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Debunking Cause: The Five Myths and Realities of Cause Marketing Today

Alison DaSilva, cause accountability, Cause marketing, cause marketing myths, cause marketing realities, Cone Communications, debunking myths, Greenwashing, Marketing, Pr, Public relations, purpose campaigns, purpose-oriented messagesBy Alison DaSilva, Executive Vice President, Research and Insights, Cone Communications

Most brands today have figured out that consumers are craving a deeper value proposition when deciding what products to buy. Millennials, especially, are redefining exactly what that means as they strive to be socially and environmentally responsible and balance what is important to them personally, and for the planet at large. So where does cause marketing fit into this equation, and how has it evolved as companies race toward purpose-oriented messages, campaigns and frameworks?

There are some realities that marketers need to accept if they are to leverage cause marketing as the powerful business strategy of days past. Consumers are increasingly skeptical—and with good reason. They’ve seen greenwashing, pinkwashing and products doused in nearly every Pantone color for one cause or another. And as expectations of companies continue to increase, consumers are also becoming strikingly sophisticated. They are holding companies accountable, boycotting when they see wrongdoing and using social media as their mouthpiece to share both positive and negative information about brands’ social and environmental efforts—with great success.

Cause marketing is evolving, and the older approach just won’t cut it with today’s demanding and savvy consumer. Let’s look at the new norm and recalibrate the myths and realities of cause marketing today:

Myth #1: If a company ties a donation to a product, it will realize a short-term sales increase.

Reality: Giving a donation in exchange for a purchase is not enough. That’s not to say cause is no longer a differentiator, but consumers expect a brand’s backing of an issue to go far beyond a promotional transaction. They want to support companies that weave purpose throughout the business model and have an authentic, meaningful and substantial tie to the causes they support.

In the Marketplace: Burt’s Bees “Bring Back the Bees” campaign raised awareness for the diminishing honeybee population when it dropped the letter “b” from all its social media posts and in-store packaging. The brand pledged to plant 1,000 wildflower seeds for each social post using the hashtag #BringBackTheBees or purchase of a limited edition “urt’s ees” lip balm. Although the campaign did have a transactional component, it was just one piece of a larger initiative. The campaign spoke to the nature-oriented essence of the brand and its authentic (and necessary) commitment to helping bees.

Myth #2: All cause marketing programs need a visible nonprofit partner.

Reality: Company A + Nonprofit B is no longer the only equation in cause marketing. While there’s no question that nonprofits are imperative in delivering societal impact, they no longer have to be front and center in a cause marketing program. Many companies are choosing to go it alone, ensuring entire control of a branded effort that aligns seamlessly with the issues directly related to the business.

In the Marketplace: The Always Like a Girl campaign is notably mum on its nonprofit partners. In fact, visitors to the Like a Girl website would be hard-pressed to find any information on the nonprofits the program supports. Rather, Always zeroed-in on the message of building girls’ confidence and making young women unstoppable through a number of unique activations. The company does partner with nonprofits such as UNESCO, Lean In and Girl Scouts of America to spread the word, but brand equity falls entirely to Always.

Myth #3: It’s better to market a specific issue during a “cause month.” 

Reality: Not only is October Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s also Healthy Lung Month, Domestic Abuse Awareness Month and the designated month of at least seven other worthy causes. So there’s no denying this can be a crowded time to launch a major campaign. But beyond that, the old model of waiting 11 months of the year to finally rally behind a cause is no longer effective. Thanks to digital and social media, consumers are engaging at a much faster pace, and companies can make efforts more real-time in response—communicating around important issues throughout the year at planned—and unplanned—moments in time. In today’s always-on world, cause months may be a good time to reinforce commitments, but it can’t start and end there.

In the Marketplace: H&M chose Earth Month 2016 as a moment to announce a partnership with musical artist M.I.A. and the launch of its own “World Recycle Week” to highlight its garment recycling initiative, but the retailer’s focus on clothing take-back extends far beyond this pulse period. The brand’s three-year old program has consistently served up messages related to the recycling initiative both through online communications as well as in stores throughout the year.

Myth #4: People just want to do good—that’s why they support causes.

Reality: Motivations for why individuals participate in cause initiatives may not be as benevolent as you think. While it’s true many consumers participate because they want to do good, marketers need to appeal to reasons that span both personal and altruistic benefits. Millennials are more likely to support a cause because it helps them show others what they stand for and builds their personal brand, while employees are more likely to get involved if it will help create professional development opportunities. Understanding what your audience wants to gain from the experience is important to trigger action.

In the Marketplace: Colgate’s “Every Drop Counts” campaign made a splash with its 30-second Super Bowl spot this year, but the real impact was made when Colgate appealed to individuals to take a pledge to turn off their faucets when brushing their teeth. Consumers could go on the Every Drop Counts webpage to make their pledge based on the number of people in their household, then Colgate provided pledgees with social media badges to tell their networks how important saving water was to them—appealing to consumers’ proclivity to use causes as a part of their personal brands online. Over 320,000 people committed, resulting in more than 2.5 million gallons of water saved every day.

Myth #5: Hashtags are the key to real-time marketing.

Reality: Selfies, hashtags and emojis are all the rage and are easy tactics for companies looking to jump in and show support for cause in real-time. But consumers are tuning out transactional one-off campaigns that are here today and gone tomorrow. Companies need to show how they are committed beyond the trending hashtag of the day. Social media engagement is a powerful strategy to break through when done right—a holistic experience where digital builds off a foundation of owned, earned and paid content, with a cause commitment that is authentic and engaging. Then, of course, a great hashtag won’t hurt.

In the Marketplace: REI’s #OptOutside campaign was more than just a hashtag. By committing to close its stores on Black Friday so employees could enjoy time outside with family and friends, the company took a stand that subsequently became engrained in the very essence of the organization and what it stood for. The brand paired the hashtag with a dedicated website with interactive element to help consumers find outdoor activities in their area and a photo uploader with #OptOutside filters to share their outdoor adventures. The comprehensive effort, rooted in REI’s brand values was hugely successful, with more than 1.4 million consumers committing to opt outside.

What does this all mean for cause marketing today? Nearly nine-in-10 (87%) Americans expect companies to address social and environmental issues – and the same amount would purchase a product with a social or environmental benefit. So consumers still very much want cause marketing in their lives. Yet, companies need to reframe their thinking around efforts.

Companies that view cause marketing as simply a promotional tactic to drive short-term sales won’t reap the many positive benefits of standing for significant issues and even more importantly, consumers will see through these thinly veiled attempts at “doing good.” As we continue to innovate around cause, companies should look to support issues that are not only important to its consumer base, but also the business and its stakeholders—then create a meaningful experience for each audience that is emotional, relevant and urgent. And after that, you can start brainstorming that perfect hashtag.

As executive vice president of Cone Communications’ Research and Insights group, Alison DaSilva is responsible for tracking and identifying trends to keep our clients on the leading edge of CSR. For the last 18 years, Alison has led the development of Cone’s groundbreaking benchmark research, exploring the attitudes and behaviors of global consumers, employees and executives towards corporate involvement with social issues and responsible business practices. With this in her arsenal and the learnings gleaned from years of program development, Alison collaborates with account teams to keep clients at the forefront of this rapidly changing arena.

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