3 Cause-Marketing Trends for Nonprofits and Their Business Partners

Cause Marketing Is Too Important and Big to Ignore

High angle shot of a group of business colleagues holding a budding plant growing out of soil in their hands.
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Cause-related marketing has become big business for nonprofits and their business partners. Recent research reveals just how popular cause marketing is with consumers, and what the future holds for this booming industry.

Cause marketing, although certainly not new, became well known during the 1980s with the highly visible and fruitful partnership between American Express and the Statue of Liberty restoration project.

Cause marketing and corporate sponsorship have been growing ever since (a $2 billion industry in 2016), becoming one of the most popular ways to raise funds for charities, and a direct route to corporate social responsibility for many businesses.

So what does the future hold for cause marketing? Three trends may predict where cause marketers go next.

Trend #1: More Growth

The trend for cause marketing is up and rosy. Holding business accountable for how they treat the planet, their people, and consumers has reached beyond just a niche audience to a worldwide movement.

With more than three-quarters of American consumers expecting companies to do more than turn a profit, Cone Communications dug deeper with its 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study.

For instance:

  • 78 percent of Americans believe companies should not just make money. They must positively impact society as well.
  • 77 percent feel more connected to companies that care about social and environmental issues.
  • 66 percent would change their buying habits by switching to products from a socially conscious company.
  • 68 percent want to share content about CSR-driven companies with their social networks much more than about traditional companies.

Additionally, For Momentum, a cause marketing firm, conducted research for their ebook on #GivingTuesday, specifically to give guidance to nonprofits and corporations about the value of partnering for the massively popular #GivingTuesday. That research found that more the half of the consumers surveyed said they wanted companies they buy from to participate in #GivingTuesday. Furthermore, among young people aged 18-34, 61 percent said they expect companies to take part.

Businesses used to think that CSR was an option. It no longer is. They need consumers and consumers want to support good causes through their purchases. They also expect companies to be responsible throughout their business operations.

For nonprofits, the trends are also upward. Cause marketing arrangements made with businesses have exploded. One of the brightest spots is not on TV or social media but when we shop. Checkout charity has turned out to be a pot of gold for many nonprofits, even though it doesn't seem glitzy or glamorous.

Trend #2: Companies Start Asking Consumers to Make Changes

David Hessekiel of the Cause Marketing Forum says that companies have sometimes turned the tables on consumers. They ask for behavior changes, not just the purchase of products. The focus is on leading healthier lives and staying safe.

Examples of this approach include the Quit Smoking campaign by CVS, the It Can Wait pledge not to text and drive by AT&T, and the New Balance SparkStart that encouraged everyone to just move. 

Along with that trend is the related interest in reaching Generation Z. They promise to be even more socially engaged than Millennials, plus they are "digital natives," requiring companies to conquer new ways of communicating. A sample campaign (tip of hat to David Hessekiel again) was H&R Block’s Budget Challenge. It taught financial literacy with a fun online interactive program. The company also awarded scholarships through this effort.

The generational challenge has also forced cause marketing campaigns to become even more multichannel. Conversations and campaigns now include offline advertising, TV advertising, hashtag social media channels, streaming video, and more. One example was the 2015 #MakeItHappy campaign by Coca-Cola to combat cyberbullying.

#MakeItHappy started with a super bowl ad and then slid into social media where people were encouraged to share "positivity." It wasn't all smooth sailing, though, as Coca-Cola had to suspend its Twitter campaign because of a nasty prank that undermined the be nice message. New waters, new problems. 

Trend #3: Developing Best Practices

As cause marketing grows more prominent, lousy cause marketing has been called to account. The media and the public have voiced disapproval when cause marketing runs off the rails.

Just consider the partnership of Komen for the Cure and Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the "pinkwashing" label that has afflicted some breast cancer marketing programs each October.

We're all demanding good practices in cause marketing. And they are developing. An example is the list of worthy breast cancer cause marketing programs compiled by Joe Waters and Cone Communications. The best practices of these programs include two standards for transparency:

  • giving enough information about the charity being helped so that consumers can research it;
  • and saying exactly how much money the charity will receive, both in total and/or from each purchase.

Watch for more best practices as they evolve. Good sources include The Cause Marketing Forum, Cone Communications, and Selfish Giving (Joe Waters' blog).