Jacquie Ottman's
Green Marketing Blog

Doing Cause Marketing Right

Once considered a short-term promotional tactic, cause marketing is now a mature, long-term strategic business practice that can enhance brand image and boost sales. Most importantly, cause-related products give businesses an impact that goes far beyond mere tax-deductible checks (philanthropy).

Several successful brands are making social causes central to their business. Consider the enormously successful TOMS One for One campaign, which gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of their rubber-soled alpargatas shoes they sell.

The monumental success of cause marketing campaigns thus far creates high expectations. Your brand may need to follow suit by getting in touch with relevant social issues. Below, I’ve detailed some of the opportunities and challenges to consider when developing cause-related products.


Cause marketing successes

One of the most visible in the history of cause-related marketing is Project (RED). Launched in 2006 by Bono of rock group U2 and Bobby Shriver of Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa (DATA), multiple high-profile companies joined on by donating 50% of profits from products labeled as (RED). The funds have provided over 825,000 HIV-positive people with antiretroviral therapy, 3.2 million AIDS orphans with basic care, and prevented more than 3.5 million deaths.

Another successful instance of cause marketing was IKEA’s partnership with UNICEF to benefit children in Angola and Uganda. IKEA agreed to donate $2.00 from every sale of their BRUM teddy bears to UNICEF’s “Children’s Right to Play” program, which uses play-based interaction to educate and empower children in need. The promotion was called “A Bear that Gives,” and between 2003 and 2005 it raised $2.2 million to educate street children in Angola and displaced children in Uganda, as well as putting 38,000 Ugandan children in daycare centers.

Even small businesses can participate in meaningful cause marketing.

Consider 1% for the Planet, founded by the environmentally passionate Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, to connect businesses and their consumers with philanthropy. Currently, more than 700 environ-mentally conscious companies contribute 1% of their sales to a growing list of more than 1,500 environmental groups around the world.

 Cause for concern

Before embarking on your own cause-marketing effort, realize that there are some rules of the road. Consumers are attracted to causes that put them in the driver’s seat, and they will turn on a misguided campaign.

Some Sierra Club members created a stir – and some even pulled out of the organization – in response to breaking news that the Sierra Club was receiving an undisclosed amount of money for what they perceived as an endorsement of Clorox’s Green Works cleaning products. Sierra Club members’ objections to the partnership included the fact that Clorox manufactured chlorine bleach and that 98% of Clorox products were still made from synthetic chemicals. (Green Works only accounted for 2% of Clorox’s total sales). Both organizations now disclose the financial compensation that Sierra Club receives for its support, and as of late 2009, Clorox announced it would no longer make bleach out of chlorine and sodium hydroxide.

Reflecting its ability to gently but effectively clean waterfowl affected by oil spills, Dawn dishwashing liquid ran a cause-related campaign with the Marine Mammal Center and the International Bird Rescue Research Center in which it donated $1 for every specially marked package bought by consumers. However, some visitors to its Facebook page and YouTube commercial protested the promotion, citing that Procter & Gamble tests its products on animals, forcing the company to defend its policies and remind its detractors that it has invested more than $250 million developing alternative testing methods.

Finally, Ethos Water, co-owned by Pepsi and Starbucks, donates 5 cents for every unit sold to help people in underdeveloped regions to get clean water. Environmentalists question this approach, maintaining that clean, drinkable water should be a human right and not a function of corporate profits. They also maintain that promoting bottled water for environmental benefits is inconsistent with the related impacts of plastic recycling, energy expended to transport the product, and potential depletion of natural water supplies. 

Creating authentic brand value

To reap the benefits demonstrated over 15 years of cause-related marketing. Follow these guidelines for success outlined by Cone’s 2008 Cause Evolution Study:

• Allow consumers to select their own cause

• Ensure that the cause you pick is both personally relevant to consumers and makes strategic sense to your business

• Choose a trusted, established not-for-profit organization

• Provide practical incentives for involvement, such as saving money or time

• Provide emotional incentives for involvement, such as it making them feel good or alleviating shopping guilt. 


Excerpted from The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding (Berrett-Koehler, 2011) by Jacquelyn Ottman. Ottman is an expert adviser on green marketing to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government. She is the author of four books on green marketing.

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