Carol Cone on Changing the Cause Marketing Landscape

Jul 19, 2011 2:15 PM ET

Carol Cone on Changing the Cause Marketing Landscape

Cause marketing as we know it is dead, according to Carol Cone, founder and former CEO of Cone LLC. Carol takes a moment to explain the evolution of cause marketing and of the citizen consumer, which she says is dramatically changing. Find out why she thinks a fifth P should be added to the “Price, Product, Place and Promotion” mantra of most Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives in this interview.

You mentioned in 2010 that consumers are becoming citizen consumers, enfranchised to make informed decisions when shopping.  How do you see the role of the “citizen consumer” evolving in 2011? 

Consumers have been empowered by social media and the result is heightened expectations and unprecedented levels of transparency within organizations. New innovations are cropping up every day in the digital world, and so we will see this shift toward a new citizen consumer continue into 2011 at an even faster pace. Platforms, like GoodGuide, that allow consumers to immediately access sustainability data and other barcode scanning apps will enable easier, more informed decision making.

Brands have always wanted to be part of consumers’ lives, and there’s an opening for that now more than ever. The Edelman 2010 goodpurpose study showed that 86% of consumers globally believe that companies need to place at least equal weight on society’s interests as they do on business’ interests. Companies and brands will increasingly realize that Purpose is no longer optional; it’s critical. We’ll witness brands getting smarter on how to engage with consumers as citizens – it’s not just about consumption, but about being true citizens of the world and aligning themselves with relevant and local issues. Brands need to provide multiple touch-points for consumers. There are the citizen consumers who really want to interact with the brand—to post reviews on Yelp, recommend it to their friends, etc.—but then there are those that simply want to make good purchasing decisions. Brands and corporations need to engage consumers at all levels.

How has cause marketing changed, and what is its future in 2011? 

As I stated last fall, cause marketing as we know it is dead. So much of what has been deemed “cause-marketing” is simply ineffective; it is no longer enough to slap on a ribbon. We’ve moved on from one-off initiatives to seeking deep engagement on an issue that is innately connected to a brand’s values and essence. I would warn people not to get stuck, however, on what you call it. Whether it’s CSR, sustainability, philanthropy or cause-marketing—it’s about a strategic, long-term approach that is fully integrated into business practices and leverages core competencies to address relevant social issues.  At Edelman, we like the term “Purpose” - it signifies a reason for being for a company and a brand—an inspiration for engagement that drives all other actions.

We believe that Purpose is now the “5th P”, joining the age-old marketing mix of Price, Product, Place (distribution) and Promotion. In the age of social media, 24/7 news cycles and real-time interaction, having a social Purpose in addition to the traditional 4 Ps is a way that companies can differentiate themselves and appeal to the hearts of consumers. In 2011 and on, we’ll see companies without an authentic Purpose get lost in the communications noise, but more importantly, those with Purpose will stand out from the crowd.

You have outlined how brands and companies need to engage consumers to take meaningful action through cause marketing.  What are some ways that companies can better engage consumers? 

Again, companies should provide an action continuum, from Facebook Likes through authentic efforts that help create brand ambassadors. Some consumers are looking for deep engagement, others for simple steps that they can take in a matter of seconds on their phones, whether it’s a check-in or a tweet. There are so many new tools and means of interaction, from crowdsourcing information through Quora, to QR codes and mobile apps like barcoo, to social gaming and platforms like SCVNGR, which uses a combination of the above. We advise companies to embrace these new platforms and take advantage of new services, as long as the actions align with a brand’s Purpose. But it’s a double-edged sword: companies need to stay on top of what their competitors are doing and not be afraid to take risks, but also realize that there’s a lot of clutter out there. Technology is developing at an unprecedented pace. It’s important to be educated about new trends and emerging platforms to best assess and utilize up-and-coming means of engaging consumers.

What are two must-use best practices for cause marketing?  What doesn’t work in cause marketing? 

After strategic alignment, the next thing to remember is that organizations looking for a Purpose platform can’t do it alone. They’re not the social issue experts. There’s a pervasive hubris we see in many companies believing that they don’t need NGO partners to execute or help design their platform. It’s the NGO that has the expertise, the community and the credible spokespeople.

Organizations must seek vetted, credible partners that align with the brand or company on a relevant and authentic social issue; sought-after organizations with solid reputations and histories of expertise to lend to your company. The for-profit’s role is to commit to comprehensive and sustained support of NGO partners, whether that’s money, in-kind or hands-on, and in the best case, all three. We really delve into the logistics behind public/private partnerships in Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding. One of the major things we discuss is the necessity of having clearly defined goals—both business and social goals—before agreeing to the partnership.  Clarity on goals, roles and responsibilities, timelines, reporting and measurement may take months to craft, but are the bedrock of great outcomes on both sides.

Second, I have to stress the importance of having 360-degree communications. A lot of companies think that publicity alone will do the trick, but it won’t. Again, it goes back to Purpose: this has to be something that is really understood internally as well, from the CEO to your employees. It can serve as a rallying point within your organization; something that everyone can feel invested in and proud of when they think of the organization.

As for what doesn’t work, it starts with a lack of transparency regarding the NGO and the financial relationship. Is it a grant? Is it cause-marketing? Is it something else? Brands and corporations need to remain extremely clear in their giving and partnership guidelines and be transparent about their actions.
Many brand managers don’t realize they have to register with attorney generals in more than a dozen states as a commercial partner with the NGO.  There are legal experts in this matter; one of the best out there in my opinion is Ed Chansky.

How has the success of cause marketing changed consumers’ mindsets?  Do consumers now expect that companies give them opportunities to do good?

Yes, I think that consumers absolutely expect that companies will give them opportunities to do good. In the Edelman 2010 goodpurpose study, 71% of respondents worldwide reported their belief that brands and consumers could do more to support good causes by working together, and 63% responded that they want brands to make it easier for them to make a positive difference. And so it’s in companies’ best interests to respond to these consumers’ expectations.

About Carol Cone

Carol Cone is best known for her commitment to building purposeful and sustainable partnerships between companies and social issues since she first founded Cone LLC in 1980. While with Cone LLC, she worked on the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women initiative, Avon’s Breast Cancer Crusade campaign and transformed Yoplait’s Save Lids to Save Lives partnership with Susan G. Komen for the cure. Since leaving Cone LLC to work with Edelman PR Agency in March, Carol has helped to conduct the Edelman 2010 Goodpurpose Study and redefine cause marketing as we know it.