Before You Call Me About a Cause Business, Read This First

I get calls every week from people that want to start a cause business. Good, intelligent, well-intentioned people who really want to change the world. They call. We talk. I never hear from them again.

They never call me again because their business goes nowhere or fails. Here's why: they put the cause before the business, and violate the number one rule of running one: the best way to help a cause is to be a great business, first.

I've been saying this for years. But no one listens to me! Here's someone you can listen to because he's one of you.

Ad Age interviewed Dan Lubetzky, the founder of KIND Healthy Snacks. In 2012 his company had sales of $125 million, double the revenues of 2011. Dan's business is cause-driven, but he's not banking on cause to drive his business. Neither should you.

Looking to start a cause business? Follow Dan's rules.

Lead with an outstanding product or service. You have to because anything else won't work. U2's Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, found this out the hard way a few years back with their clothing line Edun. When the clothes didn't measure up, sales fell through the floor. “We focused too much on the mission in the beginning, ” explained Hewson to the Wall Street Journal." It’s the clothes, it’s the product. It’s a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost.”

Like any good business, KIND leads with its products. The bar's value proposition says it all: Kind to your body, your taste buds and the world. It's not a coincidence that "the world" comes last. A bar that tastes good comes first.

Cause isn't the marketing, but it belongs in the marketing mix. The Ad Age reporter talked to a packaged-food industry honcho who said that KIND has grown through product quality, guerrilla marketing, social media, and targeting small stores - among other things. And its cause-focus helps it stand out. Period.

But too many cause-preneurs lead with the cause and think the waters will part at the mention of their social mission. Maybe its because cause begins with the letter "c". But the only place cause comes before product, marketing, social media, community and distribution is in the dictionary.

Cause will contribute about 5% to your success. Maybe a little more. But most of the people I talk to are expecting a lot more from dipping their product or service in magical waters of cause. Lubetzky learned the hard way with a previous business that you can't lead with cause. Almost everything needs to come before it. But, when added, cause makes everything better.

People ask me all the time if cause marketing will help their business. "If you're doing the other hundred things you should be doing to run a successful business, I would say yes," I tell them.

Where, when, why and how to inject cause into a business is a bit of a mystery to me. I'm not sure when the timing is right, or how much is needed to goose sales or to change the world. But I do know one thing, the first ingredient of a business isn't cause. Of that, I'm sure.

Product Red's Bono Learns the Hard Way: Don't Put the Cause Before the Horse

Last month the WSJ profiled U2's Bono and and his wife Ali Hewson's efforts to launch a fashion line with clothes made in sub-Saharan Africa. (Hat tip to the good folks at Cone for the lead). Edun got off to a rough start because Bono and Ali had the best of intentions, which, unfortunately, didn't top the list of reasons consumers would pay $800 for a jacket. Design and fit mattered more.

"We focused too much on the mission in the beginning, " explained Hewson. It's the clothes, it's the product. It's a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost."

Edun is just another business that learned you can't put mission before margin. The best way for a business to help a cause is to be a great business first, and an advocate for causes second.

At the Beyond Cause Marketing summit ten days ago my industry's mom Carol Cone told me that even cause leader Timberland had seen sales erode a few years ago when consumer interest in their styles waned. Cause couldn't save them. Ultimately, Timberland would rise or fall on their shoes.

Businesses are still making the mistake of putting mission before margin. Causeworld, Panera Community Cafe and Causeon are just three examples.

I've written on Causeon, spoken to the founder--a good man with good intentions--and like the idea. But the premise of Causeon is that consumers will choose it over Groupon and 200 copycats because Causeon supports greats causes. But consumers are looking for great deals first and to help causes second.

The real opportunity is when you take a great business and activate it for good.

Take Groupon, which will hit a billion dollar in sales faster than any other company in history. In May, when DonorsChoose.org was the featured daily deal on Groupon they raised $162,000.

Should we wait for cause-centric businesses like Causeon to take hold, or should we double our efforts to work with great businesses of all sizes to raise money for causes?

You know what side I'm on. What about you?

One last point. Next to developing a magnetic cause brand that sucks in great businesses, nonprofits should focus on finding great businesses to stick themselves to. Nonprofits spend too much time on fundraising strategy and ideas when what they really need is the horsepower drive them.

Given the choice between a great idea or a great partner, I'll take the latter. With a great business anything is possible, and even the most basic cause marketing tactic can be given new life with the right partner.

It's not enough to right your cart and put the horse in front where it belongs. You have to hitch your wagon to a star.