Cause-Related Marketing and the Millennial Mindset

Millennials have surpassed simply wanting help in supporting causes to demanding that others, especially companies, do their part.

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Millennials consider themselves civic-minded and active participants in today’s world, and that it’s up to them to assume the responsibility of making a lasting, positive impact on the future. Millennials have surpassed simply wanting help in supporting causes and are starting to demand that others, especially companies, do their part.

According to IPG Media Lab, one of five key millennial behaviors coming out of CES 2014 is: “Millennials look to rework – not reject – the rules and status quo in order to put their mark on the world.” Giving them the power to co-create with brands and products, in their own way, builds ongoing trusting relationships.

“As a millennial, I can attest to this – I have bought multiple pairs of TOMS shoes at a premium price because for each pair I buy, the company donates a new pair to a child in need. If this wasn’t TOMS’ policy, I would think twice before buying them,” wrote Nicole Stavola for

Stavola recommends brands “give back with passion,” which entails carefully defining who you are and what you deliver. “If customers’ perceptions and experiences don’t reflect your claims, your authenticity flounders.”

  • Show that you care by demonstrating the difference your organization is making.
  • Consider an authentic investment in a relevant cause that engages and excites millennials.

How brands can tune into the pro-social mindset of millennials

Unlike previous generations, the millennial definition of community extends beyond local neighborhoods and schools to a broader group that is not defined by location, but by mindset. Millennial interests go beyond specific causes; they are interested in the world on a broad scale, and expect companies to support major world issues.

What is motivating millennials to initially get and then stay involved is less important than the fact that they are engaging in these activities and feel responsible to make an impact; therefore, millennials are the very definition of pro-social.

The “Cone Millennial Cause” study found that just over 80 percent of survey respondents volunteer (either weekly, monthly or once or twice a year). As a result of this involvement, millennials possess a strong desire to positively affect change. Sixty-one percent are worried about the state of the world and feel personally responsible to make a difference.

While millennials tend to volunteer for environmental and social causes, they feel as though there is something important and vital missing from their efforts. As a generation that expects immediate gratification and feedback, millennials need to learn about and/or see an immediate benefit from their actions to feel that they are making a difference.

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The 2012 Kony debacle made many cause-conscious millennials think twice about what giving means beyond slactivism — posting updates, sharing and signing online petitions without being truly dedicated to making change happen or, as Clay Shirky characterizes it, “ridiculously easy group forming.”

Even so, the slactivists behind the viral video Kony 2012 had “achieved more with their 30-minute video than battalions of diplomats, NGO workers and journalists have since the conflict began 26 years ago,” wrote Mathew Green for the Financial Times. A poll suggested that more than half of young adult Americans heard about Kony 2012 in the days following the video’s release.

Kony 2012 also prompted millennials to consider what is required of them to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. Invisible Children, the makers of the viral video, were criticized on several fronts and it seemed clear that while bringing Joseph Kony to justice would be commendable, it was implausible his capture would do much to bring stability to conflict-ridden East Africa.

Millennial Spending Power

Millennials have been described as the ultimate consumers, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the population and spending an estimated $200 billion annually.  They have money and are willing to spend it. While this power in and of itself is not that different from past generations, what is different is that millennials believe they can help change the world for the better through their spending habits.

Twenty-four percent believe they can make a difference in their community by buying products that support social and/or environmental causes. At least 70 percent of millennials have purchased a product that supports a cause. And 90 percent of millennials are likely to switch from one brand to another — even when price and quality are equal — if the second supports a cause.

Millennials factor in much more than just quality and price when deciding which products or services to purchase. Sixty-eight percent stated that a company’s social and/or environmental commitment is important or extremely important when deciding which products to buy.

Millennials are prepared to reward socially responsible companies; they are more likely to trust these companies, seek their employment and buy or recommend their products to others. According to the Cone study, after learning that a company is socially and/or environmentally responsible:

  • 83 percent are likely to trust the company more
  • 79 percent are likely to purchase that company’s products
  • 44 percent are likely to actively pursue working at that company
  • 74 percent are more likely to pay attention to that company’s message because it has a deep commitment to a cause

A company’s social commitment also plays a critical role in a millennial’s decision on where to shop, which products to recommend to others and which messages to pay attention to:

  • millennial in-post image69 percent consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop
  • 66 percent will recommend products or services if a company is socially responsible
  • 74 percent are more likely to pay attention to a company’s messages if the company has a deep commitment to a cause

Conversely, millennials are not afraid to target corporations that are not giving back and will punish irresponsible companies. After learning that a company is not socially or environmentally responsible:

  • 45 percent are likely to refuse that company’s products or services
  • 56 percent are likely to refuse to work at that company
  • 42 percent are likely to encourage family and friends to boycott that company’s products or services

Few Companies Are Effectively Using Cause Branding to Reach Millennials

A majority of the Cone study respondents believe that companies have a responsibility to support social and/or environmental causes. Yet 70 percent reported that companies are not doing enough to support the causes they care about.

To be effective, companies must not only create meaningful, sustainable cause-related programs, but also consistently engage millennials and clearly communicate the impact of those programs. Millennials are more likely to pay attention to a company’s message if that company has a deep commitment to a cause, but in order for that message to resonate with millennials, the commitment needs to be authentic and relevant to both the brand and the consumer.

The more millennials are engaged or involved in a cause, the more they internalize or relate to the message and the more likely they are to act upon that message. As a result, cause-related organizations as well as cause-related marketing efforts need to change how they approach millennials.

The best way for companies to reach millennials with cause-related messages is to redefine the brand marketing experience. Traditionally, the brand marketing experience or relationship is between the brand and the consumer. Cause marketing alters the experience by adding a relationship between the company and the cause.

Given millennials’ activities and mindset, there needs to be a third dimension added to the brand marketing experience. A company needs to establish a relationship with the consumer and with the cause, but it must also foster a relationship between the cause and the consumer.

Pioneering companies are meeting millennials’ high expectations by aligning with social and environmental issues that are relevant to millennials. In order to further appeal to these unique consumers, companies need to provide hands-on cause-related experiences and then clearly and consistently share the related societal impacts.

Some companies to learn from include Aldo fights Aids, MTV Act, Product Red and Cartooon Network’s Rescuing Recess.

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