Make Sure Your Cause Has a Purpose

Consumers today are bombarded with a never-ending stream of messages across dozens of marketing channels. When a “new” channel emerges and gains traction, it doesn’t take long for brands to migrate to that channel en masse.

The net result for brands? Standing out in a crowded consumer marketplace is incredibly difficult, while actually engaging with your target consumer has become nearly impossible.

Good news is smart brands always find ways to connect. One of the most powerful ways that brands are differentiating themselves right now is “cause” — or better yet “purpose” — marketing. Consumers are asking brands to stand for something more than just the functional benefits of their product, and brands are starting to listen.

A 2017 report by Cone Communications, shows that 71% of Millennials are looking for brands to take the lead on social issues.

That same report states that a staggering 89% will choose between comparable brands based on whether one of them supports a good cause.

The best version of this work is more than just a marketing campaign but rather a true expression of a brand’s purpose as a core part of the fabric of their very existence. (Think Method Cleaning Products.)

Despite brand cause work first taking root in the early 1970’s, it really is still in its infancy as far as broad adoption by brands. Unfortunately, we still see a lot of merely surface-level attempts that miss the mark and, in doing so, miss a huge opportunity to create meaningful long-term relationships with consumers.


All too often, the cause does not align with the brand’s core positioning — there is no tie to purpose!

Credit: YouGov Sport

Frequently, a brand’s “cause” is chosen (and run) by their foundation. Often, this effort is viewed elsewhere in the company as not much more than necessary “corporate citizenship” and it lives in the form of a charitable donation.

Maybe it was chosen because employees can volunteer or fundraise. It may simply be a cause near and dear to the CEO.

Rarely does the purpose / cause effort become part of a brand’s marketing story. Even more rarely does a brand create a platform that allows consumers to actively participate with the brand in contributing in a meaningful way to that cause.


More good news! This is a solvable problem. It is possible to create an “everyone wins” scenario where the foundation still gets to do what they do, but where the chosen cause:

  • Closely aligns with the brand – Ask what does your brand stand for? What is your brand’s positioning in the marketplace? (e.g. if you are you a home insurer Habitat For Humanity might make sense as a cause partnership)
  • Resonates with the consumer – What are the issues that are top of mind for consumers right now and how does your brand fit organically into that story? (Think Patagonia and their very clear and active position as an environmental protection advocate, going so far as to call themselves, “The Activist Company.”)
  • Becomes part of the story the brand tells the consumer – Your brand purpose / cause can serve as content that is relevant to your consumer. Integrate that content into the story you tell your consumers.
  • Allows the consumer to participate – Your consumers want to feel like they are part of the solution. How does your brand create an activation platform around your purpose / cause that allows consumers to participate? (e.g. If your brand has a partnership with the National Parks Foundation create “park cleanup days” where your consumers can participate)

Should you partner with an existing cause or “own” the issue? Both approaches have validity.

If there is an organization that has established credibility and actionable platforms within a cause that is a good fit for your brand, consider partnering – essentially a cause-focused version of a sponsorship (e.g. Bright Pink, National Park Foundation, Habitat For Humanity,, World Bicycle Relief, etc.).

If there isn’t an organization tied to an issue or a cause that is a good fit for your brand, consider adopting the issue itself and creating your own platform (e.g. environmental protection, literacy, etc.). One great example of how to execute on this is the tech startup Public Good which allows brands to embed in digital news coverage of a specific issue.


It’s not just smart marketing, it’s good business. Having a clearly defined cause strategy not only helps differentiate your brand. It leads to direct sales impact.

Consumers want to support brands that stand for something – that make a social impact – and that support causes they believe in. And if your consumer is an active partner with you in your cause platform – your brand becomes bulletproof to price fluctuation and commoditization.

Regardless of age, today’s consumers want to feel “good” about the brands who they buy products/services from. However, the major shift we see is when brands decide to take stances or positions on divisive topics.

YouGov Sport‘s most recent numbers show that the younger the audience the higher the desire. Millennials are almost twice as likely as respondents 65+ — 62% to 33% — to like brands “willing to get involved in social issues,” and 50% more likely — 62% to 44% — to see brands “express how they feel on a topic.” (see “Agreements Towards Brands Who Support Social Issues” table above).

A few more key stats:

  • More than 89% of Americans and over 57% of global consumers are buying or boycotting a brand based on how it aligns with their social values. (2017 Cone Communications CSR Survey / 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study)
  • 82% of consumers surveyed say they want to donate, 74% say they want to volunteer, 69% say they want to advocate for their brands’ causes and 76% say doing say makes them more loyal to the brand. (2017 Cone Communications CSR Survey)
  • 50% of belief-driven consumers see their purchasing choices as a key way for them to be able to express their personal beliefs (2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study)
  • DO NOT ”Causewash” – Your consumers can smell inauthenticity from a mile away — remember Pepsi and their infamous ad with Kendall Jenner? If you are going to support a cause, do your homework and make sure you support it in an authentic and meaningful way.
  • DO NOT pick a cause that has NOTHING to do with your brand – Childhood cancer is an incredibly important cause. But does it align with your brand? How?
  • DO NOT just write a check – That’s a “donation,” not a partnership, not a platform and most certainly not a purpose. Create  integrated partnerships and activate them where your consumers live and work.

In an era of brand and messaging clutter, cause / purpose work (when done authentically and activated correctly) can be a meaningful and powerful tool to help brands stand out and, better yet, create deeply loyal consumer relationships.


Simply stated, teams, leagues and properties looking to create cause platforms and to integrate their corporate partners into their cause platforms should follow these same best practices which start with ensuring the cause platform is organic, authentic and relevant.

The San Diego Padres play in a market with a heavy military presence, and have a long-running engagement with nearby bases and their personnel, so for them the “Military Salutes” platform is organic, authentic and relevant. And partnering with USAA makes perfect sense to boot.

Military appreciation certainly checks the “important cause to support” box, but does your team have history and ties to be viewed as authentic? Does the brand you are talking to about sponsoring the platform bring that as well? Otherwise, you both run the risk of “camo-washing” (associating with a cause strictly for the sake of borrowing the halo effect of that cause without meaningful depth to the association). Never a good idea.

Credit: National Football League

At the league level, the NFL’s “Fuel Up To Play 60” platform which inspires kids to engage in physical activity for at least 60 minutes every day is organic, authentic and relevant.

On the other hand, the NBA does a lot of things right, and NBA Cares has had some tremendous impact. But their history of associating with literacy as a cause platform – despite checking the “important cause to support” box – simply does not score as strongly on the organic and authentic filters.

Simply put, times are changing.

Today’s consumers are attracted by brand representation, not only on social media, but also by their partnerships in the real world. Companies unable to authentically attach themselves to a good cause are potentially losing out on millions of dollars in revenue.

However, when a brand is able to successfully — and most importantly, authentically — connect to a cause, they’re better suited to attract the newest generation of tech-savvy and cause-oriented consumers to their brand.

Kevin Adler is the Founder and Chief Engagement Officer at Engage Marketing – a Chicago-based advisory that specializes in sponsorship, experiential, consumer promotions, word-of-mouth / influencer, content and cause strategy for consumer brands and properties.