Cause marketing and the Kaepernick effect

Cause marketing is a type of corporate social responsibility, in which a company’s promotional campaign has the dual purpose of increasing profitability while bettering society. When done well, cause marketing can produce strong awareness, goodwill and let’s not forget profits for companies.

A best-in-class example of cause marketing is TOMS, a shoe company that started off selling simple canvas alpargata style shoes in basic colors like red, blue, black and brown. I am going to be honest, when I first spotted them at my favorite department store I didn’t think they were pretty. But I noticed the tag that highlighted their motto: “With every pair of shoes you purchase, TOMS will give a new pair of shoes to a child in need. One for One.”

“Wow,” I thought, “that’s cool.” It stuck – in a matter of minutes I knew the brand name and their mission.

In a 10-year time span, TOMS has helped give over $70 million dollars’ worth of new pairs of shoes. Not surprisingly the company has expanded its product line and is knocking on $400 million in annual sales.

It is important to note that everything TOMS does or says is in line with their company’s mission and core value: to help improve lives through business. In turn, they have built a following of millions of people whose values and fashion sense align with theirs.

Not all cause-related marketing is created equal. Over the last couple of years a newer form of cause-related marketing was born. This type of marketing has been referred to as brandstanding and is derived from the word “grandstanding.” Google Dictionary defines grandstanding as seeking to attract applause or favorable attention from spectators or the media. Companies that partake in brandstanding take the moral high-ground in the name of a cause that was cast by the media and/or the public as an outcry against social injustice.

Pulling advertising from networks or products off the shelves at the first outcry or public threat seems like a great idea because in evaluating each cause, based on their own merits, they are all worthy (women’s rights, racial equality, etc.). Unfortunately, what is really happening is companies have been supporting partisan politics disguised as causes.

The danger with brandstanding is that the company mission is rarely aligned with the cause, which could result in alienating the company’s core target audience and customer base. A recent example of this is Nike’s “sacrifice everything” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick as their spokesperson. Nike’s global success reflects its mission statement “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Nike expands on their mission statement by defining every athlete as “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” One can argue that Kaepernick is inspirational and innovative but does he “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world?” Not according to recent headlines.

In choosing cause marketing or brandstanding as your company’s marketing strategy one should stay true to the company mission, make sure that campaigns are aligned with your core audience, or be prepared to defend your company’s stance.

Would Nike have more impact if they took the millions of dollars spent on their campaign and funneled it into the most vulnerable neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are most affected by crime and police brutality? Would this type of strategy inspire Nike’s entire target audience?  I think, yes. 

Paola Schifino is co-founder of Schifino Lee, an advertising and branding firm in Tampa specializing in developing strategic integrated campaigns that transform brands and deliver return on investment for clients through digital, social and experiential media communications.

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