Cause marketing comes back from the dead

by Dan Pearlman , Bob Wolf Partners/TPG

More than 20 years ago, the glimmer of cause marketing made its debut with a patriotic call by the Statue of Liberty renovation folks. Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, was its spokesperson. The campaign blended corporate sponsorship, PR and more in creating a successful public-private partnership

The campaign spurred my interest about how to blend worthy social causes with brands in a manner that would create a win-win for all parties. I created a separate company (The Pearlman Group) devoted to social responsibility and the concept of “doing well by doing good.” We sought out like-minded CEO’s who might embrace a cause that fit their brand’s culture and would resonate with its target constituents. Examples were Coca Cola and education, Crystal Cruises and cleaner oceans and bays, and Chevrolet/Geo and the environment.

In the latter case, we linked the most fuel-efficient cars in America (Geo, a JV with Toyota) with non-profit tree planting/beautification non-profits in cities throughout out the U.S. (one tree planted for every Geo sold). Burning less fuel led to less CO2 in the atmosphere, and trees contribute to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere…and this was planned as a prelude to GM’s launch of the electric car, Earth Day and more. The seven-year campaign (“Think Globally, Act Locally…It’s Geo-logic”) was fully integrated using sponsorship/event marketing and public relations as its foundation, and being supported by direct/interactive, social and traditional advertising. Consumers, dealers, government agencies (city, state and national) and GM employees all responded enthusiastically. Some skeptical media got onboard when they saw the campaign was authentic and could not deny that what was good for society, could also be good for business (as frosting on our cause effort, the program was expanded to include Chevy Trucks supporting reforestation of U.S. National Parks). The Geo Tree Program was credited with assisting the most successful auto launch in U.S. history (volume of vehicles sold).

For a few years, cause marketing had its day in the sun, but by 2000 it was trivialized as every brand manager and agency account executive tried to come up with cause promotions such including discounts, one-off promotions donating a percentage of profits to a non-profit, and so forth.'

Eventually, cause marketing was viewed as passé and a bit superficial…and began to fade away as the economy ran into trouble and non-essential programs were eliminated.

Recently, some brands and programs have revived cause marketing with solid long-term strategic planning, authentic motives and synergy between their chosen cause and brand….

Target (the retail chain) and education, Tom’s Shoes and needy children, BP cleanup/tourism program atoning for its oil spill in the Gulf, Home Depot and Habitat for Humanity…all renew the faith of employees, customers, non-profit volunteers and regulatory bodies who respond favorably in today’s marketplace.

Selective cause programs have merit more than ever. Brands would do well to consider the benefits of such programs as they seek to differentiate themselves from competitors, and lay the foundation for potential goodwill (in the event of a crisis) while remaining true to themselves and their constituencies.