As more Americans look for brands to reflect their principles and make social impact, companies are stepping up their outreach and cause marketing. Many are partnering with nonprofits on programs that benefit their consumers, communities and employees. These efforts build customer and employee loyalty.
"More and more brands -- big brands, small brands -- are saying there is some magic here; it is not a flash in the pan. [Cause marketing] really is something that helps brands align with the values of their consumers," said Sarah Harris, Vice President of Social Impact for Audacy, during a recent webinar led by Audacy's Jenny Nelson titled "Building Value with Social Impact Initiatives."
"It really has staying power with consumer loyalty and is an engine to help drive successful businesses," Harris added.
In the latest installment of Audacy's "Insight Series" of monthly webinars, Harris joined other veteran marketing executives to discuss how brands can build effective outreach and measure success.
To start, not all social impact marketing is created equal. Brands should be authentic, engage both their employees and constituents. They also need to make a genuine impact, said Jim Peters, Head of Brand Content and Alliance Partnerships for Ford U.S.
"The words that we use are relevance and value," Peters said. When Ford creates a new program, they consider: "How can we create a relevant connection to the cause we're working with? What can we do as a transportation provider and a company in the mobility space to help that cause?"
Those questions led Ford to create the Ford Bronco Wild Fund, which backs outdoor recreation, conservation and educational efforts. When Ford introduced its redesigned Bronco SUV last year, Peters said the company wanted to support the great outdoors. For every new Bronco sold, Ford donates a portion of proceeds to the fund. So far, The Bronco Fund has partnered with the National Forest Foundation as well as the wilderness education provider Outward Bound. Later this year, the company will introduce several new recipients.
"If we're going to be viewed as this outdoor lifestyle brand, we needed to show we were really taking care of the land," Peters said. "We look at it as a way to move the brand needle and get people engaged."
Indeed, consumers are rewarding brands they see as good stewards. A recent survey by 5WPR reported that 71% of Americans who responded said they prefer buying from brands that reflect their core values. Younger consumers are particularly attuned to corporate responsibility, with 83% of Generation Z (including adults that are 25 and younger) and Millennials (adults 18 to 34) saying it is a priority to buy from brands that share their ethos. And 71% stated that it is a priority to buy from companies that have a charitable component, the report said.
Purpose-driven brands increase their market value, too. Kantar Media reported that companies with a high level of purpose increased their brand valuation 175% over the last 12 years, compared to 70% for companies with a low level of purpose. Employees are demanding their organizations be accountable and responsible as well. Kantar survey research shows that 63% of employees working for brands with strong purpose are passionate about their work, compared to 32% at other organizations.
"There are good returns to be made on a variety of levels," Audacy's Harris noted. "The numbers really show that -- from consumers to employees to brand value to actual dollars and cents -- it really does matter to connect as a brand and connect meaningfully to all of your stakeholders."
Social consciousness is a founding corporate principle at Hard Rock, which operates hotels, restaurants, casinos, and online gaming, said Paul Pellizzari, Hard Rock's Vice President of Global Social Responsibility. Over the years, the company has partnered with diverse artists -- from Bruce Springsteen to Rhianna to John Lennon and Yoko Ono -- to create merchandise and donate a portion of proceeds to the musicians' causes.
Recently, Hard Rock addressed responsible gambling and addiction with its "Players Edge" social marketing campaign, which educates gamblers on risks and resources available to them. To be successful, cause marketing needs to strike the right tone, advised Pellizzari.
While some campaigns lecture gamblers or serve up stern warnings, he said Hard Rock takes a different approach. "We speak to the gambler in their language," Pellizzari said. "People are open to info if it is positioned to them in a way they will relate to and find value."
Similarly, Hard Rock recently launched a human trafficking awareness program, "Social Quest" with ECPAT International, an organization working to end sexual exploitation of children, to educate high schoolers on dangers that lurk online.
"If we can help prevent trafficking by showing risk signs, but in a way that is highly engaging -- that speaks their language and doesn't alienate people -- then we are contributing to prevention," Pellizzari said.
Some companies might not know how to start down the social-impact path. Stephanie Rogers, Senior Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), provided some advice: start small, with single campaigns, then build up to multi-platform, year-round programs. Companies frequently reach out to the AFSP for campaigns tied to Mental Health Awareness Month in May or National Suicide Prevention Month in September. Others sponsor the group's community walks.
The most effective efforts occur when a brand is "all in," from staff training to local events, employee programs and consumer education, Rogers said. She cited Audacy's "I'm Listening" mental health campaign as an example.
"I'm Listening" started as a consumer campaign five years ago, when talent on Audacy-owned KISW-FM Seattle responded to the premature deaths by suicide of Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell by hosting conversations with artists about mental health. Since then, its involvement has grown to include year-round content and events, as well internal support, workshops, and training for Audacy's employees tapping into the mental health expertise of AFSP. In local communities, Audacy stations lend promotional support to AFSP's Out of the Darkness walks and encourage their employees to participate.
Brand ambassadors can help amplify cause marketing. Rogers said brands should look for influencers who share a commitment to the cause and can bring personal perspective. For instance, Ford recruited actor Bryan Cranston to voice its Bronco Wild Fund spots. Peters said Cranston was "charged up" about being involved with outdoor conservation.
Sometimes, a brand can even find purpose-driven ideas within their own ranks. Audacy rock station KISW-FM Seattle provides an example. Its popular morning show, "The Men's Room,"created its own branded beer and donated proceeds to the Fisher House, which provides homes for families of military service members to stay in while their loved ones receive medical treatment. The endeavor has generated more than $1 million in donations since the partnership began.
When a company is ready to launch impact marketing, it should look closely at their business and customers and find where their values intersect.
"Have an objective and a purpose," Peters said. "Look at the return on that investment and the objective you're trying to set. It is a great opportunity to build your brand and great opportunity to build business."
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