Bigger Than Me: Social Cause Marketing and Boomers

By Joe Ford

Summer isn’t complete without our family’s annual pilgrimage to Hershey Park.  This year while watching the kids enjoying the timeless Scrambler, it’s perhaps time for a lighter reflection on brands that are “doing well by doing good.”

How a visit to an amusement park triggers these kind of ponderous thoughts I’ll never know, but let’s just blame it on the Dippin’ Dots.   As we all mature, it seems there is a renewed interest among all generations (but even more markedly, among the 50+ contingent) in connecting with initiatives and brands that have purpose, and some intangible quality that I can loosely call “warmth.”  Have you noticed it in the air?

I remember going to Hershey Park when I was younger and hearing about Milton Hershey and his family, about how they quite literally built the town of Hershey.  He believed that “employees who could raise their families in a pleasant environment would live fuller lives and be better workers.”  He and his wife, Catherine, went on to found the Milton Hershey School in 1909 as a school for orphan boys, and today it is recognized throughout the country for providing a free world-class education, as well as meals, clothing, a nurturing home, healthcare, counseling and career training, to nearly 2,000 children in social and financial need.

Today this renewed interest among brands in associating themselves with causes often is viewed by brand managers as a way of breaking through the clutter of advertising and really connecting with the consumer.  Some of the more notable examples of this include the early attempt of Pfizer to build a “disease awareness” program around cardiovascular disease.

In 2004, the American Heart Foundation and Pfizer founded The Boomer Coalition to make baby boomers more conscious of the threat of cardiovascular disease, but many people questioned the motives of a campaign where the founder was also the maker of Lipitor (a cholesterol drug), Norvasc (a blood pressure drug) and Caduet (a Lipitor-Norvasc combination).  It certainly didn’t help that the website asked the visitors’ names, email addresses, age, blood pressure and cholesterol level, or that the website says: “Fighting CVD (cardiovascular disease) begins in the doctor’s office.”

Connecting through cause marketing has been a learning process for many companies, not without its bumps and bruises, but a number of companies have found the opportunity to help others while connecting with their consumers in powerful ways.

The question is: which social causes work best for businesses and why?

MIT has done some interesting research on which affinity marketing programs are likely to offer the best return on investment for a brand. They found that in many cases companies will obtain better returns through creating an affinity with a social cause than through affiliating with other commercial ventures.  Looking at the list below of well-respected social cause programs, certain patterns begin to emerge:

  • Yoplait’s “Save Lids to Save Lives” cause has donated $30 million for the breast cancer cause in the last 13 years.
  • Timberland is making recycled rubber outsoles for their Earthkeeper initiative and planting over one million trees to prevent desertification and reduce drought.
  • Molson Coors Canada invests more in responsible drinking education than on alcohol-centered events.
  • Tyson’s “Hunger Relief” program launched a campaign in Austin in which it agreed to donate 100 pounds of chicken to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas for every comment posted on its blog.  They received 658 comments in two hours and loaded up two trucks filled with chicken for the hungry.
  • Waste Management Recycle America started Greenoplis as an educational tool to teach people how to be more environmentally friendly on a day-to-day basis.  It provides interesting daily statistics, on-street recycling kiosks and has a rewards program that lets people cash in points for small items.

These most recent examples seem to have found a “Goldilock’s Economy” of balance between their business objectives and the purpose needs of their consumers.  Purpose needs, according to author David Wolfe, encompass a person’s search for meaning and a desire for validation of one’s life and actions.  They are often the most powerful of our core human needs, but often the ones least addressed by marketers.

Not every social cause is a good fit for a company.  The MIT study found that brand managers will need to address a number of questions to help them evaluate the opportunity such as:

  • The Numbers: Is there a sufficient number of consumers in the brand’s desired target market who have a strong affinity for the sport, event or social cause under consideration?
  • Credibility: Will consumers from desired target markets find it credible that this brand is affiliated with this sport, event or social cause, or will they view such support with suspicion?
  • Competitive Differentiation: Does the brand differentiate itself from its competitors in the eyes of desired target markets through supporting this affiliate, or does the brand look like a copycat?
  • The Halo Effect: How does the affiliate stack up versus other potential beneficiaries of the brand’s promotional initiatives, in terms of affecting target consumers’ view of the brand’s style of marketing and its image and performance attributes?

The aging of our society is perhaps making us all a little more cognizant of the most important values in life.  And that’s a good thing.  But building powerful connections with consumers through social cause marketing requires more than a checkbox in the campaign plan. As marketers, we have to remember and reflect those values more deeply than ever not just in our advertising, but in our product development and in our affiliations.

It is clear that the companies who succeed at connecting with their consumers through social cause marketing do so through an insightful mix of:

  • considering their consumers’ purpose needs
  • helping them participate in and develop a series of deeply meaningful experiences with the brand (and with others) that they can reflect upon years later
  • defining a series of results that are meaningful to the bottom-line

Social cause marketing is more than another marketing tactic, it’s about re-thinking the opportunities you have to connect with your customers, and in the process create a moment that lasts forever.

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