Cause Marketing’s Still All to the Good

Cause-related marketing came into its own when the economy was faring well. But, unlike some other fair-weather phenomena, consumers’ interest in corporate support for worthy causes has not succumbed to the downturn of the past several years. A survey for Cone LLC, an Omnicom Group unit that specializes in the field, finds consumers still want companies to be engaged with good causes and will reward those that rise to the occasion.

Whatever constraint the economy has put on consumers’ inclination to make purchases that are linked to a cause, the activity is far more common now than it was a couple of decades ago. In a 1993 survey (Cone’s first on this subject), 20 percent of respondents said they’d bought a product or service in the previous year because it was associated with a social or environmental cause.  In the new survey (conducted in July), 41 percent said they’d done so. Moreover, they expect companies to be engaged in such matters. Eighty-eight percent now say it’s acceptable “for companies to involve a cause or issue in their marketing,” up from 66 percent in 1993.

The survey findings also give a basis for thinking companies can do well by doing good: 85 percent of respondents agreed that “When a product or company supports a cause I care about, I have a more positive image of the product or company.” Nearly as many, 83 percent, agreed that “I would like to see more of the products, services or retailers I use support worthy causes.” Eighty-one percent want companies to “give them the opportunity to buy a cause-related product.” A link to an appealing cause can also give a brand fresh standing with someone who hasn’t previously been among its customers, as 61 percent said it would make them willing to “try a new brand or one they’ve never heard of.”

Consumers don’t believe a tough economy somehow excuses companies from an obligation to look beyond the bottom line. Just 19 percent subscribed to the view that “I understand if companies give less money to support causes and nonprofits” in an economic downturn. Thirty-one percent endorsed the opposite opinion that “It is more important than ever for companies to support causes and nonprofits.” (The rest said they expect companies’ level of support to stay “the same” in hard times.)

Of course, it’s not as though consumers’ interest in supporting good causes through their purchases is of the money-is-no-object variety. While large majorities want companies to support worthy causes and think more highly of brands when they do so, just 19 percent said they’re willing to “buy a more expensive brand” to support a cause themselves.

Assuming companies are attuned to consumers’ attitudes in this regard, does this limit their own interest in supporting causes and making a point of letting the public know about it? “Not at all,” says Alison DaSilva, evp, knowledge leadership and insights at Cone. “Cause marketing provides a competitive advantage, not a license to increase prices. And when it does come to opting for a more expensive brand, we are still talking about one in five customers who would be willing to pay more — and even more moms and 18-to-24-year-olds. If you promised a brand manager that one out of every five potential customers would consider his or her brand, even though it was a bit more expensive than the competitive set, I think they would ask where to sign.”

Given the public’s customary disdain for “big business” — a sentiment that has been intensified by the recession and the corporate missteps that helped cause it — one would expect respondents to give the corporate sector poor marks for its cause-related performance of late. But the survey found otherwise: 64 percent of respondents said they believe companies have “responded well to social and environmental issues during the recession.”