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What You Need to Know About Cause Branding

By Jonathan Fisher


It’s no secret that the world is becoming increasingly socially conscious. Companies are facing increased pressure to take stances on more social and environmental issues. And with that pressure comes a knife-edge balancing act of not only doing something meaningful and impactful, but not putting your business at risk.  

This new climate begs the following questions…

  • How do you engage in cause branding?
  • How do you determine which causes to support?
  • What are the potential drawbacks to supporting a cause?
  • What should you/how much should you donate and what counts as too much or too little?

To help answer these questions, let’s take an in-depth look into what you need to know about Cause Branding.

Importance of Cause Branding

Cause Branding’s definition is nearly synonymous to Cause Marketing in that both are described as “a potentially profit-making initiative by a for-profit company or brand to raise awareness, money, or consumer engagement in a social or environmental issue.”  

The big difference being that Cause Branding focuses on long term associations as opposed to short term with Cause Marketing. Cause Branding also is designed with the hopes of creating a permanent affiliation between the cause and brand. Examples of this can be seen with Coca-Cola’s work the World Wildlife Foundation, or Dove’s Real Beauty Pledge.

These associations are incredibly important, especially from a business perspective. How? Well, that answer falls in the underlying message of Cause Branding; doing social good. Since companies survive off of society, it’s their duty to give back to society. To take care of the communities in which they operate and impact.

Not only is there the moral obligation, but being good measurably pays better. This is articulated by a 2000 CSR study by an environmental and societal research center called CONE. In the study, CONE notes that companies that properly displayed cause programs were 129% more successful in building their reputation and goodwill among their customers.

And if that isn’t enough, CONE's most recent 2017 CSR study showed that 78% of Americans want companies to address important societal issues, and 63% of Americans are hopeful businesses will take the lead to drive social and environmental change. If companies refuse, society has no problem punishing them through negative press, public outcry, or simply taking their money elsewhere.

Furthermore, 87% of Americans said they’d purchase a product or service because it advocated an issue they cared about, while 76% said they’d refuse to purchase if a company didn’t support their beliefs. And 89% said they would switch brands to one associated with a good cause despite similar price and quality.

So, understanding that this is an area of growing interest to the public, companies need to consider when and where to engage in cause branding.

The Time and Place for Engagement

The time to engage depends on two key factors.

  • Does this Cause align with your core values?
  • Do you have the resources to follow through?  

To examine the first bullet, authenticity is paramount. Brands shouldn’t simply pick a cause for the sake of good publicity or the opportunity at higher revenues. Instead, the cause chosen needs to align with the core values of the brand.

Take our Dove example from above, and its Real Beauty Pledge. One of Dove’s core tenants is empowering women by making them feel comfortable in their own skin. To do this, Dove has showcased real women in their product lines; no models, no digital alterations. Furthermore, Dove also has a Self-Esteem Project, devoted to educating young women about having a positive body image. All of this, of course, ties back into Dove’s core idea of empowerment. In other words, Dove is making sure its cause is analogous to its company’s tenants. The same could be said of a chemical plant looking to reduce waste, or a car company working to reduce emissions.

By vetting causes to ensure they align with a brand’s values, they ensure organic authenticity. Without authenticity, customers will know a brand is being disingenuous. And with the near infinite information readily available to the public, audiences will soon find out, and word will quickly spread. Which is why following through is extremely important.

In order to fulfill commitments, brands must develop realistic strategies to deliver on their promise. This can be through flat rate donations, allocating a percentage of profits, volunteering time and effort or countless other options. However brands decide to support the causes they have chosen, they must make sure they can fulfill their commitment.

With that however, there are still further considerations brands should take into account before beginning their journey into Cause Branding. Like the effects causes might have on employees and company bottom line...

How Are You Caring?

Believe it or not, being overly devoted can be just as detrimental as having no devotion at all. Not to say there’s something wrong with being altruistic, but a company needs to make sure it takes care of its employees and business first.

In the 2017 CSR Study by CONE, 94% of Americans felt that being a good employer was a top priority of being a responsible business practice. This feeds into Cause Branding two-fold.

First, this can make or break how employees, and prospective employees, view the company.  “Does this company’s share the same values as me?” “Is this somewhere I am (or would be) proud to work?”  The answers to these questions can be the difference between hiring a skilled new employee or even gaining a big new client.

Second, while supporting causes is important, there’s the risk of putting a strain on resources, most importantly, employees. If supporting a particular cause drains a brand’s resources, (whether those be employees, hours, or money), it is likely that those efforts are doing more harm than good. In the case where a brand has over-committed itself, they would want to consider downsizing their good-intentioned efforts. It it is a matter of quality over quantity.

Joining the Cause

While Cause Branding has become a staple of business culture, companies still have to make clear and methodical decisions on how to proceed. As opposed to simply picking a cause for the sake of being “socially conscious.” Audiences can sniff out contrived efforts.

For a brand, deciding what causes to support is almost as important as deciding on core values. And how a company supports those causes affects not just equity but also internal operations. Being overloaded with causes spreads employees thin, wears down morale and can lead to more harm than good even if the intent is good.

So as your business moves to become more socially conscious, really take time to develop your cause branding strategy. Remember these strategies will dictate how the public will view you and your humanitarian efforts. Whatever form they take.

If you’d like to hear more about cause branding check out the “Solving for Bº: Cause Branding” as well other insights and articles here.