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How can I succeed at
cause marketing?

How Can I Succeed at Cause Marketing?

"If it doesn't pay to be good, brands wouldn't bother"

Scott, 40 Year Old

You want to stand for something? Good. Now do it in a way that not only sheds light on an issue issue, but also compels behavioral change in favor of the cause and your brand. Sound difficult? It is.

Cause marketing isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around since Marriot Corporation (the predecessor of today’s well-known hotel brand) partnered with the maternal and baby health organization March of Dimes to raise money for the non-profit and awareness for a Marriot amusement park in California—in the mid 70s. It has, however, become increasingly prevalent over the years. Whether in the health, environment, wildlife, educational, social or even political spheres, more and more brands are joining forces with not-for-profits in an effort to affiliate their campaigns and initiatives with causes aimed at benefiting a greater good. And with good reason.

Led primarily by charity-minded millennials—and with the help of an increasingly connected world—societies are placing a greater weight on equality, social good and environmental stewardship. And the business world has taken notice. Over the last decade, brands of all stripes have embraced cause marketing either through developing new products with purpose at their core (think Tesla), supporting an issue long-term through employee volunteerism (think CSR), or launching campaigns built upon humanitarian issues (think Adidas and their anti-plastic campaign).

The case for cause-related initiatives is unequivocal, proving both highly valued by consumers and highly attractive to employees. According to LinkedIn’s 2016 Purpose at Work report, 85 percent of purpose-led companies showed positive revenue growth, while 42 percent of non-purpose led companies showed a drop in revenue. That’s not surprising when you learn that a University of Southern California study found that 77 percent of millennials engage with brands around CSR on social media, and that 87 percent of millennials are willing to purchase products with a social or environmental benefit. And as telling is a 2015 CSR study by PR firm Cone Communications which found that 84 percent of consumers consider a brand’s social and environmental commitments before buying, and 80 percent of respondents said they’d buy a from an unknown brand with strong commitment to a cause.

Purpose at
Work Report
Purpose Lead
Increase in revenue
Non-Purpose Lead
Decrease in revenue

That sentiment extends to a brand’s employees. A 2018 report by research and consulting firm Great Place to Work showed that brands that give back have more passionate and enthusiastic employees, as well as higher retention. Likewise, employees who believe their employers are generous to their community are also 13 times more likely to look forward to coming to work compared to employees who believe otherwise.

Even Cannes has taken notice, introducing an entirely new category in 2015 called the Glass Lion to honor ad work featuring "ideas intended to change the world" and disrupt "ingrained gender inequality, imbalance or injustice." In 2017, the category had seen entries rise by 31 percent, and all entry proceeds have gone to charity.

And on a macro scale, there are few cultures that are not built on a foundation of promoting good in their country and around the world.

Whether or not these initiatives are driven by true benevolence or the latest marketing zeitgeist is a valid question, and a difficult one to answer. It's also not one many brands are asking themselves. What they are asking is how to do cause marketing right. And getting it right starts with understanding three basic truths that govern the field: 1) consumers want to engage with brands that contribute to a better place; 2) the category has becoming cluttered with initiatives all vying for share of attention, behavior or wallet; and 3) consumer culture is one of cynicism and scrutiny, with a skeptical eye towards brands’ every action and initiative.

Once those truths have been accepted, any organization attempting to spur behavior change through cause marketing can benefit from a simple formula and framework to guide their undertaking: the 4P Framework.

Rokkan's 4p framework for cause marketing

  • Size of the problem
  • Plausibility of the source
  • Convenience of the process
  • Power of the feedback
probability of the sustained bahavior change

01 Size of the Problem

Brands and organizations have a task of not just bringing an issue to someone’s attention, but framing it in a matter that creates empathy and urgency.


Conventional wisdom tells us that brands can create empathy in consumers by presenting hard-hitting statistics that stress the size and importance of an issue. But individual, personalized stories have been found to be just as, if not more, effective as statistics in evoking emotion and persuading action.

For example, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor Deborah Small studied the impetus behind donations and found they increase when appealed for through a single story of a victim versus a statistic—a phenomenon called the ‘identifiable victim effect.’ In fact, Small found that introducing statistics to an individual’s story actually lowered the total amount donated. The bottom line? People donate based on connection and emotion—not data.


As with most things in life, action on behalf of a cause is directly proportional to the urgency of that cause. If something doesn’t need to be done now, it’s likely nothing will be done. Beyond effectively framing or dramatizing the issue, brands must create a sense of urgency and immediate need to instigate action.

One way to make the case of urgency is to invoke the theory of loss aversion. Put simply, this theory, which dates back to at least 1979 and has been validated by psychologists and neuroscientists, states that people would rather avoid a loss than make a gain. To put it in perspective, most people wouldn’t enter into a $20 bet, despite an equal chance of winning and losing. While people experience and react to loss aversion differently (gamblers and criminals, for example, would be the exception to the rule), the theory is accepted as a general truth, and highlights society’s heightened sensitivity to loss.

Marketers have long leveraged this theory to persuade consumers to act with urgency by instilling a fear of losing out on a deal (Limited time offer! Don’t miss out! Sale ends tonight!). But the theory carries even more weight in the domain of cause marking, where the stakes are significantly higher.

Just look at the way not for profits tackle climate change in their marketing. Peoples Climate’s Global Day of Action ad featured the Statue of Liberty under water, with text that read: The Next One Won’t be Biblical. WWF’s ad showed Washington underwater, reading: Don’t let this be our future Washington DC. Stop climate change now. And Friends of the Earth’s ad showed a melting Earth in an ice cream cone, along with a message to ‘…save the planet before it’s too late!’ These are brazen, evocative and hard-hitting ads—all of which utilize loss aversion theory to invoke urgency of action.

"The biggest problem with charity is that people don’t trust charity."
Scott Harrison, founder of charity:water

02 Plausability of the source

Source plausibility deals with the likelihood of a brand actually being able to help solve an issue. Even if a brand can create urgency and empathy, if consumers don’t believe they can genuinely help, a cause campaign will fall flat.

For consumers to trust a brand’s ability to contribute to solving a cause, they need to see evidence of three things: genuine motivation, credibility in solving the issue, and an inspiring plan.


The paradox of cause marketing is this: people expect brands to play a part in making the world a better place; people are cynical when brands actually do. In the eyes of consumers, there is a thin line between a brand taking up a cause out of genuine care, and taking up a cause out of selfish opportunism.

A powerful expression of that skepticism is a 2015 campaign from a London-based anti-advertising group called Brandalism, in which they placed a series of billboards across Paris calling out the hypocrisy of corporate sponsors of the UN’s climate summit.

To say the least, Brands would do well to tread carefully when taking up a cause. Just ask Pepsi, whose 2017 commercial about unity featuring Kendall Jenner became a cautionary tale about what can happen when a brand decides to stand for a cause, yet fails to convince consumers of its authenticity. Set against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, the ad was one of marketing’s greatest blunders (see Rokkan's thought leadership on Culture). Why? Because neither Pepsi nor Jenner—a member of the ultra-elite—were seen to have a genuine motivation for tackling social justice and police brutality. Nor were Pepsi and Jenner viewed as being in the business of making peace, as evidenced by their historical lack involvement in initiatives around race, violence or community justice. Plus, consumers saw the idea of a soft drink and supermodel helping to solve one of this decade’s biggest social problems as unrealistic, tone-deaf, and even insulting. Ultimately, the whole ordeal left people with the impression that Pepsi had no real interest in solving this issue, and was instead seeking to profit off a hot topic.

TWO: Credibility in solving the issue

Too often, brands decide to take on an issue because it is trending, fashionable or a short term campaign. This affords brands little ability to make an impact. Brands and organizations must instead choose causes they have either tackled before (and can demonstrate through transparent reporting of outcomes), or causes in which their experience would prove relevant. Consider that a study on the giving process by Root Cause—a not for profit that specializes in social impact strategy and design—found that 75 percent of respondents look for concrete information about a charity’s achievements before making a decision about where to give.

The group charity: water is an excellent example of making the impact of their work visible to the world in part through a successful and transparent reporting/achievement strategy. When the group, which raises money to help organizations in the developing world drill wells and have access to clean water, first began paying for wells, they used Google Maps to tag completed projects with GPS coordinates. They then uploaded these coordinates to a public site along with photos and a map. This process allowed people to be confident that all of their contributions were going to water projects.


An issue with many cause-driven initiatives is that they either lack a plan, or have a plan but fail to communicate it in a way that’s digestible to the average consumer. Notions can be powerful, but the can also seem too abstract and conceptual to get behind. People want to invest in a plan.

A paper by Wharton professor Deborah Small supports this theory. She cited a field experiment that examined donations to Habitat for Humanity to build a house for a needy family. Respondents were told that a family had either been selected or would be selected to occupy the house, and donations were tracked for both steams. The findings? Contributions were significantly greater when the family had already been determined. In other words, participants were more inclined to invest in a cause when a plan was in place. Why? Because with a plan comes confidence in its success.

A good example of a well-communicated cause-based plan is a recent Pampers campaign. In an ad about their collaboration with UNICEF to help vaccinate pregnant women in the developing world against tetanus, the brand’s creative showed mothers and babies from

different ethnicities and cultures. The plan was revealed in several, easy-to-digest aspects: 1) the 1:1 messaging that for every 1 pack of Pampers sold, 1 woman in the developing world would receive a vaccine; 2) the specificity of the vaccine; and 3) the clear visuals of women from Africa, Latin America and Asia. The result was a piece of creative work that left few questions.

Toms shoes is another great example of an easily digestible cause-driven plan that happened to be instrumental in the brand’s initial success. The plan was straightforward: buy a pair of shoes, and we’ll make a second pair to give to a shoeless child. The offer was clear. The shoes flew off the shelves.


The more friction a brand creates in the process to support a cause, the less likely consumers are to get and stay involved. Friction can take the form of cost of resources (money), energy (time), and cognition (difficulty). Brands must have a clear outline for engagement, and a simple set of actionable steps—the process should be seamless and effortless.

Interestingly, there is evidence that bears this out in college enrollment. A study involving H&R Block showed that pre-populating a federal financial aid form with tax returns made students more likely to submit an aid package, enroll in college, and even receive more aid—all major outcomes from a minor change in process that reduced friction.

One example of the power of convenience in cause engagement is micro giving, or when brands ask for small donations to reach a specific goal. Micro giving is attractive to consumers because it asks for tangible gifts that don’t scare away the donor. Psychologically, donating $25 four times over the span of a year can seem easier than donating $100 at once. U.S. Democratic Party presidential candidates know full well the strength of micro-giving, as more than half of their individual contributions in the first quarter of 2019 came in amounts of $200 or less.

Global Citizen, an NGO focused on ending extreme poverty, has reduced friction for their supporters by using pre-written social media content for users to share. The group’s website presents people with areas of concern that, if clicked on, will activate a pre-written email or tweet (or petition) for users to send.

Likewise, The Rainforest Alliance, which works to make business more responsible for forests and the environment, has made it easier for brands to partner with them through their Follow the Frog marketing initiative, which allows brands to easily show their commitment to the environment by placing a seal on all Rainforest Alliance-certified products.


Great social cause marketing campaigns establish lasting relationships with their consumers. And a critical element of those relationships is communication.

A 2015 survey by the UK charity Charities Aid Foundation revealed that 81 percent of respondents want to hear from a charity after they give. What’s more—68 percent of respondents want that communication to focus on how the charity is having an impact.

Still, that doesn’t diminish the value of a heartfelt thank you. At DonorsChoose, an NGO that links donor money with requests for supplies from public schools across the U.S., recipient kids and teachers write personal thank-you notes to donors. In their 2017 book ‘The Power of Moments,’ brothers Chip and Dan Heath write that DonorsChoose found that donors who opted to receive thank you letters made a larger donation the following year. The Heaths suggest that this is due to the power of gratitude, which they argue leads to lasting happiness.


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Rokkan is uniquely positioned to take on very specific brand business problems and solve them with proven methods. Learn more about our methods, seminars, brand experiments, white papers and speaking engagements.



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