The 4 Challenges of Cause Marketing

Downtown Chicago

Want to be my guest at the Cause Marketing Forum this May 30-31 in Chicago? The best comment wins a free registration worth $1,045.00 for a business or $795 for a nonprofit, compliments of Razoo (also cross-posted on Inspiring Generosity). A decision will be made tomorrow morning based on comments on both blogs.

Customers want brands to invest in marketing, that much is clear. There’s enough data out there that shows that people love brands that invest in their community’s general well being (skip ahead if you want to see the stats). Yet brands struggle weaving cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs into the fabric of their marketing communications.

Some of the cause marketing problems facing corporate brands include:

1) Corporate social responsibility programs are company’s best kept secrets. They invest in communities, but don’t tell anyone about it. This leaves CSR to annual reports, dark corners of the About page on the web site, and a token press release. In the worst case scenarios, brands just don’t give a damn about their community.

2) Communicating CSR within the context with brand and product marketing challenges most companies. They know how to sell, but they struggle to develop communications that resonate on a larger level with their stakeholders about common societal issues. Resulting cause marketing efforts fall flat, lacking in the authenticity and meaning to succeed.

Cause Marketing Venn Diagram

Optimized cause marketing demands more sophisticated communications than a simple percentage of profit allocated to a nonprofit.

3) Niche social media programs make CSR and cause marketing easier, yet most companies don’t take advantage of these tools. Consider that social provides a means to directly interact with customers who have already identified themselves as loyalists. Similarly, for some brands in-store communications provides another channel to communicate with customers.

4) Cause marketing often fails to go beyond broadcast communication to directly involve the stakeholder in real cause-based activity. Slacktivisim in the form of likes and reshares achieves a basic marketing purpose, but does not address long-term societal issues and meaningful actions for all parties. Measurable theories of change are not enacted.

Before I discuss my thinking on one part of the solution, here’s a recap of some the stats shared on Danny Brown’s site and one of my prior Inspiring Generosity posts:

  • 71% of consumers are giving as much (or more) as they were before the economy dipped (IAB).
  • 87% of consumers would switch brands to deal with companies associated with good causes (IAB).
  • 50% of consumers would pay more for brands associated with good causes (IAB).
  • 83% of Americans wish brands would support causes (AdAge).
  • 41% have bought a product because it was associated with a cause (AdAge).

These statistics show that every brand should seriously consider activating their willing customers in cause based program that enhance their user experience.

Crafting Cause Marketing Strategies

Cause Marketing Wheel
Cause marketing involves many eating together intricacies for brands.

Cause marketing communications represents perhaps the most complex form of brand communications because it blends so many elements. In addition to the difficulties listed above, there are the continuing challenges of multichannel integration in general communications, the need to deliver ROI with any communications, the complexity of weaving cause based activity into an overarching brand message, and finally working with a cause to develop a meaningful program that will actually achieve something.

These sophisticated intricacies make crafting cause based marketing and public CSR programs that much more difficult. That’s why the community development work that Starbucks supports publicly, in contests, in ads, and at every one of its stores really impresses me. Starbucks embraces CSR and its sister cause marketing as part of its very fiber.

But for every Starbucks, there are 99 companies that perform at a lesser level. Most marketers don’t even know where to begin. To me, that’s the real issue.

Frameworks, best practices, and methods need to be better communicated to achieve better communications programs. As always it starts with objectives. Those objectives need to include traditional ROI and marketing outcomes, as well as KPIs for customers satisfaction with the program, and social good impact. One of the things I am working on a is a methodology to build cause marketing programs that are mapped from the user perspective.

Some questions that need to be answered by each brand:

  • What does the brand want to achieve, business wise and for its community?
  • When is the right time to introduce conversations about the cause-based activity?
  • What are the points of contact?
  • How can they engage?
  • Will the actions provide paths for customers to achieve a sense of personal fulfillment?
  • How will those actions create a better bond between brand and person?
  • What is the long term impact of the program?

More on strategy and framework components tomorrow. But for now, I’d like to hear
what you think. Why you do brands struggle with their cause based initiatives? Go!


  • Geoff — Excellent start.  Can’t wait to read parts 2 through 4.   CM can be a powerful strategy, but it is not magic.  It really has to be well thought out and thoughtfully executed with enough resources to be heard.

  • There is a key ingredient that I’d like to introduce, and it could actually serve as the title of the circular diagram above…and that’s ROO (Return On Objective).  All of the other pieces are part of that puzzle.

    When brands set clear goals, in advance of their project actually taking place, they are empowered to measure against those goals at the onset and therefore act with greater focus.

    The result is a more connected, relevant, and potentially profitable initiative.  The challenge though is still strategically crafting the plan that will deliver against those objectives.

    •  Indeed, strategy always begins with goals. Without goals companies flail in the dark. Not a good place to be. And yes, this is the challenge, but it’s what separates the good from the bad!

  • There are few challenges for corporations engaging in cause marketing – one of the most important challenge in our view is 
    1) Is the cause/mission of nonprofit aligned with the corporation’s bigger CSR goal? Choosing the right cause to rally behind and not just a ‘trendy’ issue, will help consumers make better connection between the brand and cause. This will lead to better engagement from customers. 
    2) Cause marketing should not be driven by marketing cycles and goals alone.  This effort should focus on enable long term & deeper engagement with diverse stakeholders. Corporations should report on long-term impact of the campaign.  Commitment by corporations to long-term cause-marketing strategy with different points of connection to the slacktivists, NGOs and other supporters will bring about effective social change and customer engagement. 

    •  I totally agree. Authenticity in cause marketing is extremely rare and difficult to find.  Where do we begin?  How do we approach this?

  • This is a very good post Geoff and I do believe companies, and definitely my industry, Legal, struggle with how to implement a genuine and effective cause marketing initiative that truly does social good and effects some change in the community for the better.  Perhaps it is fear of being very public with their corporate social responsiblity initiatives that causes companies to keep them hidden fearing they will lose the non-loyalist of whatever entities the brand sponsors or it is not knowing how to create a cause based initiative that truly makes an impact.

    I think the customer sees most cause based marketing campaigns as just another way for the company/firm to advertise their brand and not really make an impact in the community.  People for the most part want to be involved in something that is doing good in their community.   I think a cause based initiative must be a win-win for all involved…the brand (company or firm), the customer and the community. 

    •  Though many studies show that while customers see that as advertising, they much prefer a company do something than nothing at all. Ironically, as you say, companies are afraid to communicate that, and its a shame because the causes they are selecting are probably authentic and close to the heart! Thanks for a great comment, Deb!

  • Great post, Geoff. Cause marketing has lots of rewards and pitfalls and it needs to be carefully navigated. Post like these are a big help.


    •  I think that’s the number one problem with cause marketing. People think it’s easy.

      • Most still think all they have to do is slap on a sticker and write a check to the nonprofit. Cause marketing works best when all partners are fully vested in the audiences and causes being promoted. Companes, nonprofits and MEDIA companies/brands that broadcast the message. Be it customers, consumers, audiences, volunteers, donors, constituents – it all comes down to people… and to make a difference, people need to be engaged – not spoken at. That takes strategy and committment which translates to dollars. You get what you pay for – so if you still just slap on a sticker and make a token donation – don’t expect much in return.

  • Great question. I work with nonprofits on web development, and I’ve found that words that work for me (conversion point) don’t match the words my clients use (donate, sign up for email newsletter).

    I know only a little about CSR and cause marketing, and enjoyed learning more through your post. However, I noticed in your post (and in other bloggers’ posts about topics such as fundraising) that the words don’t match the cause or the mission. We’re talking about cause marketing or fundraising or advocacy in ways that no one can understand but those of us who call ourselves “professionals.”

    I think it would be interesting for fundraising, CSR, advocacy professionals to strike obscure or niche terms from our conversations and bring back the heart and soul of the causes that inspire us.

    •  I understand what you are saying, but I am not writing for consumers. I am writing for professionals, so I feel like the message is on target!

  • People are willing to leave a bit on the table if it means the next person will get something to eat. Most brands aren’t built to pay it forward, so any introduction of meaning and purpose can feel artificial. No wonder it’s hard to communicate in cause marketing. Ultimately, brands need to peel back the packaging to reveal the citizen consumers at the company who actually do share so much in common with citizen consumers who buy the products. Then we can talk.

    •  This is a fascinating comment, which really gets back to the humanizing aspects that social media can offer brands.  Very good comment, Robert.

  • I am awarding the ticket to Estrella Rosenberg based on her comment on the inspiring generosity blog.  Well done, Estrella!

  • Every Corporate should be aware and contribute to the community. Cause marketing is to fulfill the corporate responsibility and many reputed companies are doing it and promote their brand in a very subtle way.

  • Even though I’m too late for a ticket, wanted to comment. :)

    SO much of this post resonates with me – you are right on Geoff. But, I believe, it’s not that marketing folks don’t know where to begin, its that they somehow have put this work in a different category and so they don’t apply the same practices to cause-marketing as they do other marketing. Not because they don’t know the value of being associated with a good cause, but because it doesn’t feel right to tell someone else’s story and that’s often what they do – ONLY tell the story of the cause (which incidentally doesn’t result in more sales). In order for that to change I think companies need to begin to own their own story around their giving (the authenticity you talk about) AND acknowledge the immense value that collective impact has.  You don’t have to be a non-profit make a difference and you don’t have to be humble about doing good if you are corporate America – you just have to OWN it, treat partners with respect and communicate!

  • Pingback:Rethinking Strategy through Storyboards and Cognitive Maps | Geoff Livingston's Blog

    […] we talked about the difficulties of creating sophisticated cause marketing strategies, and the need for better frameworks and processes. Let’s use yesterday’s cause […]

  • The impact of cause marketing resonates strongest when told in the voice of the charity, not the company touting its good deeds or commitment to CSR. Charities need to be committed to being good partners and companies need to be willing to help finance the PR aspect in addition to – not out of – funding for the actual cause.

  • I really appreciated this post Geoff. In reading it, I also agreed with the point you made about how companies are finding it difficult to enforce a worthy cause marketing initiative where the community and the company benefits equally. Companies seem to not know how to prioritize their work so they won’t put much effort into cause-marketing as they would put into other aspects of their company. More effort has to be applied for a cause based procedure to be beneficial for the customer, the company, and the commuity equally.

  • What type of process is there for companies who expand into countries that are relatively poor and see a dire need in the community for supplies?? For example food or shelter?

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