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Cause marketing: examples of the best and worst brand purpose campaigns

By Emma Mulcahy, Staff writer

June 21, 2019 | 8 min read

Cause marketing has made the leap from an occasionally used marketing approach to the cornerstone of many FMCGs' corporate strategy. At Unilever, brands that "don't stand for something" will be disposed of, its new chief exec claims.

Cause marketing

Some brands have been a more natural fit for cause marketing than others in recent times

In a time where the immediacy of social media can be leveraged to call out a brand in a matter of seconds, marketers need to back up their cause communications with authentic actions.

Research by consumer authority Mintel has shown that as many as 56% of Americans will stop buying from brands that they believe are unethical, tying in with the growing success of green marketing campaigns across a number of industries. Additionally, in a global survey, 91% of consumers reported they were likely to switch to a brand that supports a good cause, given similar price and quality. Whether they actually will do as they say is another matter.

Aligning with a worthwhile cause can bolster reputation and create a lasting impact if done so correctly. It can engender a positive feeling among a customer base, who will feel good for choosing your ethical product. It can breed loyalty between customers, and staff, and the business.

However, there are pitfalls.

Brands must be authentically aligned with the cause. Consumers are wise to marketing manipulation and will be quick to note discrepancies between what a company says and what it does. Countless brands that have faced huge public backlash due to misguided cause marketing campaigns.

Most memorable of all perhaps is Pepsi’s attempt at a woke ad, featuring Kardashian supermodel Kendall Jenner. Its CMO recently opened up on the learnings from that effort.

The ad, set to music by Skip Marley, followed a fashionably ethnically eclectic group of young people on an unidentified passionate protest. Deciding to cast off the shackles of haute couture, Jenner removes her blonde wig, dons a pair of jeans and in her final show of heroism, cancels police brutality with a can of Pepsi. The ‘tone deaf’ ad was universally lampooned; it was seen as a corporation trying to cash in on the climate of political protest, in particular, the Black Lives Matter movement. It was pulled after 24 hours. The soft drinks retailer issued a public apology.

This serves as a warning for all other brands that social justice cannot be worn simply as a fashionable garment; it has to have its foundations in real activism.

Kendall Jenner joins the conversation

Mastercard ran a similarly out-of-touch campaign as part of the 2018 Fifa World Cup.

The brand proposed to donate 10,000 meals to starving in developing countries for every goal scored by Messi or Neymar Jr in the tournament. This caused an immediate social outcry, suggesting that the multi-billion-dollar company donated the meals regardless of which players scored. In the end, Mastercard conceded and agreed that it would donate the meals, yet were left red-faced; proof that certain topics, such as starving children, should perhaps be left out of marketing campaigns.

mastercard offer

Yet another brand that tried (and failed) to cash in on right on advertising is craft brewery, BrewDog.

The original punks of brewing looked to address the gender pay gap in 2018 by releasing a range of beer called Pink IPA, a play on its popular Punk IPA.

How did we know it was for “girls”- if they’re actually old enough to drink beer that is? It was pink. And came at a 20% discounted price for anyone that identified as female, due to the fact they don’t get paid as much as men. The campaign was slammed by every gender in its over-simplistic and just generally insensitive handling of a serious issue. Further to this, the company was actually sued for sexual discrimination in 2019 for refusing to sell the beer to a man.


Now we have the pitfalls out of the way, there have been a string of highly successful cause marketing campaigns run by authentic brands.

Clothing brands like Patagonia and The North Face have consistently supported causes that work to protect the environment (if not Wikipedia).

Trump’s decision to reduce the boundaries of natural monuments in 2017 actually saw the two clothing competitors combine forces to protest. This was not the first time that The North Face flipped off Trump; in response to the President’s vow to build a wall between the US and Mexico, the clothing retailer ran its ‘Walls are meant for climbing campaign’ in 2017.

Patagonia: 'Don't buy this jacket'

Patagonia’s campaigns have always supported the brand’s environmental vows; all the profits made over 2016’s Black Friday sale were donated entirely to local, environmental NGOs. Moreover, Patagonia’s subversive ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign helped raise awareness over the dangers of fast fashion and the importance of recycling clothing.

Another veteran of cause marketing campaigns is Lush.

It has been committed to promoting animal welfare and environmentally sustainable practices since its inception. From its shocking 2012 live demonstration of labs really subject animals to when testing products, to its package recycling initiative and removal of eggs from its products to make them all vegan, Lush has demonstrated its dedication to activism. This was further seen in the brand’s highly controversial 2018 SpyCops campaign, where the brand urged the government to investigate police officers that had breached the human rights of activists. Despite an onslaught of public criticism, the brand stood by the campaign before pulling it to ensure the safety of store staff who were being intimidated by members of the public.

It isn’t just major brands that are able to commit to cause marketing values; social enterprise Hey Girls launched in 2017 to tackle the societal problems caused by the Tampon Tax and lack of awareness around periods.

Using the pay-it-forward model, Hey Girls created its own organic, environmentally sound sanitary products that, when a box was purchased, guaranteed another was donated to a girl in need. The initiative caused waves in the media and soon the independent brand was picked up by major supermarkets like Waitrose and Asda.

Hey Girls mission statement

From marketing aficionado Seth Godin, “You can’t fool all the people, not even most of the time. And people once unfooled, talk about the experience.”

As such, when it comes to brands leveraging the cause marketing technique it is essential that they are transparent. They must demonstrate a genuine commitment to the cause they are supporting, and this commitment needs to be observed along the whole production line.

Nowadays, consumers have more information at their fingertips than ever before, and they are not afraid to pull the plug on dishonest brands.

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