Mixing Serious Causes With A Sense Of Humor

Cause marketing is full of earnest appeals and images designed to touch your heart and your tear ducts. The field has a fascinating minority of marketers who succeed at mixing purpose with a sense of humor.

Here are three examples of cause-preneurs who’ve built companies that simultaneously generate profits, social impact and smiles.

Kenneth Cole – A strong advocate for community-building and social change, designer Kenneth Cole has made his company into a powerful public awareness vehicle for such issues as AIDS, homelessness, gun safety and women’s rights.

Instead of getting on a high horse and preaching about his favorite causes, however, Cole has a long history of creating advertising with a wry, provocative voice that makes it instantly recognizable and memorable. For example:

One of his earliest AIDS- related print ads from the 1980s told consumers: “Our shoes aren’t the only thing we encourage you to wear,” alongside a graphic of a condom.



A 1997 ad addressing the abortion issue stated, “It is a woman’s right to choose. After all, she’s the one carrying it,” above a photograph of two handbags.

Most of Cole’s tongue-in-cheek copy has generated its desired impact, but some ads have generated negative backlash. In the company’s online ad archive, Kenneth Cole recalls the public relations drubbing he took over a 1990 ad issued at the time of the freeing of Nelson Mandela. “A nation of people improved their standing overnight. All without a Semi-Annual Sale,” read the copy beneath a picture of the African leader. The ad was slammed by some for, among other things, oversimplifying the difficult road ahead for South Africa. Cole says he and his team “neglected to check our facts or even our sensitivity radars.”

What I admire is that when that happens, Cole has an admirable record of owning up to mistakes, apologizing and moving on.

Ben & Jerry’s – Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield no longer own their eponymous ice cream brand (it’s now a division of Unilever), but their blending of social consciousness and playfulness lives on. (After all, one of their longtime mantras has been, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”)

The naming of special flavors aligned with environmental and social causes is just one of the clever ways the company does this. A few examples:

Phish Food – launched in 1997, this chocolate and marshmallow concoction named after the musical group Phish donates the group’s royalties from ice cream sales to environmental efforts in the Lake Champlain, N.Y./Vt., area.

One Sweet Whirled – In 2002, Ben & Jerry’s teamed up with The Dave Matthews Band and to fight global warming. The multifaceted campaign – a play on the band’s song “One Sweet World” -- urged people to “Fight Global Warming: Lose 2,000 Pounds!” (by reducing their CO2 emissions.)

Hubby Hubby – In 2009, Ben & Jerry’s celebrated the legalization of gay and lesbian marriage in its home state of Vermont by symbolically renaming its popular “Chubby Hubby” flavor “Hubby Hubby.” Working with marriage equality advocate Freedom to Marry, Ben & Jerry’s backed a major publicity push to raise awareness of the issue across the county. As then-CEO Walt Freese put it, the move by Vermont was “something worth celebrating with peace, love and plenty of ice cream.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill – This fast-growing, much-beloved restaurant chain was built by founder Steve Ells on the premise that fast food did not have to be junk food. Under the banner “Food With Integrity,” Chipotle shares it commitment to fresh ingredients and support for sustainable, human farming within its restaurants and beyond.

It’s a serious cause, but one Chipotle has fun with as demonstrated by its annual Boorito promotion.

To expose “the horrors of processed foods,” on each of the last two Halloweens, Chipotle has encouraged people to visit its locations dressed as the worst kind of junk food they could imagine. Participants were rewarded with the right to purchase “Booritos” for only $2 with proceeds donated to healthy/sustainable food organizations.

Study after study shows that consumers 1) favor companies that are authentic and 2) will reward those they admire with patronage and word-of-mouth and social media advocacy. Kenneth Cole, Ben & Jerry’s and Chipotle have all benefitted from those trends and prove that capitalism needn’t be heartless nor smile-less.

1 comment about "Mixing Serious Causes With A Sense Of Humor".
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  1. Joel Johnson from GMMB, February 13, 2012 at 10:50 a.m.

    David, thanks for reminding us that fun and cause can go very well together! I was enthralled with the Bud Light Weego Superbowl ad--one of the first times I've seen Cause incorporated into SB advertising. But I'd like to add one more obvious example to your list--on the nonprofit side--remember Comic Relief!

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