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Ten Words for a Year in Cause Marketing

by Research & Insights

It was a banner year for cause marketing as companies, nonprofits, academics, media, celebrities, government and consumers all turned up the dial on cause. New players included Pepsi and Panera, who have redefined the cause model. It was considered dead and then resurrected. As 2010 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back to see what else the headlines revealed about cause marketing in 2010. Cause was a little:

Outrageous:  NGOs, governments and companies alike all sparked a little bit of outrage this year with campaigns that some considered extreme, disgusting or even downright offensive. Global warming violence, “I Love Boobies” bracelets, globs of fat and STD check-ins all upped the shock-factor for cause marketing in 2010.

Fresh:  Novel or cheeky, both definitions work for the batch of programs and platforms that infused a bit of wit into their appeals to consumers. Although outrageous campaigns can push the envelope from sizzle to scandal, few programs go wrong with a little unexpected sass, such as actor Edward Norton’s philanthropy community. After all, “If you don’t give back, no one will like you.”  

Healthy:  Even some of the outrageous campaigns we just mentioned were centered on public health efforts, and cause marketing’s focus on improving Americans’ health did not end there. Why? Healthy habits do more than just trim waistlines – they can also reduce crime and improve schools and communities. With all the good these efforts promote, it’s no wonder everyone from President Obama to America’s beverage companies directed efforts here in 2010.

Controversial:  Crisis and cause marketing was a topic we heard and discussed frequently this year. Some efforts ignited the storm – buckets and breast cancer – while others simply found themselves in the middle of it (Dawn Saves Wildlife). In both scenarios, 2010 proved crisis planning must address your cause marketing-, branding-, philanthropy- and responsibility-related efforts, in addition to other areas of vulnerability.

Cut-throat:  Marketing has always been a ruthless game, but cause marketing has generally been exempt from the copy-catting that is de rigueur in the rest of the field. That is until this year when Skechers’ BOBS Shoes seemed to take one too many plays from the TOMS shoes playbook and Komen had its hackles up over tagline look-alikes. Cause is a strategy that works, so companies must continually innovate to keep their programs ahead of the pack.

Logical:  Oh social math, how we love thee. It takes a complex issue and distills it down into an equation that makes sense to each and every consumer. You buy one, we give one. Social math didn’t originate in 2010, but it certainly picked up steam as organizations such as Goodwill and Tropicana employed this communication tool to inspire consumer participation.

Patriotic:  As wars wage on overseas and American sentiment ebbs and flows, one thing is constant: We support our troops. From short-term holiday promotions (e.g., Outback Steakhouse) to long-term commitments (e.g., Walmart), companies showcased their pride in and support of America’s troops and veterans right alongside their consumers.

Mobile:  The overwhelming response to the earthquake in Haiti really catapulted mobile giving to a new level in 2010, but we saw other incredible executions of this tool, as well.  The “I am Here” campaign from a Dallas nonprofit and Pathways to Housing in New York were just two local efforts that employed mobile technology to drive consumers to their cause. Mobile puts fundraising literally in the hands of the consumer, so no doubt we will see much momentum here in 2011.   

Social:  “Friend us,” “follow us” or “click to vote.” If there are any actions that defined cause marketing in the past year, these are certainly them. From Twitter events to geo-location check-ins to online group-buying – there are a variety of cutting-edge marketing tactics being adapted for good causes, proving that any marketer can have a heart.

Bold:  It only makes sense that we end the list where we began. This time last year we featured Pepsi’s stunning announcement it would forgo Super Bowl advertising in favor of a little philanthropic effort called Pepsi Refresh. The year has been defined by big, bold commitments – one cent of every Happy Meal donated to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, national superpowers seek to Change the Equation of America’s STEM education and literacy. Across all sectors we’ve seen a coming together to solve issues we all collectively face.

Cause has reached new heights in 2010, where the flurry of activity, new players, powerful partnerships, creative executions,  deep impact, extensive coverage – even the controversy and criticism – all indicate a field that’s bursting with life and ripe for innovation. All of these factors prove cause has gone mainstream and marketers are realizing that it’s a powerful strategy to break through the clutter and reach today’s consumer in a relevant way. Simply put, we’re excited to see what 2011 brings. Are you?




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Zach Cole

I love the inclusion of "social" on this list. So many good causes are about the people, and social media helps marketers reach people on a more personal level than ever before. It was inspiring to see all the social efforts and causes that popped up in response to the Haiti earthquake. Great post!

Casey Brennan

Thanks for your comment Zach! Haiti was definitely the tipping point of using mobile for causes. Though we have yet to see anyone match the firestorm of fundraising that resulted from the Red Cross and others for Haiti, we know today that consumers are open and willing to take part when the time is right. Personally, I can't wait to see how the social world expands for causes in 2011.

Insights Associate

Geri Stengel

I'd like to add an eleventh word to the list: jobs. Several corporations are making small businesses their cause, which will, in my opinion, help them grow and add the jobs that America needs so badly. It will also help these large companies remain robust in the long term because small businesses are their customers. American Express and IBM have programs to help small business. My favorite is Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, a $500 million initiative to unlock the growth and job-creation potential of 10,000 small businesses across the United States through greater access to business education, mentors and networks, and financial capital. This kind of cause marketing can pay big dividends.


Social has brought a huge new aspect to cause marketing this year, I can't wait to see where it goes in 2011.


This is very interesting! Good stuff

Casey Brennan

Love the enthusiasm - thanks for your comments!

Twitter: @CaseyB or @ConeLLC

Sarah Mahoney (Ragsdale)

Great post.

I love that cause marketing is more social and mobile. I am anxious to see what impact LBS and group buying power (i.e. groupon) have on cause marketing campaigns.

Twitter: @sarahmmahoney

Tiffany Holtsizer

What a great list - Cause Marketing is growing and changing by the second - 2011 should be very exciting!

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