Cause Marketing in Times of Economic Uncertainty

Cause marketing, with its dual ability to driving sales and societal impact, presents an opportunity for businesses to contribute, even during economic downturns like a recession.

  • Impact
by Braden Douglas
June 4, 2023

In a broader sense, despite the current economic downturn, we’re at a tipping point where all businesses know they need to look at their CSR initiatives more seriously. We want to do something. But many of us are wondering how and where – especially when resources are tight.

What is Cause Marketing, and How is it Different from Philanthropy?

These are two separate approaches for giving that frequently get mixed up. 

Cause marketing is when you have a dual purpose to your promotional strategy, where you intend to drive business growth and revenue while bettering society.

A great example we all know well is TOMS. While they've moved on from the one-for-one model, in the past if you purchased one pair of TOMS shoes, they’d give another pair for free to people in need. That’s cause marketing, where a brand is driving revenue and sales, but also doing good for the planet, for society, for others in need.

Philanthropy is giving without expecting anything in return. It's where you see a need and are giving to that cause and charity without expecting anything in return. And there are a lot of great businesses and organizations that do that frequently.

So, with these two approaches, let’s look at some examples of how organizations looked at cause marketing during another prominent time of economic crisis, Covid-19, and consider whether their marketing efforts were cause-marketing or philanthropy.

  1. Airbnb reduced rates with hosts for 100,000 healthcare providers.
  2. TULA skincare had an offer where if you buy one of their skincare masks, all proceeds went to purchase face masks for the New York City healthcare providers.
  3. Danone donated $200,000 to The Breakfast Club of Canada organization to help feed the kids that used to rely on getting meals at school. Belairdirect also donated $500,000 to that same program.
  4. Bauer, which makes hockey equipment, retooled its manufacturing to make face shields to supply the healthcare system.
  5. Zoom offered free services to schools and dropped its 40-minute meeting time limit.
  6. Audible launched hundreds of free titles for children and students.
  7. Crocs donated 10,000 pairs of shoes every day to health care providers.
  8. Serta Simmons Bedding donated 10,000 mattresses to New York City hospitals and asked other partners to do the same.
  9. Verizon donated $2.5 million to help local nonprofit initiatives.

How would we categorize these? And is it better to have philanthropy, or is it better to have cause marketing? Here’s my answer: both are right as long as the cause is greater than the expectation of return.

Navigating Cause Marketing: Four Key Considerations

When you’re deciding what to do as an organization, before you jump on social media announcing your good intentions, here are four things I suggest you keep in mind:

Stay in your lane. Stay true to your purpose. When you’re asking yourselves what you should be doing, and how, staying in your lane is key. For example, when times are tough for consumers, Walmart isn’t going out and trying to generate goodwill and brand awareness in something that they don’t excel in. Don’t try to create a whole new division or element to your business. It’s more important to look at your purpose, core competency and customer needs, and find ways to leverage and channel that.

Understand the need. If you’ve been around me long enough, you know that I put a lot of focus on getting to know your core customers and understanding what the need is in the market. Instead of replicating what others are doing, ask your audience, organizations in your area, or your employees, “what do you need, and where can we help?” Reach out to your customers and ask them what issues they are dealing with that you could help with. Really understand the need before you jump in and launch a cause-based marketing initiative.

Start small. I can’t emphasize this enough. When we see these examples above, it feels so big. You may feel like it’s working for other organizations because they have the means and resources, and you don’t have a lot. The key is to start small. Use what you have, where you have it, and just take that next step. The answer is not to become paralyzed. Marketers are prone to paralysis because we tend to think we have to do something big or cool. It’s got to be great and to reflect our brand in new ways. I don’t think that’s true. If you have a cause that you feel passionate about that aligns with the benefit of your product and service, just start to take small steps within that.

Be consistent. You have to quell your expectations that it’s going to lead to financial performance, massive share of voice increases, or great PR, etc. You just have to be consistent. Whenever you do something for the first time, it’s going to be scary. It’s not going to feel good. You might ask yourself, “am I doing this right? Is it even providing an ROI? Should we be doing this?” You’re going to question a lot. My advice is to stay consistent, start small, and over time you’ll progress and then can measure effectiveness. It’s so important to make sure that the cause is bigger than the expected return or the expense.

Exploring Opportunities for Cause Marketing: Tailoring Your Approach

There are hundreds of organizations and small businesses right now finding new ways to give and offer support times of crises, economic or otherwise. When it comes to deciding what that looks like for your business, there’s no right answer. It all comes down to what is manageable for you and aligning it with your purpose and the needs of those you want to serve.

If you are looking for ideas, we’d love to have a conversation and help point you in the right direction.

True to our vision of being A Global Brand for Good, we work directly with numerous non-profit organizations as well as encourage and help clients integrate with charitable causes they feel passionate about. It’s an area of business we’re most proud of and continue to make a priority.

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