Building Brands & Businesses On Cause Marketing

Afdhel AzizAugust 8, 20195 min

The idea that brands could make money from supporting causes, and not feel guilty about making a profit, was not always a common one. One of the pivotal moments was the launch of the Project (RED) (also referred to simply as “(RED)”) platform, founded in 2006 by U2 frontman Bono and Bobby Shriver to raise awareness and funds to fight against HIV/AIDs. It trailblazed a new type of cause marketing—one that made it more palatable and easy for brands to get involved. It built a mighty coalition of brands from every category: Nike, Apple, American Express, Coke, Starbucks, Armani, the Gap—and even got competing brands (such as Converse and Nike) to set aside their rivalry for the common good.

One person who has a deep understanding of how to work with the right allies is Jenifer Willig, who had a ringside seat at (RED)’s journey as their first chief marketing officer. During Willig’s four year tenure, (RED) succeeded in raising $185 million and became a powerhouse global brand with an active social following of more than 2.5 million advocates. She is now the founder of Motive, a social innovation consultancy, as well as one of the co-founders of Whole World Water, a campaign to unite the hospitality and tourism industries to help provide clean and safe water to people around the world.

Friendly, open, and disarmingly honest, Jenifer talks about how she got started. She says, “I spent my career in advertising, I was feeling jaded . . . and in 2007, I got a call from a friend who said, ‘They’re looking for someone to professionalize (RED).’ I was never a volunteer, I worked all the time. I wasn’t an AIDS activist at the time, though I’ve certainly been converted!’”

The genius of (RED) was that it allowed cause marketing to get out of the doom and gloom and find a new tonality, which allowed brands not to feel guilty about making money from it. Jenifer explains, “It was something (RED) did, as far as AIDS: not portraying it as it had been shown before, as a death sentence, and showing people that AIDS is a preventable and treatable disease; and that it’s about living, not dying. That changed the whole perspective and tone—you could have fun with it, you could be cool and irreverent and quirky . . . all of that stuff that when you have a rock star who has founded the organization, you should be able to embrace.”

Cause Marketing Strategy

Jenifer knew the importance of making sure the products (RED) sold “Led with the Cool.” She says, “One of the things we learned was that (RED) couldn’t sell a bad product; even in 2006, the idea of buying the scratchy sweater because it did good was not going to work as a sustainable business model. There were a lot of people who came to us where we had to push to get their top-selling product. Some people slapped a (RED) logo on a product that wasn’t selling well, and it still wouldn’t sell—not because people didn’t agree with the issue; they didn’t want to buy a bad product! And I think that’s the evolution of how smart customers are. People are much smarter than we marketers give them credit for. . . . You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

Jenifer is now applying that same learning to the Whole World Water campaign, which she explained to us, saying, “A hotel or restaurant joins the global marketing campaign; we provide all of the collateral. Step two is that they agree to provide still and sparkling water to their guests in beautiful reusable glass bottles (designed by Yves Béhar) that we provide. And step three is they agree to give 10 percent of their proceeds from those sales to the Whole World Water fund; 100 percent of that money is used to fund clean and safe water initiatives around the world.”

What makes this different from (RED) is that this is a truly global initiative; Whole World Water has members from all over the world, from the Maldives and Mauritius to Africa, Europe, and the United States. And they allow members to earmark the funds they raise for their local communities, which means the funds aren’t going to some anonymous project.

Jenifer’s passion for the project comes through loud and clear. “There’s a billion people living today without access to clean and safe water; it is truly a global crisis that’s happening. We have one hundred members so far and seven projects on the ground. It’s a win-win-win-win: they reduce their costs by not selling commercially bottled water, they increase their revenue because the margins are much lower, they’re reducing their plastic waste significantly, and collectively we can raise money for clean and safe water initiatives.”

Her parting advice to marketers: “Find a way to make an impact that is tied to the business; there is nothing wrong with the way you give back also being tied to your business. There are so many models out there, so many innovative ways to impact the business, whether you are a retail brand or a luxury brand, that haven’t been thought of as yet. We can’t stick to the way things have been done to impact how quickly the world is changing. Business people bring a really strong perspective to social innovation that hasn’t been there before. The nonprofit space is a wonderful space and very necessary, but they aren’t business people. The beautiful thing I am seeing is that the nonprofits are looking to hire business people to create models and revenue streams that are going to grow the impact they are having. As marketers or business people, we bring a really unique perspective to solving large social issues.

Jenifer’s experience with (RED) led to her finding her own area of passion (clean water), but it also led to her finding a unique model that worked for her particular organizational model. There isn’t just a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every brand in every category at every stage of life. So keep searching until you find the model that’s right for you and your brand. Do small beta tests to see if it works before scaling it, so the organization has time to adjust and implement any information it learns from the tests.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Afdhel Aziz, author of Good Is The New Cool, Market Like You Give A Damn

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