campaign because of a nasty prank that undermined the be nice message. New waters, new problems. 

Trend #3: Developing Best Practices

As cause marketing grows more prominent, bad cause marketing has been called to account. The media and the public have voiced disapproval when cause marketing runs off the rails.

Just consider the partnership of Komen for the Cure and Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the "pinkwashing" label that has afflicted some breast cancer marketing programs each October.

We're all demanding good practices in cause marketing. And they are developing. An example is the list of worthy breast cancer cause marketing programs compiled by Joe Waters and Cone Communications. The best practices of these programs include two standards for transparency:

  • giving enough information about the charity being helped so that consumers can research it;
  • and saying exactly how much money the charity will receive, both in total and/or from each purchase.

Watch for more best practices as they evolve. Good sources include The Cause Marketing Forum, Cone Communications, and Selfish Giving (Joe Waters' blog).