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Cause Marketing: What It Is And Why It Works

By collegemktgrp | July 14, 2020 | Brands/Advertisers

College is a key transitional period for brands to connect with customers who can turn into loyal, long term customers.

Today’s college student is part of Generation Z, a unique demographic that interacts with brands and advertisements in way that’s wholly unique.

Gen Z is the first generation that grew up with the internet, with smartphones, and with social media. They’re incredibly savvy when it comes to knowing what’s worth their time, especially when it comes to ads.

Gen Z is a skeptical generation with a particularly critical eye toward institutions, politicians, and — you guessed it — brands.

Generation Z college students want to know that when they buy from your brand, they aren’t just getting the best product at a great price. They want to know their purchase means something.

Gen Z cares if something was made or grown locally, was produced humanely, that the people who made it were paid fairly. The response to this growing desire among consumers is known as cause marketing.

What Is Cause Marketing?

A cause marketing campaign is usually born from a partnership between a for-profit company and a charitable non-profit organization. Cause marketing involves a brand pledging some percentage of proceeds from sales to a charity or cause.

The result is a win-win-win: The customer gets to support something they care about while buying something they need (or just want). The non-profit raises funds toward their cause, and the brand increases sales while simultaneously communicating its values to customers.

There are other cause marketing examples that don’t involve a customer buying a product, or a brand donating proceeds to a charity. A brand can also use a cause-related marketing campaign to communicate to customers that it supports a certain cause or issue, without directly raising money or asking people to use their product.

For example, American Express has a well-known annual cause marketing campaign promoting Small Business Saturday. American Express created the event, which happens on the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year, a sort of community-driven response to Black Friday.

The campaign does two things for American Express:

  1. It tells cardholders and potential future cardholders that AmEx cares about small, locally-owned businesses, communicating a value in the process, and
  1. It increases good will with small business owners, who have historically avoided taking American Express due to the card’s higher-than-average fees.

This cause marketing campaign doesn’t ask people to use American Express products. But the assumption is that the people who care about supporting small businesses are more likely to gravitate toward using an AmEx card based on the campaign.

Let’s look at a cause-related marketing example that helps illuminate what Generation Z college students expect from the brands they respect.

Sprite recently launched an ad campaign in support of Black Lives Matter, a cause that is supported by over 2/3rds of all Americans, and by 90% of Gen Z.

The ad has nothing to do with soft drinks, but everything to do with telling people that Sprite (and the Coca-Cola company by proxy) stands with Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement.

With 9 out of every 10 Gen Z college students supporting Black Lives Matter, Sprite is telling this demographic (who represents the present and future of their customer base) that they can feel good about spending their money on Sprite products.

Why Does Cause Marketing Work?

Cause marketing works because it can reflect the priorities of many consumers.

4 out of 5 consumers think that businesses have a responsibility to address social issues. And a majority will stop buying from a company outright if they believe the company is unethical.

Over 90% of people say they would probably switch to a brand that gives to a cause they care about — assuming the pricing and quality of the product or service are relatively equal.

Consumers see businesses as having money, which means they also have power. If a business is fortunate enough to be making money, most consumers believe that business has an obligation to pay it forward and to support the society that it has benefited from.

It makes sense for businesses to take an active interest in giving back — whether that means addressing income inequality, climate change, racial injustice, or other issues. The healthier a society is, the easier it is for the economy and therefore their own business to thrive.

When it comes to environmental or social causes, an incredible 92% of consumers say would purchase from a brand who supports such causes. And over 66% of customers say they’ve bought a product for that reason in the last year.

Those are powerful numbers, and the numbers do not lie. So how can your brand get involved?

How Can Your Brand Get Involved in Cause Marketing?

Before you jump into a cause marketing campaign, start with asking your brand these questions:

1. What do your employees care about?

This is critical, because you need employee buy-in to run a successful campaign. If you say your brand cares about a cause when it really doesn’t, you risk coming off as disingenuous and driving people away, which is the opposite of your goal.

A side benefit here is that you increase employee morale and retention by showing your staff that your company is willing to support the causes they value.

2. How can you be the most helpful?

You might assume that giving cash to a non-profit partner the smartest thing to do. But start by looking at what your company does best, and by talking to a potential non-profit partner about what they need the most.

Maybe you can donate product, or give your employees paid volunteer hours to support the charity. Perhaps your factory can be refitted to product helpful goods, like when Anheuser-Busch started using its facilities to make hand sanitizer in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

3. What do your customers care about?

If your customers don’t seem to have an interest in your cause of choice, you may want to develop a campaign to educate them on why it matters, or choose another cause to support.

Ideally, you can identify a cause that a majority of your customer base and your employees are already passionate about. An issue like this is a no-brainer to support, making everyone happy.

As with anything, there may be some employees or customers who don’t like that you’re vocally supporting a cause. But losing that small minority of customers won’t matter when a majority of your customers are more likely to support you because of your stance.

Once you’ve figured out the cause you want to support, it’s time to develop a cause-related marketing campaign across multiple channels to reach the audience it’s most likely to resonate with.

In the case of Generation Z college students, those channels are:

Other Trends in College Student Marketing

Marketing to college students is challenging because it’s a continually changing demographic.

Every few years brings new trends to college student marketing — cause-related marketing is just one of those trends.

Learn about more trends that are shaping the future of college student marketing >


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