In 1984, American Express introduced the concept of cause marketing, permanently changing the dynamic in the relationship between for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations. In the intervening 28 years, change has continued, but in smaller increments.
But now we're witnessing the first major change in three decades–a shift to what my company refers to as “meaningful marketing.” This new model reflects a number of ways that the for-profit and nonprofit worlds have been collaborating, from strategic philanthropy to purpose-based brands to sustainability. This shift has been led by corporate partners and will require nonprofits to fundamentally shift their approach to working with businesses if they wish to secure significant support.
Meaningful marketing unites and integrates businesses’ and organizations’ efforts behind a singular and truly meaningful idea that can achieve economies of scale and generate significant impact. Equipped with that big idea, corporations then need to identify the cause or causes that can deliver the brand value and marketing assets needed to live up to the idea’s promise, spread its message, and achieve the desired results.
Meaningful marketing is just starting to hit its stride, with a handful of pioneering companies taking the lead and many more poised to adopt it as their central approach to partnering with nonprofits. Among those at the forefront:
Coca-Cola: Live Positively
The Live Positively platform serves as a common thread that the beverage giant weaves through many consumer-facing initiatives, from its partnerships with nonprofits, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, National Park Foundation, and American Cancer Society, to its involvement in the Olympic Games, education funding, and local community programs. The platform is also reflected in Coca-Cola’s efforts to promote recycling, water conservation, and climate protection.
Under Armour: UA Freedom
The performance apparel manufacturer has established UA Freedom as the overarching identity for the company’s multifaceted support of military and public safety service members.
Carrying the tagline “Believe in Heroes,” the program has a dedicated Web site through which consumers can purchase exclusive products tied to a $1 million donation to the Wounded Warrior Project. The site also allows military and first-responder heroes to share their stories, as well as purchase backpacks to be given to injured service members.
Under Armour leverages its extensive pro and college sports ties to promote UA Freedom and offers volunteer opportunities to employees with WWP and other nonprofit partners, including the Pat Tillman Foundation and the Navy Seal Foundation.
Liberty Mutual: Responsibility Project
The insurer has adopted “responsibility” as the overarching theme for a program that explores and offers information on a diverse array of issues, from good parenting and senior-driving to animal welfare, sportsmanship, and many others. The effort is supported with a dedicated Web site and promoted through the company’s sports sponsorships and other vehicles.
Kohl’s: Kohl’s Cares
Although discount and department store retailers are bastions of traditional philanthropy and community relations efforts, the Kohl’s chain goes beyond the norm with its Kohl’s Cares platform.
Concentrating in the areas of children’s health and education, environmental solutions, and women’s health, the program’s extensions include cause-marketing merchandise sales supporting children’s health and education initiatives, fundraising gift cards, sponsorship of the U.S. Youth Soccer organization, a partnership with the TED-Ed program for teachers, and an Associates in Action volunteer project.
Meaning Marketing Momentum
In our work with corporate executives and front-line managers at companies that have significant investments in nonprofit partnerships, we see powerful momentum behind meaningful marketing based on the following factors:
- Corporations have fewer dollars to allocate to nonprofit partnerships, and they want to ensure those dollars are used to maximum effect for both themselves and their partners.
- Companies want business units that have traditionally had discrete relationships with nonprofits to work together holistically.
- Brands need to create identifiable cause platforms that target audiences will readily understand and remember.
- Relationships with nonprofits must be able to be leveraged through multiple channels, media, and markets.
- Cause partnerships need to be internalized throughout the company and become effective employee motivation and retention tools.
- Current nonprofit partnerships are too narrowly focused and miss out on the opportunity for bigger impact and returns.
Charitable and cause-related organizations that embraced the post-philanthropic world created by cause marketing have thrived by developing new skills, new roles, and new market offerings. In the same way, tremendous opportunities await those who can adapt to today’s new landscape and meet its demands. As always, institutional change will not come easily, but the rewards will be worth it.
Meaningful marketing doesn’t foretell the end of relationships that are only philanthropic, or only involve a cause-marketing or event platform. Rather, it marks an opportunity to establish more significant, long-term, and sustainable partnerships at much higher levels of commitment.