The future of marketing is here . . . and it’s cause marketing

Ethical business is the new way of doing business, and it’s a nonnegotiable. If building a trustworthy brand was important before a global pandemic and national tensions, it’s even more important now. More than ever, brands need to stand for something. Brands need to ensure that they stay true to their purpose and what they stand for.

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, concluded that “stakeholders [and consumers] now have new expectations of the corporate sector” that include shaping “the future of society in a positive way.” Edelman also found that “ethical attributes drive 76% of the trust capital of organizations.”

The unexpected shifts in plans and customer needs during these challenging times have brought the adaptability and effectiveness of marketing strategies to light. It is in challenging times like these that the public constantly asks, “What does this brand really stand for?”

The ways in which companies choose to engage, or not, matter. Take Nike’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement, for example – brands are using their platforms to engage on the matters with which their customers and communities are most affected.

We need to be more focused on serving our communities and our customers. We need to be genuine. We need to think beyond just selling products. How can you relate your services to your impact? How can you follow up your words with action? If you say you support first responders, but you don’t actually do anything to help them, consumers see these as empty words.

Now, trust and transparency have to be the absolute priorities for marketing and communications teams. Many consumers have less money in their pockets now, and they’re being more thoughtful about how they spend it. One of the best ways to increase trust in your brand is through cause marketing.

Customers are empowered by new trends in information and social media technology to make informed, value-conscious choices about what they buy and who they buy it from. In this new age of widespread customer empowerment, market trends favor purpose-driven, emotionally-appealing marketing campaigns that will connect with a customer’s noneconomic values.

One study found that 63% of Americans want businesses to pursue social and environmental change, while a whopping 87% say that they will purchase a company’s product because of the social good that company does. All told, a decisive 90% of Americans say they want companies to demonstrate dedication to socially beneficial causes.

Cause marketing is a term that’s been around since the late 1970s, when it first emerged to describe the new and pioneering marketing campaigns of Nike, Marriott Corporation, Famous Amos Cookies and American Express. These companies developed marketing strategies that tied their brands and products to socially beneficial causes. They found that they could simultaneously increase brand equity, raise corporate revenue and enhance visibility of important social issues by partnering with nonprofit organizations and tying customer choice of their products to the advancement of a noneconomic cause.

Since then, cause marketing has come to mean much more than just forming visible partnerships between for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations. Today, cause marketing describes any number of different ways that companies can market themselves to the public by using corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Taken broadly, cause marketing simply means that a company “does well by doing good.”

High-profile success stories in cause marketing are not hard to find. For decades now, Yoplait’s “Save Lids to Save Lives” and General Mills’ “Box Tops for Education” campaigns remain two of the biggest and most successful case studies in cause marketing. Recently, companies from General Motors and Facebook to Lowe’s and Crocs have made the news for stepping up to help frontline workers, small business owners and other Americans during the pandemic. At PenFed, we’ve celebrated reaching two million members by donating $2 million to supporting America’s communities.

A host of different factors can influence whether a cause-marketing strategy will succeed or (like former attempts at cause marketing by Pepsi and Gillette) crash and burn. A study in the Journal of Business Research has identified the factors that inhibit success: Customers react negatively to cause-marketing strategies that are either merely mercenary or plainly trendy. Additionally, customers react negatively when companies use cause-marketing strategies reactively in order to save face after a public scandal.

By contrast, successful cause-marketing strategies all share three features. They are each: (1) proactive, (2) a right fit for the company, and (3) authentic. What this means is that successful cause marketing has to show a company taking initiative and seeking to do social good in an area that is truly relevant for the company’s products. And above all else, customers want to see cause marketing that is seamlessly integrated with the company’s broader mission and that clearly comes from the heart. It has to align with the customer’s beliefs and values. It has to be authentic. It has to mean something!

At PenFed, we have always aimed to focus on members and community. We consider our employees as part of the community. We try to focus on what matters most at this particular time with our unique member base. It was never about building a campaign for cause marketing. It was always about what we can do now to support our members, even if it is something small.

We did a lot of small things: $50,000 in grocery giveaways at the onset of COVID-19, an employee blood drive at our headquarters, matching donations up to $85,000 to our PenFed Foundation over Memorial Day. We did what made sense, what aligned with our beliefs and values. It never seemed like marketing. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Personally, I am grateful for countless parts of my life that were largely possible because of other people.  So, I ask myself, “What can I do to give back? Even if it is a small thing, how can I make somebody’s life a little easier?”

It shouldn’t be about creating a cause simply to sell products; cause marketing should really be about authentically spreading the word about the initiatives that are important to your company’s mission and its customers.

Gaurav Bhatia

Gaurav Bhatia

Gaurav Bhatia is PenFed's SVP and Chief Marketing Officer responsible for marketing strategy, execution and digital experience across all channels. Prior to joining PenFed, Gaurav held positions of Chief Digital ... Web: Details