How cause marketing can elevate your business — when done right

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Rachel MillsWhite arrow icon

How cause marketing can elevate your business — when done right

Looking for your next genius marketing idea? Promoting causes — not your latest products — could really pay off.

According to the Cone Communications Echo Global CSR Study, 91% of consumers state they would switch brands to one that supports a good cause. Here's what that means for business owners: Your ability to win (or lose) market share no longer solely depends on your quality, price, or customer service. It depends on your moral compass as a company. 

To win market share and increase employee retention, many brands are investing in cause marketing campaigns.

With cause marketing, you raise awareness for a social or charitable cause, thereby positioning yourself as an ethical brand.

This, in turn, will hopefully pay dividends later on, helping to attract customers, job candidates, and positive press coverage.

Below, we explain what cause marketing is, then dive into several companies whose cause marketing strategies helped build their brand and reputation.

What is a cause marketing campaign? 

Cause marketing is a type of marketing focused on raising awareness about social, environmental, or human rights issues.

The goal is to bring about positive change in the world — even if the issue doesn't directly relate to your business model or product line. 

It may seem counterintuitive to launch a marketing campaign that’s not directly related to your product or service, but cause marketing can benefit your bottom line. A number of cause-related marketing efforts have gone viral on social media (discussed further in-depth below). Plus, consumers have made it explicitly clear they will support companies who share their stance on environmental or social issues.

Companies launch marketing campaigns to do good in the world, attract top job talent, increase brand loyalty, and capture new consumers. Younger consumers, in particular, are willing to pay a premium for brands that support the causes they care about. In fact, 70% of millennials state they would pay more for a product from a company that supports the social causes they care about, while 66% would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company. 

To attract this younger generation (both as employees and consumers) companies have launched corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. CSR programs focus on corporate giving to nonprofit organizations, volunteer work, cause marketing programs, and environmental sustainability efforts to show their support for various social and charitable causes. 

But launching into any of these channels — particularly cause marketing — is a delicate process. An ad or social media campaign should be about the cause (not about your company), and appearing to try to profit off a dire situation can cause a major public relations backfire.

Successful cause marketing case studies: 3 businesses that do it right 

cause marketing: Trending Its Gone Viral GIF By One Chicago

The term "cause marketing" was first coined in 1983 by American Express. At the time, the credit card company sought to raise money for the Statue of Liberty's restoration, donating 1 cent to the project every time someone used its card. As a result, $2.7 million was raised for the restoration efforts, while American Express card usage rose 27%.

While American Express was technically the first cause marketing case study, many brands have mimicked the strategy. With American Express seeing over a quarter jump in usage, the benefits of cause marketing are clear. Here are other cause marketing examples from for-profit businesses.

1. Dove's No Digital Distortion campaign 

In 2004, Dove made headlines with its "Real Beauty" campaign, which celebrated real women. The campaign was so successful that by 2016, Dove revitalized it with their "Dove Evolution" campaign, which showed timelapse videos of women being digitally retouched to appear more beautiful.

Once again, Dove went viral for their efforts, which then expanded to the No Digital Distortion campaign. Dove promised that by early 2019, all ads would contain a "No Digital Distortion" seal with the Dove logo, telling consumers that the photos hadn't been edited with Photoshop, thereby promoting self-esteem and body image satisfaction among women.

2. Nike's You Can't Stop Us campaign 

In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nike launched the "You Can't Stop Us" campaign, to promote inclusivity and connection. The ad combined over 4,000 pieces of footage with 36 pairings of different athletes. The end of one clip seamlessly connected to the next clip, creating a montage of unity when so many people felt disconnected. 

The video's narration begins with, "We're never alone — and that is our strength." Less than a year after launch, the viral video was viewed nearly 60 million times on YouTube alone.

3. Ajinomoto's Take Out Hate campaign 

Throughout 2020-21, many small businesses suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the hardest hit businesses were Chinese restaurants, whose sales dropped 70% in the U.S. alone.

To help support the industry, Ajinomoto, a leader in frozen food manufacturing, partnered with Edelman to launch the #TakeOutHate campaign. The campaign partnered with a number of celebrities, encouraging the public to buy takeout from Asian-owned restaurants. The viral videos received over 5 million impressions, and 2,500 unique Asian restaurants were highlighted over the course of the campaign. 

Cause marketing mishaps: Campaigns that backfired

Cause marketing is a delicate process — a lesson many corporations learned the hard way. Below, we share examples where companies went into a campaign with good intentions, but a lack of research and understanding caused the campaign to backfire.

1. Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign

In 2015, Starbucks launched the #RaceTogether campaign, an initiative that was pulled by the company after just one week. After events of racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz decided the corporation — and its employees — should no longer be bystanders to racial injustice. 

Starbucks encouraged baristas to write #RaceTogether on coffee cups, then talk about racial tension with customers while making coffee. Within 24 hours, the public called the messaging "naive" and "tone deaf," particularly since Starbucks only had two Black executives in a team of 19 people. The press release began with a sentence that read, "It began with one voice," which positioned Schultz as a white savior.

Starbucks strategy officer Matt Ryan later admitted the company did no market research to vet the campaign. Lesson learned: Always do your research and do the internal work necessary before launching a national campaign that could be read as performative activism.

2. KFC's Buckets for the Cure campaign 

In 2010, KFC partnered with the Susan G. Komen foundation to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer research. The campaign’s goal was to raise a collective $8.5 million — the largest donation ever made by a single corporation. The campaign included bright pink buckets and a website, and a promise to donate 50 cents from each chicken bucket to the organization. 

The campaign was heavily criticized, mainly because an increased risk of obesity is correlated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Promoting high-fat food seemed counterintuitive. Other critics stated the campaign didn't make sense — creating suspicion that KFC was simply trying to profit off Susan G. Komen for the Cure. 

Cause marketing can elevate your brand — if you do it right

Bbc Series 25 GIF By Top Gear

Cause marketing raises awareness about a social or environmental issue, thereby positioning your company as a socially responsible brand.

Cause marketing campaigns have been shown to increase employee retention, capture market share, and attract top talent — all while bettering society. 

While cause marketing is an excellent tool, it should be approached in the right way. Launching a cause marketing campaign without doing market research, hiring experts, or doing necessary internal work can lead to a public relations backfire.

As you begin your research for a cause marketing campaign, check out these posts on corporate social responsibility: 

Written By

Written by
Rachel Mills
Rachel is a fundraising and marketing consultant for nonprofits whose aspiration since she was 16-years-old is simply this: help others, help others.