Cause: Cone Communications

Cone CommunicationsStrategically aligning do-good efforts to brand mission, this cause champion strengthens consumer bonds – and the bottom line

Anyone who has ever tried to count the number of pink-ribbon products out there knows what Cone Communications is up against. But since the agency’s founding in 1980, it has sought to pair brands with relevant causes that won’t fade away into the pink jungle or grate on consumers’ ears. Instead they aim to create a bond between people and products, and with their work for major brands like Yoplait’s “Save Lids to Save Lives,” Betty Crocker’s “Stirring Up Wishes” and Timberland’s “Earthkeepers Plant a Tree,” Cone is ensuring consumer relationships impact bottom lines.

Craig Bida, Cone’s executive vice president of cause branding, believes aligning companies with just the right mission is what makes cause-related marketing work. “It takes lots of listening and figuring out what makes brands who they are,” says Bida, whose career spans 20 years in both the public and private sectors. “It’s important the company is clear with what cause it wants to take on,” he says, and then zeros in to find the right issue within that cause.

This thinking is what led Cone to create a groundbreaking campaign for Ben & Jerry’s. The Vermont-based, progressive-leaning ice cream company already knew it had a sizable chunk of cause-oriented consumers, and came to Cone for campaigns that would better align with its demographic. Cone saw an opportunity to take advantage of Vermont’s recently passed legislation legalizing gay marriage by temporarily changing the name of best-selling ice cream Chubby Hubby to Hubby Hubby. Ben & Jerry’s teamed up with Freedom to Marry to promote the new flavor with the tagline “Now more than ever, Vermont is for lovers … & for lovers of marriage equality.” The announcement was made on Ben & Jerry’s and Freedom to Marry’s Web sites, as well as on Ben & Jerry’s Facebook and Twitter pages. According to Cone’s numbers, reaching out to consumers through social media led to the third most interacted with posting ever on the Ben & Jerry’s Facebook page and became a Twitter trending topic with over 35,000 relevant tweets in the first two weeks.

Cone can also take a product and create a movement around it, which is just what it did with Timberland’s Earthkeepers. The outdoor apparel retailer began manufacturing Earthkeepers shoes made out of earth-friendly products — recycled bottles, converted scrap rubber, certified organic cotton. The team at Cone took Timberland’s Earthkeepers idea even further with the “Earthkeeper Plant a Tree” Facebook application. The idea was simple: Users installed Timberland’s application on their Facebook pages, invited friends and created a virtual forest. When the user downloaded and shared the application, one tree was planted in the user’s honor by Timberland. The company made good on its promise and planted more than 1 million trees as a result of the Facebook initiative.

“Cause marketing is not immune to the same forces that affect brand marketing,” says Bida. Cause marketers must understand the target audience and what’s important to them. Many people are motivated by children’s issues, for example, but why are some brands a better fit for children’s literacy, and others for after-school programs? Understanding consumers from a cause angle takes finesse and patience, he says. But in the end, consumers want to spend money where it makes a difference, to vote with their dollars. And when it comes to gaining those votes for brands, Cone wins by a landslide.

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