Walking the Talk: Finding Your Place in Today’s Cause Marketing Landscape

November 3, 2022

This fall, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinards rocked the business world by donating 100 percent ownership of company shares to a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature. When it comes to “walking the talk” of values-based branding, we can safely say the bar has been significantly raised.

While the Patagonia example is extreme, it embodies the truth that lies at the heart of all the best cause marketing: it’s not really marketing at all. The most transformational “cause campaigns” are merely the outward expression of an internal business philosophy that prioritizes the greater good as a measure of success. Does this cost money? Yes. Can it also drive business metrics like profit and market share? Absolutely.

With 82% of consumers asserting they favor brands with purpose, it’s no wonder establishing and communicating a clear brand mission ranks high among marketers’ priorities. But these ambitions also carry risk. Successfully activating a cause campaign — or an entirely cause-based brand — requires sharp strategy, nuanced communication and, above all, a sincere, long-term operational commitment aligned through every level of the organization.

There are many ways to connect a business to a cause; which one is right for your brand?

Patagonia pushes the definition of values-based business to the limit, blurring the line between for-profit and nonprofit enterprise. Cause-intensive brands like Tentree and Bombas, while not as extreme, also center environmental and social impact as a fundamental organizing principle.

These leaders demonstrate one way to position your brand for good, but it’s not the only path. Consider Sephora, for example. Although the brand has long celebrated inclusivity, it stepped forward into true cause leadership during the racial justice awakening of 2020 by being the first to adopt the 15% supplier diversity pledge. A year later, the brand continued to garner positive press and consumer sentiment for fulfilling that commitment with concrete action. This is a perfect example of entering a timely cultural conversation with the integrity to see your message through.

Plan before you promise; are you operationally ready to stand behind your cause-based claims?

It comes as no surprise that consumers expect more from brands today than ever before. And while we may welcome this as a positive development, it makes our work as business owners and marketers more difficult. With information on brands’ manufacturing practices, leadership teams and more readily available online, every claim lies open to intensive scrutiny and any missteps are destined to get called out among social media truth warriors.

Consider the cries of hypocrisy — and now legal action — against fashion giant H&M’s Conscious Collection, which many regard as a misleading greenwashing campaign bolted onto a global juggernaut of waste and exploitation. Or ponder the twisted tale of well-intentioned Tom’s shoes. Tom’s inspired a generation of brands touting buy-one-give-one promises in the early 2000s, only to falter seriously (and subsequently rebuild) as fulfilling that promise proved operationally unsustainable. The lesson here is both simple to state and difficult to execute: establishing a robust cause-forward brand stance is an enormous and risky undertaking, and success cannot be achieved through half measures.

Why not just donate some money?

Considering the risks that can accompany a cause-related brand stance, business owners may well ask if it’s worth it even to try. What happened to simply focusing on your core business and donating a portion of profits to a values-aligned nonprofit partner? At Wilks Communications Group we agree this is a question worth asking, but caution that there are no easy answers.

True cause marketing is not a fit for every brand, and simple philanthropy still has its place. But it’s essential to recognize the difference between the two — because consumers most certainly do. Cause marketing is powerful because it is relational and sustained over a period of time. It requires a brand to enter into an active operational relationship with its cause of choice, and by extension invites consumers to also participate in that virtuous cycle of mutual benefit. All of this depends on long-term investment and the organizational will to sustain those relationships. Philanthropy, in contrast, funnels money from consumer to brand to cause in a simple transactional flow that can be turned on and off with relative ease.

From a marketing perspective, a true cause-based relationship positions a brand for an ongoing cadence of rich storytelling with the potential for enormous consumer impact. Philanthropy, by contrast, can easily come across as hollow or self-serving if over-hyped in communications. Even worse, donation-based activism may be perceived as hypocritical if business practices don’t line up or performance lags requiring a reduction in philanthropic giving.In a world where some form of brand-cause alignment is rapidly becoming a consumer mandate, prudent philanthropy might best be considered easy-to-achieve table stakes, or a good starting stance to adopt while laying the foundation for more significant action.

At Wilks Communications Group, we have decades of experience helping brands live their values and share their stories. Wherever you are in your journey of brand values and cause marketing, we’d love to have a conversation and share our ideas. Contact us to get started.




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