Although the themes of some cause-related campaigns are based on gut decisions by marketing executives, most substantial and sophisticated initiatives are informed by qualitative and/or quantitative consumer research. Examining the causes selected offers a fascinating window into the concerns and issues of importance to consumers at any point in time.
Although health-related campaigns are still a major focus of many cause marketing campaigns, these days they do not dominate the field in the way they did in the first years of this century. One indicator: when the Cause Marketing Halo Awards were first given out a decade ago, breast cancer-focused programs dominated the winners circle taking roughly one-third of the honors. This year, 2 out of 18 awards were given to breast-cancer focused campaigns.
This year's winners and new campaigns we've seen hit the market in 2012 seem to reflect three trends.
Responding to the Economic Crisis: The long-running downturn has exposed the vulnerability of not only the long-term poor, but of middle-class consumers as well. That has led to a tremendous surge in campaigns designed to stimulate job creation (e.g., Starbucks Create Jobs for America), fight hunger (Hormel Kitchen Table Project) and distribute goods to people in need such as jeans to homeless teens (Aeropostale Teens for Jeans) and books (Macy's Be Book Smart) and toys to needy children (Living Social and the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation).
Supporting Heroes: Whether people are for or against America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are appreciative of the sacrifices made by men and women in uniform. That has led to an upsurge in campaigns sending goods and good wishes to soldiers in the field (jcpenney Cares) and veterans returning home to dramatic physical, emotional and economic challenges (Raytheon's Hashtags for Heroes).
It's Not A One-Size-Fits-All World: In a multicultural, multigenerational society in a globally interconnected world with billions of people and thousands of brands, there is room for companies to embrace numerous causes of greatest relevance to their business models, employees and target consumers. That is why this year's award winners also included campaigns focused on preserving polar bear habitats (Coca-Cola), encouraging blood donation (Keebler), combatting childhood cancer (Toys "R" Us), stopping bullying (Cartoon Network), cleaning up beaches (Barefoot Wine), walking for health (Walgreens), emergency relief (Zynga) and, yes, breast cancer (Krogers and Kohl's).
The diversity of potential cause affiliations and changing consumer trends does not mean that business leaders should flit from cause to cause. To remain relevant, engaging and effective, campaigns should be regularly updated and upgraded based on consumer insights. That kind of commitment to continual improvement is a hallmark of some of the longest lasting, most respected programs in the field such as General Mills' Boxtops For Education, Target's Take Charge of Education, eBay Giving Works, the Pedigree Adoption Drive, Pearson Foundation's Read for the Record and Subaru's Share The Love Event, to name a few.