The Surprising Benefits of Implicit Cause Marketing

The solution to avoiding backlash over philanthropic cause marketing efforts might be an internal rather than an external push


Big brand cause marketing is here to stay. Nike’s stock price reached an all-time high in spite of their controversial Colin Kaepernick ad campaign in 2018. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, aside from some notable hiccups, is still going strong after over fourteen years. Viacom’s MTV team commissioned a range of multicolored adult products from recycled ocean plastic.

These are all viral examples of cause marketing, but they do involve large brands that have access to plentiful resources. So is cause marketing an effective strategy that all businesses, regardless of size, should adopt? If that is the case, why is there so much caution when considering the strategy at the board level? And, is there a solution to allay justifiable concerns?

The Benefits of “Corporate Philanthropy”

The benefits of cause marketing are huge. A 2015 study conducted by Cone Communications and Ebiquity found that 90% of US shoppers would like to switch to a cause branded product. But executives are aware of the risks that the strategy invites. Companies often find themselves dealing with brand backlash and furious accusations of hypocrisy.

So how can businesses leverage the benefits of cause marketing without inspiring such outrage? Part of the answer may lie in long term strategy that was first discovered by researchers two decades ago.

Context-Focused Philanthropy 

A study published by the Harvard Business Review back in 2002 found that corporations were not investing in charitable causes very well. It claimed that companies should align philanthropic efforts around their own goals for growth, as with Cisco’s branded training program the Cisco Networking Academy. 

“Cisco has begun to demonstrate the unrealized potential of corporate philanthropy” – Harvard Business Review, 2002

By training people for the skills they would need in the future, Cisco effectively boosted their reputation and removed a future barrier to growth. The study called this context-focused philanthropy. But almost 20 years later, many organizations have failed to take the journal’s advice.

It is noteworthy that this study took place before the massive rise of social media. Brands are now much more exposed to consumer interaction and opinion. Although it would be hard to criticize a training program for high school graduates, the strategy could still be perceived as self-serving by online sceptics. Such is the world of corporate philanthropy!

Furthermore, gaining traction for the PR message could be extremely tough with so much other content competing for attention. Not unless all employees could be depended on to become excited advocates, keen to share their participation on their personal channels.

Implicit, Internal Cause Marketing 

Executives at Edrington, parent company of brands including The Famous Grouse, argued that this was the best way to avoid controversy at a recent GDS Summit. In the company’s workshop on cause marketing, they explained how Edrington instilled all employees with a sense of charitable duty. 

Every year, the company provide everyone with 3 days paid leave to work for a charity making a difference in their local community. Edrington then leaves it up to their motivated employees to spread the good news themselves. 

Row of bottles of THE FAMOUS GROUSE Scottish Whiskey
Edrington produces The Famous Grouse whiskey, among other brands

A Win-Win Future 

Cause marketing’s consumer appeal is well documented. Similarly, reservations about the strategy are understandable. But executives can engage in successful corporate philanthropy without high-risk external messaging 

Businesses certainly do not need to take such dramatic stands as Nike or Viacom have in order to benefit. But if companies are prioritizing risk prevention, then they must be prepared to engage their employees and rethink their approach to cause marketing. If they succeed, staff, employers, consumers and beneficiaries all stand to gain from the power of self-perpetuating philanthropy and advocacy.