The risks of cause-related campaigns

“It’s so interesting for companies to make statements about what their values are, what they care about and what kind of world they want to see, and then spend the money and use their influence to try to make that happen.” In explaining his new creative partnership with Procter & Gamble, singer-songwriter John Legend sums up the premise of cause-related advertising. 

P&G is pivoting its advertising approach to align with values such as equality, diversity and sustainability, but it is not the only brand exploring cause-related campaigns. Although this type of advertising is still a small portion of overall content, the share of top brand-owned YouTube videos supporting a cause rose to 1.6% last year, up from just 0.2% in 2012.

The benefits of cause-related campaigns are clear. They connect deeply with audiences, sparking conversations and driving engagement and brand lift. But there is some inherent risk in cause-related advertising. So how can brands mitigate this?

Choose causes wisely

Brands must select causes that fit their values, and not simply jump on the bandwagon of topical issues. One cautionary tale highlighting this is Burger King's Real Meals campaign. It made the point that no one is happy all the time – at first glance a genius poke at McDonalds’ Happy Meal. But it saw a backlash as people felt the campaign used mental health awareness as a gimmick to push more burgers, not something the brand really believed in.

Brands should tell a story of purpose, central to their mission, that isn’t chosen just because it makes good marketing. Ideally cause-based content should relate to a topic brands have already demonstrated they care about. They also need to strike a balance between issues with broad appeal, which may be supported by competitor brands, and niche causes which speak to a smaller group.

Limit product promotion

When creating cause-based content, brands must consider whether to mix in product promotion. The two don’t necessarily sit well together, as illustrated by the Burger King example. Panda Express, on the other hand, created a successful brand video without mentioning its food at all. In the video, which related to Asian Pacific American Heritage month and gained almost nine million views, the brand simply told a story it clearly believed in.

Product promotion can sometimes be an organic part of cause-related advertising. Adidas' Run for the Oceans campaign featured a global running movement, providing ample opportunity for natural product placement, particularly as the brand produced a recycled plastic shoe. Walking this fine line between outright product promotion and expressing the brand mission is a critical balancing act.

Accept mixed reactions

By definition, cause-related advertising links to issues people feel strongly about, so there will always be people who disagree with the brand message. Ensuring authenticity should minimise negative backlash, but if brands associate themselves with contentious topics they must be prepared for controversy. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t support important causes, but they should go in with their eyes open.

Some brands prefer to play it safe and avoid cause-related campaigns. Much-publicised brand safety issues and fake news stories have brought the topic of reputation to the forefront, and have in turn added to the trepidation that some brands feel about making bold statements. But with the flood of content available to consumers across a variety of channels, brands sometimes need to be bold to stand out from the crowd. Targeting consumers by appealing to their shared values is one way to really connect with them. And as long as brands are willing to be brave, choose causes that genuinely resonate, and don’t force the mix of purpose and product, cause-related campaigns are incredibly powerful.

Written by Chris Bennett, managing director, EMEA of software firm Pixability