The Economist put out its first issue in 1843, and right out of the gate we took up what is now our longest-standing cause—free trade. Then, our argument centered on the Corn Laws. We wanted them repealed, and they ultimately were. Since then, we have acted as an advocate for positive change in areas such as doctor-assisted dying, gay marriage and the legalization of drugs. Each of these causes is deeply authentic to our brand, and over the years has moved more of our readers to feel real brand loyalty. When a reader sees that she shares values with a publication, the publication ceases to be a product and becomes something she feels a deeper affinity with.
I’m certain the same is true for CNN with its ending-modern-day-slavery campaign and Grazia with its mind-the-pay-gap campaign. And what more could any brand ask for than to achieve that level of trust, while also effecting real, tangible change? (Grazia’s campaign ultimately helped change the law for women all over the U.K.) Cause marketing may seem like a no-brainer, but it requires a lot of brain, as things can go very wrong if a campaign is ill-conceived or badly executed. What follows is a time-tested approach for achieving maximum impact from a campaign with minimum blowback:
- Know your position. If you are going to enter cause marketing, you must have a clear idea of the position you’re taking, not only in terms of the topic on which you’re going to campaign and support, but also to what extent you’re going to campaign for the issue. Are you going to become a conversation-starter? A leading voice? An activist?
- Know your audience. One way to know the answer to the questions above is to consider what level of activism your audience will be comfortable with. While movements like Occupy Wall Street attracted those who were willing to take to the streets in support of their ideals, that might not be your audience, even if your customers believe in that cause and causes like it. Sure, more people are growing disillusioned with the political establishment and are looking for opportunities to become part of a movement, but that doesn’t mean they want to get their hands dirty. They may be seeking a very safe and respected route to activism alongside people who think like them. Or they may not be—but you must know one way or the other.
- Be unfailingly authentic—or else. The word from this year’s “cause-fatigued” Cannes Lions jury is that too many brands are “stapling” on causes that make little sense for their brand. The causes your company supports will ideally be aligned with its long-held values; otherwise there is no authenticity. While social media has made it much easier to start movements and to put pressure on people, it’s also a platform for people to assess a company very cynically and say, “So-and-so is only doing that because it’s the cause du jour, and they want to sell more.” If you’ve ended up in that position, you’ve done it badly. And this is where social media can count against you, because if you get it wrong, the public can and will amplify just how wrong you got it.
- Remember your main reason for being. Companies (and publications in particular) need to be careful to find the right balance with your cause work, because at the end of the day, you are not a lobbying group and don’t really want to lose your customers or exhaust your readership. Just look at what’s happening with L’Oreal and Lancôme in Hong Kong right now. In early June, a nationalist tabloid accused it of supporting independence for Hong Kong and Tibet when it announced it would host a concert with singer Denise Ho, who has made a public stand for democracy in the past. The day after the criticism was lobbed at L’Oreal, it cancelled the concert, spurring widespread boycotts and billions lost in market value. The lesson for Lancôme: Stick to what you do best—luxury cosmetics, not politics.
- Create credible and shareable content. When it comes to the right to die, the most recent cause The Economist has gotten behind, we were pleased to find that advocacy groups were distributing our articles and videos to their membership. If you are able to provide an advocacy group with credible, third-party content that lends weight to the causes you both champion, you can become a trusted voice that can really help power these causes forward.
- Line up all the resources you’ll need. Long before launch, you will have to have sufficient marketing resources in place to execute and sustain a cause campaign—think content and editorial support, and most important, a very clear argument. There must also be a commitment to both agility and longevity. Legislative changes, for instance, either require a huge amount of time or require you to act very quickly—or both. Regardless, you must be committed to sustaining the momentum for however long it takes to achieve your objectives.
- Don’t look to activism to drive sales. Even though sales might be a welcome side effect of a great cause campaign, don’t place any expectation on your campaign to directly accomplish that. Cause campaigns must be only about creating engagement and attachment with an audience, and ultimately, about doing a good thing.
- Set goals as you would for any other marketing campaign. How do you know when your cause campaign has achieved its aims? First things first, you need to know what you’re aiming for. Define your goals at the beginning of a campaign, and know that very often they will take time to achieve. Monitoring your progress will allow you to see how you are spurring a cause further along.
Charles Barber is vice president, PR and thought leadership, for The Economist. Stay in touch on Twitter @CharlesSBarber.