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.