Cause Marketing Isn’t Working for Young People

Study finds that having a purpose must extend past just one campaign

According to DoSomething’s survey, “Nike still only secured a 60% aided awareness of an association with any cause at all and only 27% with racial justice.”
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Trends show that young people gravitate towards brands with purpose. Stand for something, Gen Z says, and we’ll reward your company with our attention and dollars.

According to new research out this month from DoSomething Strategic, a social impact consultancy, marketers are struggling with putting the ideals of cause marketing into practice as brands focus on individual campaigns and not deeper meaning.

“Marketers are missing the mark in how to get [cause marketing] right and use it as a connection point,” said Meredith Ferguson, managing partner at DoSomething Strategic. “If you do cause marketing, you need to understand it’s deeper and more than a simple campaign.”

The report, which surveyed 1,908 DoSomething.org members ages 13–25 about their awareness of 88 retail and consumer brands’ support of social causes, platforms and issues, found that two out of three young consumers (66%) say that a brand’s association with a social cause positively influences their overall impression of the brand. Moreover, 58% say this association will affect their likelihood of purchasing that brand.

However, across the 88 brands tested—like Dove, Patagonia, Nike, DSW and Axe—an average of just 12% of respondents had “top of mind” associations between brands they were familiar with and a social cause of platform. The report also notes that “77% say that they at least sometimes purchase products or services from a brand solely because they believe in the brand’s values/reputation and want to support them. And roughly two out of five young people do this regularly.”

This doesn’t mean that committing to a “cause” isn’t working; the marketing isn’t, Ferguson said.

According to Ian Schafer, CEO of social movements events business Kindred, this research might indicate that many brands aren’t doing a good enough job with both communication and living their purposes.

“Just because a brand aligns itself with an issue or cause in a TV spot (which Gen Z is way less likely to see, mind you) doesn’t mean it is making purpose inextricable from its brand,” Schafer said.

Schafer added that, when done well, a modern brand lives at the intersection of purpose and company behavior. Given that, according to this study, two-thirds of Gen Z say purpose contributes positively to their brand experience, that’s reason enough to not just communicate the brand’s commitment but live it in their actions for the sake of customers and employees.

“An authentic, well-communicated purpose also does something else,” Schafer said. “It creates benefit of the doubt in the minds of young consumers when something inevitably goes wrong. For a generation that is expert at finding the information it needs, purpose is a critical insurance policy.”

Purpose marketing, Zenith Media’s head of innovation, Tom Goodwin, said “is one of those vague tactics that has the benefit of feeling right and doesn’t seem to be too tarnished by not really being true, meaningfully precise or remotely useful, except vaguely directional.”

Connor Blakley, Gen Z marketer and CEO of CB Projects, which develops and manages Gen Z influencers in impact-driven verticals, said that purpose is subjective, with brands trying to please everyone instead of just making decisions to create a real community.

“Our whole life is personalized. We expect brands to come meet us where we are at instead of trying to get us to go to them,” Blakley said.

It’s not just fishing where the fish are but also meeting this audience where their emotions are. Or, as Ferguson noted, where their psychological states are.

So, how does that line up with brands that define themselves as purpose driven?

According to Kantar’s Purpose 2020 report, which looks at how brands think of purpose, those brands that fall into a purpose-led strategy “stand to grow at twice the rate of those without any higher-order societal aim,” according to a statement. The report found that almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z want “brands that have a point of view and stand for something.”

However, the point of DoSomething’s study is that just having a point of view doesn’t cut it. Brands need to embody the cause, not just use it as a one-off campaign.

Take, for example, Nike’s campaign around Colin Kaepernick, which highlighted his protest against racism and social injustice.

According to DoSomething’s survey, “Nike still only secured a 60% aided awareness of an association with any cause at all and only 27% with racial justice.” In other words, a strong campaign that drove engagement (4C Insights data showed how mentions of and comments about Nike jumped 1,678% and mentions of Kaepernick skyrocketed 362,280%) didn’t quite hit the mark of associating Nike with “the cause.”

Nike’s not complaining, though. The company reported a 31% spike in sneaker sales the day after the campaign ran.

While companies like Patagonia and The North Face have spent years associating with a cause (in their cases, protecting the environment), others that suddenly jump into the cause pool don’t always see immediate returns. For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods decided it would no longer sell assault rifles and will sell guns only to adults over 21 after the Parkland shooting in 2018, and although there was both positive attention and backlash, DoSomething found that only 11% of respondents associated gun violence prevention with the brand.

“We all want to save the planet so long as it’s utterly without any sacrifice,” Goodwin said. “The sad truth is most young people are too crippled by student debt, worried about the brain chemistry being affected by mobile phones, to have vital brain power taken up by whether this brand of bleach helps build schools in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

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