How to Choose a Cause for Cause Marketing

Last week I was meeting with a friend and talking cause marketing, of course. He explained he had recently seen a cause marketing promotion between the Arthritis Foundation and Massage Envy. and thought it was a great partnership. Massage Envy customers, Arthritis sufferers and their supporters would benefit from the therapeutic touch of massage and the Arthritis Foundation would reap a donation. Perfect.

I couldn't have disagreed more, for two reasons.

  1. People often overate what I call "Garanimal" cause marketing. (You may have heard of or even worn Garanimals - children's clothes that are easy to match because different animals show you what goes together.) They like things to match, including their cause marketing. Another example of Garanimal cause marketing is The Vitamin Shoppe's support for Vitamin Angels, which sends vitamins to kids in Third World countries. Matchy-matchy. But just because something matches doesn't mean it's a good fit. I would put other things first. More on that soon.
  2. Another reason I didn't care for this promotion was its connection with arthritis. I worked for the Arthritis Foundation in the mid-90's and know firsthand how difficult it is to market arthritis as a cause. It doesn't elicit the same type of commitment or response from people that other causes do. I think I know why. Arthritis isn't a killer - unlike AIDS, cancer, heart disease and hunger in Africa. Arthritis is about pain. Sufferers have an appointment with the rheumatologist, not the grim reaper. In short, if I was choosing a cause for my business I could think of better emotional hot buttons to galvanize shoppers. If the promotion doesn't inspire AF supporters to visit Massage Envy, and existing clients are unmoved emotionally by AF's message to help people with the disease, why bother with a partnership?

I'm not trying to bash the Arthritis Foundation or Massage Envy. Arthritis is a painful, terrible disease and Massage Envy is being a corporate citizen by supporting it. But I am using the promotion to point out why companies need to be clear on their cause marketing objectives and why they need a process for choosing the best cause partner.

If I was advising a business on how to pick a cause for cause marketing, here's what I would suggest.

  1. Follow your heart. If you really love a cause - no matter what it is - go with it. You can save butterflies from extinction, fight water waste from leaky faucets or petition the Chinese government to release the Pandas. If you're really passionate about a cause you should put your heart and soul. You may be the only person raising money to free the Pandas, but you'll be the best damn advocate they have. If Massage Envy is following their heart and supporting a cause they are truly committed to, godspeed to their efforts!
  2. Choose a cause with an army. If you don't feel strongly about any one cause, or if you're trying to choose between two nonprofits that combat the same issue, choose the one that can activate its supporters. People complain about "Pushtober" but the reason so many retailers slap on pink ribbons in October is because breast cancer supporters are active and loyal shoppers. They actually buy the products and services breast cancer organization suggest to them! Remember, cause marketing is neither philanthropy nor designed just for existing customers. At its best it woos new customers. The best way to accomplish this is to tap the nonprofit's loyal supporters - if they have any. I say this in all seriousness because while every cause has some donors, few have an army of supporters - people that are loyal, committed and active. That's the audience I want connected with my business!
  3. Lead with emotion. If you don't have a cause you love, or one with an army behind it, choose the cause that has a strong emotional message. That's the best hope you have of getting your customers' attention and attracting new customers. When I first started working at a safety-net hospital, its idea of a strong, emotional message was their mission: caring for poor people, many of them immigrants. Indeed, it's God's work, but not the right emotional message for cause marketing. Instead, we focused our cause marketing on children, women's services and cancer patients. [By the way, if you're a nonprofit reading this, this third point for businesses is your number one. Regardless of what your cause is, you need to lead with a strong emotional message to be successful in cause marketing. Yours may not be as strong as others, but it should be the strongest one you have.]
  4. Mix and match. It's only after following your heart or choosing an army or leading with emotion - or some combination - that I would go with Garanimal cause marketing. You're banking that consumers will reward you for something they rarely see: a match made in heaven.

What's The Best Cause Marketing Program for My Business?

The last time I talked about cause marketing for businesses I looked at how to pick a cause partner. Once you have partner, the question becomes what should you do for a cause marketing program that will best serve the cause and your business (remembering, of course, that cause marketing is win-win). You can review the different types of cause marketing programs here. Regardless of which one you choose, focus on these four things.

Keep your program simple. Especially if it's your first one. Try to choose something that's a simple extension of your business. If you run a busy ice cream shop, pick an ice cream flavor to support your favorite cause and tell customers every time they buy it you'll make a donation. Simple.

Another example of keeping it simple is Care4Kids, a program Constant Contact, the company I use for my email newsletter (which you can sign up for in the top right!). Current customers like me can nominate a kids charity to receive a free Constant Contact account so they can better communicate their message.

Not only is Constant Contact giving away a service they own, but their customers are the ones nominating the causes to receive the service.

Pathos should drive your program. Pathos is just another word for emotion. Supporters want to connect viscerally with your campaign. This means focusing on some aspect of the cause that will tug at people's heart strings. If it's an animal shelter the emotional tug is all the puppies and kittens that will be saved. If it's an environmental cause focused on green spaces it will be the playgrounds and parks for children. It's no coincidence that Constant Contact's Care4Kids program is for charities that help kids. Children are a powerful, emotional triggers for people.

Make sure your program is easy. Overly complicated programs are a drag for everyone. If you choose a point-of-sale program, for example, limit your ask to one sentence. "Would you like to donate a dollar to help save the trees in Walden Woods?" Also, if your employees are required to ask shoppers to join your email list, if they need anything else (e.g. batteries, etc.) limit these additional asks during the cause marketing promotion period, which is generally two to four weeks. Don't give your employees or your customers an excuse to say no.

Strive for a program that feels spontaneous. Spontaneity may seem like a strange thing to expect of a cause marketing program. But it's not when like me you've seen a lot of programs that our forced and unnatural. That's why it's important to pick a cause that resonates with your employees and customers. A good cause partner is a natural extension of your brand that makes the inclination to market and support it automatic.

5 Tips for Businesses Looking for a Cause Marketing Partner

I've spent many years on the cause side wooing businesses for cause marketing programs. I've often said, "If I ran a business this is how I would choose a cause marketing partner." Here's my advice for business owners looking for a cause partner.

Choose a cause you really care about. I know, this one is a no brainer. But it's a good place to start. I've worked with dozens of businesses and the programs that do best involve businesses that really care for their cause partners. Period. When businesses don't care they'll jump to the next marketing program that comes through the door. I know because it's happened t me. What do committed partners look like? Check out our partnerships with Finagle-a-Bagel, Ocean State Job Lot and iParty.

Choose a cause to which you can make a long-term commitment. The benefits of cause marketing for businesses (i. e. enhanced favorability and increased sales) aren't achieved overnight. Angels only earn their wings and halos after much work.

Choose a cause with some assets. Given the choice between two causes  choose the one with a strong financial position, good staff, established events, good donor base, etc. While you may feel the tug to help the less fortunate cause, trust me, you won't feel that way when it comes to creating and executing your first cause marketing program. Save your sympathy for after you have some cause marketing experience and success under your belt. You'll have a better chance of making a difference.

Choose a cause that's proficient with social media. Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are great enhancers to a traditional cause marketing program. Social media also demonstrates a cause's commitment to communication, technology and innovation, all signs of a cause with a bright future.

Choose a cause that's unselfish. Yep, you heard me right. Most causes are so focused on themselves, their mission and fundraising that they'll never stop to think about your business, your welfare or how a cause marketing program can benefit you. The only hand they'll ever extend is the one to take a check. Choose a cause that's committed to your interests right from the start and treats your business like a real partner. If they don't consider the program a success unless you both succeed, that's the cause you want to choose.

Following your heart and picking a cause you love is a great start to finding a partner. But follow it up with a gut check on your commitment and an analysis of the cause's assets and social media aptitude.

Most of all, beware of causes that are selfish. Partners need to be committed to mutual success. "Together wing to wing and oar to oar." You'll be amazed how far and fast you can go when you pull together.