Cause marketing is touted as one of the “most important ways to reach Gen-Z.” While this is true, it rarely, rarely pans out correctly. Cause marketing does not work like other “tactics”—there is no “investment”, no “campaigns” to run, and “levers” to pull—it’s a commitment, especially when other stakeholders become involved. In recent years, brands have started to tack themselves onto social causes, and the audacity to exploit and co-opt honest messages for their own profit has left our generation disgusted and exhausted.
Truth is, most brands only pretend to care about any social cause because that is where people’s attention lies. Cynically, social causes are also a perfect target for brands; there is a “common enemy” that is often intangible, the problem provides stories of tragedy, trauma, and vulnerability, and there is a large amount of people willing to help but don’t know how. This creates the perfect opportunity for brands to insert themselves as the middle-man in the situation—in other words, brands recognize that people will partake in any activity to connect themselves to the social cause. These problems are then exacerbated when social causes make headlines. News cycles and social media create a sense of urgency that further spurs on feelings to act now, driving more people to search for the easiest solution, without the full care or education to effectively do so. Trending causes also abscond brands of any accountability because the public treats the cause as just that—a trend.
Intentionally or unintentionally, brands steal attention from the activists actually doing work. If social media has taught (or trained) us anything, it is that our attention spans are short. Whatever good intentions they may have, a brand, by design, exists to attract the most eyes onto them as possible, leaving a name or mark everywhere they go. Thus, any attempt to throw their hat in the ring contributes to extra noise between activists and the users they need to reach. We see this happen a lot in spaces around protests, where brands soapbox over activists, begging the public for a participation trophy for “doing good”.
Worse still, brands often try to flip their contributions to social causes as “good PR”. Like any other 2 in 1, brands combining “doing good” with “publicity” probably means they are doing neither well, especially when the “publicity” vastly outweighs the “doing good”. One of the most egregious examples of this in recent history was Budweiser during the 2018 Super Bowl. In the prior year, Budweiser had sent donations of water to help support communities ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. The brand then decided that they would highlight their charitable work on the TV’s biggest stage, creating a 60 second ad for the Super Bowl. While it may have been a heartfelt moment to watch on live TV, Budweiser ended up spending upwards of $5 million to promote an act that cost a fraction of that.
In the 9th circle of hell, when it comes to selling cause-related goods, brands cross into another territory of evil. Brands effectively sell consumers “the feeling that they helped” while simultaneously diminishing the impact they can have on any given cause. In other words, it’s hard to take “something is better than nothing” seriously when brands take 90% of a potential donation as revenue. Social issues are inherently complex, involving a myriad of causes and factors, along with large numbers of stakeholders. Brands turn that intricate process of reflection and education into a simplistic desire to consume, giving people the easy way out for supporting a cause. In the worst case scenario, once people feel as if they contributed to a movement, they cease to pay attention.
What can brands do to avoid this?
Act authentically. Although authenticity has also unfortunately become a buzzword, brands that are authentic about a cause do so from top-to-bottom. From their mission, vision, and values to every single action the company takes, their cause is able to fit in. They contribute to their cause the same way, whether there are a million eyes on them or no eyes on them, with zero expectation of any return. Authentic brands act when no one is talking, and let their actions speak for themselves when people do eventually talk. If the spotlight is on a brand to do something, it’s already way too late to act in any authentic fashion.
Brands also need to be educated on the issue they are trying to align to and understand that every cause needs a different approach, nuance, and context. However, they also need to recognize they are not equipped to be experts, nor should they be. Instead, brands should amplify existing community leaders’ voices where possible, rather than attempt to champion a cause themselves.
Additionally, brands need to act to their fullest capabilities. Big brands require bigger actions, and it’s why a megacorp simply making a donation still feels performative, especially when they possess the ability to lobby.
Brands also need accountability and transparency for their social commitment. Annual impact reports show progress from year to year, while simultaneously cementing a track record of sustained commitment for brands.
Brands that complain “oh but if we do it this way it’ll take years for people to notice 🥺” Yeah, that’s the whole damn point. There is no fad to latch onto, brands that truly “do good”, do good because they believe in their cause. Anything less is unacceptable.