Do Well By Doing Good: Cause Marketing

Adidas has been teasing a new line of footwear using recycled ocean waste for some time now, showing off the initial 3D-printed prototype late last year. Just in time for World Oceans Day on June 7, 2016, they finally announced the finished product, the Adidas X Parley:

“The shoe upper is made from Parley Ocean Plastic®, which is collected in coastal areas in the Maldives, as well as illegal deep-sea gillnets retrieved by Parley for the Oceans’ partner organization Sea Shepherd.”

50 pairs of the seagreen kicks will be produced and given to the winners of an Instagram contest, with the most creative submissions earning the right to rock the world’s most environmentally restorative athleticwear.


Millennials Expect More From Their Brands

In addition to getting to be a part of a very cool and groundbreaking project, Adidas is giving cause-driven millennials a product that meshes well with their need to not just blindly consume, but give back as well.

“Social enterprise is now mainstream. In years past, it was a niche offshoot of the nonprofit world. Today, it is front and center.”

Take the success of the “One for One” business model popularized by shoemaker TOMS and eyeglass company Warby Parker. For every pair of TOMs sold, another is given away to children in need. The company reports that it has distributed over 50 million pairs so far.

Warby Parker, similarly devotes a portion of the proceeds from every sale to supplying the third world with eye exams and corrective eyeglasses. To date, they have given away over a million pairs. According to the company’s Co-Founder and Co-CEO Neil Blumenthal: “Social enterprise is now mainstream. In years past, it was a niche offshoot of the nonprofit world. Today, it is front and center.”

Companies perceived as good corporate citizens are being rewarded in the marketplace, particularly with the sought-after millennial generation. A 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) study found that “More than nine-in-10 Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause (91% vs. 85% U.S. average).”

Even millennial celebrities are getting involved. In an era when older celebs are hawking sodas and chips, Generation-Y superstar Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors turned down Coke and Pepsi to sign a three-year deal with Brita, the water filtration company.

The basketball phenom said in a public announcement: “Drinking water is essential to a healthy lifestyle. Water is my drink. I like that Brita makes tap water taste good, so you don’t need to spend money or waste plastic with bottled water.”


The First Cause Marketer

The first major example of cause marketing was a partnership between the Marriott corporation and the March of Dimes in 1976. The campaign simultaneously promoted the hotel chain’s new family entertainment center, Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara, CA, and raised $2.4 million for the storied charity that works to improve the health of mothers and babies.

That’s a big sum today and in the 70’s it was completely unprecedented. The campaign was the brainchild of Bruce Burtch who has been called the “Father of Cause Marketing” by the Cause Marketing Forum, the industry’s primary association. Burtch is also credited with coining the phrase “Do well by doing good,” which has come to epitomize the goals of such partnerships.

American Express is considered responsible for both bringing the concept mainstream and developing the term “Cause Marketing.” In 1983, Amex developed a campaign where a 2-cent donation was made to a number of nonprofits every time someone used their charge card. The success of the program led to a now famous followup where American Express raised money to restore the Statue of Liberty.


When Your Issue Goes Viral

Since then, campaigns have gotten considerably more advanced, taking full advantage of modern branding techniques and the growth of social networks.

Launched in early 2006, Product RED, has reversed the standard formula for content marketing. Instead of a corporation seeking out a charitable cause to partner with, Product RED encourages brands like Apple, Armani, Starbucks, and Nike to develop special editions of their products featuring the Product RED branding. A full half of the profit from the joint ventures is donated to global causes like malnutrition.

In the summer of 2014 the ALS Association (which funds research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease) raised $115 million with its Ice Bucket Challenge, the first case of viral cause marketing. Participants pledged to donate to the cause and raise awareness by posting videos to Facebook and other social media sites of a bucket of ice water being dumped on their head. 


Transparency is Key

Despite those success stories, some in the industry are wondering if cause marketing is experiencing a bit of a backlash.

A study by San Francisco agency Traction found that consumers are increasingly skeptical about companies that seek to associate themselves with positive issues: “Nearly half (41 percent) of the survey’s respondents at least somewhat agreed that cause marketing is ‘just spin,’ and a full 25 percent are already annoyed by it.”

Recently TOMs has taken some flack, both for producing its shoes in regions with lax labor laws like China. It has also been accused of “damaging the local economy in the countries they are sending shoes to.”

Even good intentioned campaigns can have negative consequences, and consumers are expecting companies and brands to consider the long term outcomes of their actions. Furthermore, they are wise to lip service and partnerships that benefit the partners more than the cause.

But, when the synergy is real, the cause is worthy, and the campaign thoughtful and thought-provoking, there is still plenty of opportunity for brands to do good while doing well.