Proving Your Purpose: Doing Good Vs. Just Sounding Good

Cause-focused marketing is virtually everywhere. Consumers are inundated with brand messages promising positive societal impact across all consumer touchpoints, from print and TV (remember those heart-stirring cause-focused Jeep and Dodge Super Bowl ads?), to digital, on-pack, in-store, social media and even in-flight entertainment. It’s what I like to call the causeification of marketing—the widespread integration of cause across the marketing mix. 

From a societal perspective, this proliferation of cause is decidedly a good thing. With marketers of all kinds focused on doing good as well as driving sales (more than 80% of Fortune 250 companies have branded cause programs), and with more and more digital cause platforms available (e.g., Pure Charity) to enable personalized philanthropy, it’s easier than ever for consumers to harness their personal spending to drive positive impact. 



Giving back is as simple as eating a burrito that supports family farmers (Chipotle’s Food With Integrity), buying shoes that give shoes (thank you, TOMS), eating chocolate that heals the wounds of war (Theo Chocolate’s Act, Heal, Rebuild Congo Vanilla Nib bar), or buying diapers that end childhood disease (Pamper’s “One Pack = One Vaccine” program), and the opportunities to drive impact go on and on…

Unfortunately, as more companies jump on the cause bandwagon, examples of cause-focused marketing that sound good—but that don’t really do much good—are becoming more and more common. Take a billboard I saw recently for a grocery chain, proudly trumpeting the many thousands of apples that they sell—and serving this up as proof of the company’s commitment to consumer health and wellness. Beyond selling shiny apples, it’s not easy to discern the tangible impact the company is driving. I bet they also sell a lot of beer, mac and cheese and hot dogs too, but don’t expect to see billboards trumpeting that anytime soon. 

Another example: Last year’s “Find Your Greatness” Nike commercial featuring a 200-pound 12-year-old shuffling down a country road. Many found this inspiring—galvanizing viewers to go beyond limits real or imagined (a familiar message from the Nike brand). But beyond the shock value, it’s not clear what tangible outcomes the company is committed to, or what the company is doing to actually tackle the obesity issue, versus exploiting it to sell more shoes. Although Nike actually has made significant commitments to getting kids to move, it’s not obvious or transparent from this ad. 

Seem like carping? Consumers certainly don’t think so. When it comes to combining societal issues with marketing, people are becoming increasingly savvy in sniffing out fluff from what is real. Research by my firm drives home the critical importance of delivering tangible impact: 82% of consumers say they are more likely to purchase a product from a company that clearly demonstrates the results of its CSR initiatives versus one that does not. Marketers (and the agencies who support them) who ignore this need for substance are playing with fire: 40% of consumers say they will not purchase a company’s products or services if CSR results are not communicated. 

So what should brands do? It’s simple: Prove your purpose. A positive example? One of the largest cable operators in the nation is laser-focused around a five-year commitment to reverse America’s declining proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math. It is communicating real results against a clearly defined issue, connecting 808,664 young minds so far, and counting.

Leveraged properly, cause can be a powerful driver of increased engagement, loyalty and positive reputation. Used carelessly, it can easily undermine the trust and credibility that marketers work so hard and spend millions to build.

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