Marketers Agree: Cause Marketing Doesn't Work

That's how I felt after I read on the Cone Blog that new research out of Duke University last week had found that marketers are putting less emphasis on green- and cause-related marketing as the economy heads south. 

According to the survey, "marketing that is ‘beneficial for society’ or that minimizes the impact on the environment" ranked slightly below three other more pressing priorities, including developing consumer insights, sharing marketing knowledge and preparing for crises.

Of course, Cone retorts that "Cause continues to be a value-add that differentiates companies and brands and, as a quote in Ad Age explains, cause marketing 'is still what will get the news....Your coupon isn’t something reporters or the Today show are going to want to talk about.'  We believe consumers are likely to agree.  Upcoming research from Cone finds that Americans have higher expectations than ever before for companies’ cause-related efforts and are very likely to buy."

Cone's right.  Cause marketing gives your customers and your prospective customers a better reason to do business with you than just product or price.  It's also a vehicle for telling your company story in a way that's powerful, emotional, humane and newsworthy.

But for the local companies I deal with here in Boston, and the ones you probably deal with in your area, these two points aren't enough.  The demand for cause marketing to produce results is even greater for these companies that care little about "branding," somewhat about "marketing" but everything about "sales".

Pulling from some of my previous posts on the subject, here's how we're readjusting our cause marketing pitch and plans for the new economy of skeptics and non-believers.

Free is for me.  Many of you know that this is my battle cry, and it's even more relevant during these desperate times.  Businesses of all sizes have sales people knocking on their doors all day asking them to write a check.  Compared to them, cause marketing is kind of like showing up with a fruit basket.  Unexpected to say the least.  With the point-of-sale programs we run, businesses get everything for free.  The only thing we require is that they motivate their employees to ask shoppers to donate a buck to help sick kids.  It's easy for employees to ask and cheap for shoppers to say yes.  It's a great in-store promotion that can have external benefits.

Add more value.  Very few of our point-of-sale programs end at the register.  The retailer obviously wants to connect with prospective customers outside the store.  That's why all of our pin-up partners get added promotion at one of our major events (e. g. Halloween Town, Boston Marathon, Gala).  The added exposure alleviates any lingering regret they might have had that they didn't write that check for air time on radio or television.

I'm worse off than you are.  Sure, businesses have it bad right now.  But Dante was right: bad is relative.  His Hell had nine circles, each one worse than the last.  As the only hospital in the country with a prescriptive food pantry we're seeing more hungry families than ever--over 4,000 a month.  This is for a program that we originally thought would feed a few thousand families a year!  In short, businesses are run by people and people have emotions.  You work for a cause.  Regardless of how bad business is for the person across the table, things are much, much worse for the people you represent.  Give them the reason, the motivation, the excuse they need to help you.

Lower price points.  Six figure partners are harder to come by these days so we've adjusted our sponsorship model for our events and programs so companies can participate with us for as little as $1,000.  So far it's worked.  While monies from large pin-up programs are down this year, overall sponsorship dollars are up, way up!

Keep your friends close.  You really learn during a downturn who your friends are and who was just hanging out while the party lasted.  You need to take care of your friends, thank them and, as any friend would do, call in a favor or two when the chips are down.

And your prospective friends even closer.  Affiliate cause marketing has the potential to be huge.  This is when you join with other partners (radio stations, sports teams) to pool your assets and sell cause marketing programs.  For example, we're working on a program with the NHL team in Boston, the Bruins, that will have us partnering with retailers to raise money for kids with HIV.  The value-add of having the Bruins involved is that they offer some sports marketing sizzle along with incentives to partners, including a player appearance if they hit their fundraising goal.  The Bruins win because they burnish hockey's image in a baseball-football-basketball town and get introduced to some potential corporate sponsors. 

Invite your cash cows to a barbecue.  Cash cows aren't your friends, unless you plan on eating your buddies.  No, cash cows are those things that you can live off of until better times return.  At my nonprofit, for example, we have loads of business partners that we can continually press into service to underwrite and support various programs and events.  It's the cost of doing business with us.  We also have key, high-performing events we can leverage for corporate support, like our Boston Marathon team and Halloween Town.  The key is to maximize what you already have going for you.

What's that?  No assets in the bank as the economy takes a free fall?  It's kind of like being caught in an avalanche without a beacon.  Adios, amigo.