More consumers expect business to be part of the solution to society’s ills, but their activism must be viewed as authentic.
Madison marketing executive Dana Arnold paid a virtual visit to a panel of the annual South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, and she came across a statistic that confirmed a long-held belief about the business case for what she calls “cause marketing.” An overwhelming majority, 94%, of global consumers say it’s important that the companies they engage with have a strong purpose beyond their day-to-day business. How important? So important that they will avoid shopping at those that do not have such a purpose.
The flip side is that only 37% of consumers believe today’s companies have a clear and strong purpose, and if that’s the case, many companies are missing an opportunity to be part of the solution. They can take advantage of this opportunity with authentic cause marketing, which is not the conventional marketing a business might do — it’s about marketing with a societal purpose.
Whether that cause is racial justice, environmental stewardship, appreciation for the plight of an underappreciated group (e.g., farmers), a company can gain in public esteem by increasing public awareness about the cause and do that while “walking the walk,” not by striking a virtue-signaling pose.
Arnold, chief growth officer-partner for Hiebing, a Madison-based marketing firm, hears a lot of buzzwords and believes it’s necessary to make a distinction between marketing around a purpose — the mission, the purpose, the ‘why’ of a company — and the other bucket known as cause marketing or supporting a cause the organization cares about and supporting it in an authentic way.
With U.S. companies expected to spend as much as 15% more on advertising this year than they did in 2020, we sought some cause-marketing tips from local marketing experts and from local organizations known for philanthropy. In addition to Arnold, we spoke to Laura Gallagher, president, The Creative Company; Bill Penzey, owner, Penzeys Spices; Kim Sponem, president and CEO, Summit Credit Union; Brett Thompson, president and CEO, Wisconsin Credit Union League; and Alison Wedig, marketing and public relations specialist, Culver’s restaurants.
Tip 1: Own the cause
In a Harvard Business Review article titled “When a Brand Stands up for Racial Justice, Do People Buy It?” professors Geeta Menon and Tina Kiesler note that brand authenticity is defined as “the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful to itself (continuity), faithful to its customers’ expectations for the brand to deliver on its promises (credibility), motivated by caring and responsibility towards the community (integrity), and reflecting values that consumers consider important (symbolism).”
When we think about cause marketing related to companies and brand, Arnold says there are three levels: community giving, sponsorships, and a winning, “ownable cause.”
Local community giving is simple enough. There are things happening in the community, and you are writing checks for $500 here and $1,000 there and supporting those causes or events.
The second level, sponsorships, is a deeper level of entrenching your organization in an event or a nonprofit or a program.
The third level, the one that involves creating a plan and a pathway, is a winning, ownable cause, which itself has three key ingredients. First, it needs to matter to the target audience that the brand is serving. Secondly, it should be something that feels relevant to the brand — something the brand would care about. Thirdly, it should be something your employees would care about.
“When you have all three of those things in place, that is really a winning, ownable cause that feels relevant to the audiences that you serve, whether that’s your internal audience or your external
target audience, and it differentiates you from competitors,” Arnold states.
Tip 2: Make it authentic
How much does it matter that a brand has a reputation for walking the walk? Don’t make the mistake of thinking it doesn’t matter because, as Gallagher notes, consumers know the difference between the genuine article and something contrived.
“It absolutely matters,” Gallagher says. “People can sniff [a lack of] authenticity from a mile away. In the event that a corporation isn’t walking the walk, they need to acknowledge that they have work to do in this area and specifically name the actions they are taking to change the [failed] status quo.”
According to Arnold, consumers’ eyes are far more open today than they were a year ago, and the events of the past year have brought to light the difference between organizations that are simply saying they support things and those that have put things in place internally to demonstrate that support.
“I think we saw it in the Black Out Tuesday protest during the period after George Floyd’s death and the events that started to happen on the heels of that, and you saw many brands that were posting a Black square in support of that cause,” Arnold states in reference to the June 2, 2020 protest of racism and police brutality organized in the music industry in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. “A lot of consumers and customers were calling them out by noting, ‘You’re saying you are supportive but what have you really done as a company? What actions have you taken as a company to demonstrate that the support is there?’”
Organizations can start by looking internally and asking what they care about, what feels true to who they are, and then take action to educate employees. “And take true action,” states Arnold. “If you’re talking about a social justice area being your cause, certainly having taken some true action, whether it’s through the education of your employees or literally having given to organizations who helped support that cause in the past, those things need to be in place before you say, ‘Hey, here’s our program, and look what we’re going to do in the future.’”
Cause marketing is even more likely to be viewed as authentic, Gallagher adds, if it’s meaningful to employees and something they champion. That’s not trickle-down cause marketing, that’s percolate-up cause marketing. “The best brands are built from the inside out,” she states. “Employee engagement is key to the success of any initiative.”
Tip 3: Bring cause to life
When a brand has an ownable cause and is interested in cause marketing, they must give some thought about how to bring that cause to life. It could come to life in program sponsorships, it could come to life in events, or it could come to life in a social media marketing campaign. On the heels of that, you can have a publicity campaign around that to let people know the different things you’re doing. In Arnold’s view, the pertinent questions to ask are: What do you want to achieve on the front end with that ownable cause? How can you measure it on the back end to make sure that you are successful?
It’s important to offer some level of proof about making a difference, whether it’s fundraising success or counting employee time commitments [PTO] to the cause, but the goals must be established up front. “Every plan is unique, so it’s hard to say these are the key performance indicators that you should have at the end of every year as you’re evaluating your cause program,” Arnold explains, “but I do think one question is what’s the level of donation? If you’re trying to shift things internally, what are some of the indicators that, internally, change has really happened?
“If it’s a cause that is supposed to be championed throughout an organization, how is each department held accountable to that cause?”
Externally, is there a certain number of people who are aware of your cause? Ad impressions would be one measure, Arnold notes, but if you’re trying to create a community or engagement around this cause with your target audience, how can you measure that on social media? Are you seeing conversations happening there?
According to Gallagher, partnering is really important because a nonprofit organization needs exposure to a larger audience. “It also needs ways to connect effectively with the audience you’re bringing to the table,” she explains. “It may seem intuitive, but many nonprofits don’t have the mechanisms in place to begin a lasting relationship with donors. By providing marketing and public relations for the cause you’re working with, you can make a true, long-lasting impact.
“It will also benefit your company by putting a halo around your brand,” Gallagher adds. “A brand is made up of much more than a logo. It’s about all of the thoughts and feelings that a consumer thinks of when they think of the brand.”
For example, Patagonia, a designer of outdoor clothing and gear, cares about the environment. “Do they sell the environment? No, but they know this is important to all of their stakeholders,” Gallagher notes. “It is in their DNA.”
Of all the levels of proof, Gallagher believes that employee time commitments have the most ripples. “Volunteer hours help with recruitment of other employees and show the corporation’s commitment to the cause,” she states. “It’s very exciting and motivating for people to see how much their collective contributions impact a bigger initiative.”
Tip 4: Broadcast on social channels
The use of social media channels is situational based on the target audience. Arnold uses Dove, the personal care products company, as an example to explain why TikTok, a video-sharing service, would be appropriate for them. “Dove has long had a really wonderful purpose that plays itself out in trying to bolster self-esteem in younger women,” she notes. “So, if younger women are the target audience, TikTok makes all the sense in the world. You want to make sure you’re seeing some great activity there and other platforms too, but that one might rise to the top a little bit more.”
In contrast, an organization like Oregon Tool (formerly Blount International), which makes chainsaw parts for the forestry, agriculture, and construction industries, counts as its target audience loggers, arborists, and other primarily male targets. TikTok would not be the platform of choice there, but YouTube would be.
Go-live promotion also helps the cause. “We’ve seen success when organizations ‘go live’ for their fundraising events, making them more exciting and engaging for their audience,” Gallagher notes. “Corporations can do it from their own channels, but it may seem too self-serving. It’s probably better to direct traffic to the nonprofit’s channel.”
Following an event, hashtagged photos of the gathering can be shared to raise more awareness. “Tag away whenever you can,” Gallagher advises. “This is all about showing thanks and building momentum. It can also be another chance for an ask. I love the recap video after an event that shows what can happen when everyone pulls together. It keeps the story going, especially when you have a ‘save the date’ or ‘the ribbon cutting is next!’ or whatever page-turner can be in place to give them something to look forward to.”
Tip 5: Be careful getting political
When an employer’s cause marketing spills over from societal causes to political issues, it’s always been considered risky from a business standpoint. Any company has customers who are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Ditto for employees, so most consider it a wise policy to be neutral where politics is concerned.
Wisconsin retailer Bill Penzey of Penzeys Spices isn’t among them. On company platforms, Penzey has promoted progressive causes, opined on former President Donald Trump’s racial attitudes, and otherwise crossed the line in ways that could upset conservatively oriented shoppers. Often times, Penzeys’ cause marketing is about supporting people — for example, the LGBTQ community — who are being marginalized.
There are a couple of schools of thought as to why Penzeys hasn’t seen much sales erosion — maybe 3% in suburban areas — from the owner’s willingness to be outspoken about politics and public policy. If you think of political constituencies as markets, getting political might not be as risky as one might think. Nationally in 2020, President Joe Biden got more than 81 million votes and former President Donald Trump got more than 74 million votes — both sizeable markets — in the presidential election.
In Wisconsin, Biden received 1,630,866 votes to Trump’s 1,610,184 — again, both sizeable markets — and in Penzeys’ home base of Milwaukee County, Democrat Biden won 69.1% of the vote with more than 317,000. Penzeys, which has a store in Madison, should feel right at home in Dane County, where Biden received 75.5% of the vote (260,212).
Another theory is that younger consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Zers, have such a strong interest in political activism that avoidance of politics is now an archaic way of thinking that no longer applies to business marketing.
Bill Penzey has another theory — most people aren’t that political. “I think there are, if you look at the sheer numbers, more people who want to start working toward a better future, and there is more money to be spent in that group,” he says. “There are people who want to object but then there is a whole other group of people, which is much larger, who really aren’t that invested in it one way or the other. So, you will lose some business from a smaller group of people, and you gain more from a larger group of people, but most of your customers will be in
a spot where they are not going to be affected one way or another.”
With all the available social media platforms — “Choose Love” in support of LGBTQ is featured prominently on its Facebook page — the communications channel that works best for Penzeys is good, old-fashioned email. “For us, it’s more direct,” Penzey explains. “Our emails actually have the greatest impact, and how do you get more people to sign up for emails? You encourage people who are signed up to forward them to friends and family who might be interested.”
Penzeys has done a fair amount of marketing with Facebook, but it’s a somewhat expensive way to reach people, Penzey says. “For their own desire to not be more regulated, they have put in dampeners, and so four years ago, a really good message on Facebook could just swoosh right across the whole platform, but now it really is about paying money to have it go someplace. There is a cost to things that are in their political category, which is anything that is an issue about values they consider political. So, if you do values-based marketing — caring about other people, which is at the heart of good cooking — they call that political. Even if we are not saying something political, we’re still charged the extra money.”
The immediate impact of such cause marketing — valuing your customers values — is not measured in sales, but in a reduction of the cost of reaching people, especially younger generations. “It’s not so much that you’re going to see a massive increase in sales, although you will at times, but it really is the relationship with new customers who actually care about what you care about.”
It’s easy to assume there are business benefits to being viewed as a great company to work for — the recruiting and retention angle of cause marketing — but there is another business benefit that C-suite executives are giving more thought to. Being viewed as being part of the solution, especially with frustratingly persistent government gridlock, offers competitive advantages. “We’re starting to feel that there is an expectation from consumers that companies are going to truly be a big part of the solution in fixing things,” Arnold says, “and that companies have the capital in a way that individuals don’t to be able to lean into these things. There are expectations that consumers are starting to have for companies around this topic.”
When cause and business intersect
Credit unions and agriculture are staples of the Wisconsin economy, and they are immersed in cause marketing. That state credit unions would promote financial literacy and a restaurant franchise would help future farmers comes under the category of practical cause marketing, but the causes are important to society as well.
Brett Thompson, CEO of the Wisconsin Credit Union League, has championed the cause of financial literacy. While it provides how-to guidance and examples to its member credit unions, the league leaves the actual programming to individual institutions. They in turn have gotten creative, especially in partnership with schools. In southeastern Wisconsin, Educators Credit Union is working with more than 20 schools in a program called Reality Check Days in which students explore what different careers pay and how factors like a bad credit score affect their lives.
Thompson notes the outreach is integral to what credit unions do in their communities. “Credit unions are community focused and community owned. They are run by people in the community who sit on the boards of directors, so it’s natural for them to have a real pulse on their members’ needs. It’s also, in essence, part of their mission, and that’s driven by Wisconsin law.”
Credit unions have tremendous social media presence to get the word out, but this cause is a bit more conventional than most found on TikTok. The virtual world has been adopted as the promotional vehicle of choice by some credit unions, including Bite of Reality, a hands-on, app-based simulation that gives teens a real-world example of financial realities. Like many things, widespread adoption has run into a pandemic snag, but Thompson expects the app to take off once schools fully reopen.
Empowering women and girls is another cause taken up by Wisconsin credit unions, and Kim Sponem, president and CEO of Summit Credit Union, has been one of its most active champions. “We had identified that women tend to end up in poverty at a much greater rate than men,” Sponem recounts. “When we peeled back why, there were a number of contributing factors.”
Through its research, the credit union also discovered that women often felt ignored by the financial-services sector. Summit put together a financial wellness program focused on helping women take charge of their finances, and it established a Project Money competition with the sole purpose of teaching contestants how to improve their individual finances. That led to Project Teen Money, a video competition in which teens teach their peers about the finer points of managing money.
The ripple effects are enhanced by Sponem’s monthly article in BRAVA magazine, outreach through the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness and various women’s leadership organizations, and the development of a financial wellness badge in cooperation with the Girl Scouts.
A worthy cause for Culver’s is simple gratitude for farmers. With its Thank You Farmers project, Culver’s showcases gratitude for farmers by supporting the agricultural education provided by local chapters of Future Farmers of America. Since the program’s inception in 2013, Culver’s has raised more than $3 million to support FFA.
When it comes to checking the boxes for an ownable cause, this fits the bill. Does the target audience care where its food comes from? Check. Does the brand care? Check. Do Culver’s employees care? Check. All of those considerations ladder up to the belief that Thank You Farmers is a winning, ownable cause for Culver’s to get behind in an authentic way.
In addition to donations to FFA and farmers in need, members of the Culver’s leadership team have board positions in organizations such as FFA and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA), so they are part of the conversation about the future of agriculture. On its website, Culver’s commits space to showcasing farmers’ stories, and its franchise owner-operators plan fun events such as Scoop of Thanks Day, where guests donate $1 and receive a scoop of fresh frozen custard.
Alison Wedig, a marketing and public relations specialist for Culver’s, notes there are over 300 different careers to pursue in agriculture, and more consumers are asking questions about where their food comes from. “As the Thank You Farmers project continued,” Wedig notes, “it became a way for us to do more than show gratitude, but also to invest in future leaders of agriculture who will ensure a sustainable food supply.”
Time and time again, Bill Penzey has tested the theory that business and politics don’t mix and found that his brand of outspoken, progressive politics isn’t enough to turn off every conservative customer who likes his products.
In some cases, Penzey, the owner of Wisconsin-based Penzeys Spices, one of the nation’s largest independent spice retailers, has found that while some Republicans are “Never Trumpers,” others never say never when it comes to spicing up their meals. Asked if he still holds on to Republicans or conservative-leaning customers, he recounts an email message from the opposing camp. “One of my favorite emails reads, ‘I’m quitting you for a fourth time.’”
As the email suggests, sometimes people quit Penzeys when they don’t need spices. “But when they need spices, they come back to us,” Penzey notes.
They are more likely to come back if they are among that contingent of Republicans who object to their party’s recent direction, but whatever their motivation, Penzey has no regrets about being outspoken. One of his current cause marketing projects is the “Choose Love” campaign for LGBTQ rights, and given the owner’s well-known views, consumers won’t question its authenticity.
As outspoken as he is, Bill Penzey’s advice about “getting political” is to proceed with caution and focus on the human side. As he explains, this goes beyond politics and instead is connected to the simple conviction at the heart of good cooking, especially cooking with spices, and that’s about taking care of people.
“My son is transgender, and I see all of the anger and hate pushed in his direction,” he explains. “There are people who want to be angry at transgender kids. Seeing who appreciates what we’re doing versus those who are angry at us, you understand there are people who are angry because that’s what their media wants them to be, and they really aren’t the people you want to please as much.”
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t business considerations, including the recruitment of like-minded employees. “In some ways, it’s about what are the advantages of doing what we’re doing for business?” Penzey states. “One of them is that you have a direction for your business and who it is that wants to work for you and who it is that wants to be a part of what you’re doing. There is a sense that we’re doing something that matters here, which then goes through most everything we do.”
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