What comes after peak cause marketing?

In the 21st century, cause marketing and corporate social responsibility messaging became a rich source of competitive advantage. Established brands could either rehabilitate their damaged reputations or defend their territory by making a cause-worthy change in business practices. Challenger brands could hit the market with a cause-driven spin on their product that the incumbents couldn’t or wouldn’t match.

Cause marketing has also proven to be a sustainable source of margin. It is, in that sense, a logical and necessary response to differentiate products in a world increasingly commoditized by the transparency of the Internet. According to Nielsen’s The Sustainability Imperative report, 66% of consumers said they will pay a premium to “sustainable brands,” and that figure is up from 50% just two years prior.

That figure heartens fundamental cause marketing optimists like Steve McGlynn, a Philadelphia-based PR account coordinator. “[tweet_dis]There is no ceiling to the good a brand can do[/tweet_dis],” he says. “There are endless causes in need of support around the world.”

But it’s not quite as easy for brands to blithely align behind them anymore—and not just because so many causes are already being spoken for.


Causes no longer a sure-fire winner

The first signs of Peak Cause appeared in 2012, when the comparatively low percentage some cancer advocacy groups actually spent funding research entered the public discussion. The information had always been published and available, but rarely had the merits of “awareness” versus actually finding a cure been so openly and loudly debated.

Brands and institutions which had for years been lining up behind these charities to offer incentives and support were being criticized for “pinkwashing,” referring to the connection of the color with breast cancer charities. This wariness has led to other skepticism, particularly around green-washing (associating a brand with an environmental cause) and good-washing (a more generic term for a seemingly random brand/cause pairing).


It’s about Millennials, because it always is

If we are in fact creeping up on Peak Cause, it’s because everybody’s chasing the Millennial market. The largest consumer demographic gets what it wants, and the data shows they still want more cause marketing. According to Cone Communications data, 91% of Millennials will consider switching brands if a cause they support is involved. (The rest of the population is not exactly curmudgeonly, at a still-hearty 85% willingness.)

According to the Nielsen study, most brands focus on marketing messages alone and aren’t pairing their sustainability efforts with tangible product claims. In North America, just 36% of brands pair marketing and product messaging. Finding proof points is even harder. Nielsen doesn’t even offer statistics on brands which verifiably demonstrate that their claims and marketing messages produce results. And that credibility gap is likely where the peak will start to crumble.


What comes after the peak?

Peer reviews, social networking, and smartphone barcode scanning gave consumers instant access to the facts and experiences that tested the validity of a product’s “new and improved” claims. Any claim of being the biggest, the best, or the cheapest can be audited by anyone, at any time. That day of fact-based reckoning will come for cause marketers, when consumers start collaborating to ask hard questions about the results of all those corporate social responsibility messages.

“The organizations who aren’t genuinely all-in, who haven’t woven their cause into the fabric of the organization, will be identified as bogus,” McGlynn says.

The gap between claim and result isn’t difficult to find today. Lisa Merriam, branding and sponsorship consultant on the board of directors of the New York City American Marketing Association, points at the sentiments of clothier H&M, whose CEO introduces a seven-point responsibility plan by saying “At H&M, we have set ourselves the challenge of ultimately making fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable.” On subsequent pages the company lays out some tangible steps and timetables, but the entire layout is much heavier on adjectives than data.

“H&M may really be doing good, but ‘setting a challenge’ and ‘having a plan’ are just nice sounding words,” Merriam says. “I can say that I’m ‘setting a challenge’ of going to the Olympics, but I’m middle aged and slightly tubby. These things sound really good, but actually say nothing.”

It’s easy enough to stay out of the pretender camp: cough up the facts.

“Say what you did, not quite-possibly-what-you-might-do,” Merriam says. “Then you’re not green-washing or good-washing. You’re delivering specifics.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.