Giving To Yourself

Philanthropy and charity can be one of your smartest business marketing investments

In an ideal world, we would all give to philanthropic causes purely because we want to make the world a better place. We do not live in that world. Everything from pledge-drive “thank you gifts” to buildings named after major donors reminds us of this fact.

We give for many reasons. For causes we believe in, needs we want to see fulfilled, and for personal experiences and connections. But we also give for the sake of recognition. For tax deductions, for the admiration of our peers, and maybe even for the sake of marketing.

And that’s okay.

A dollar given to a worthy cause for selfish reasons is worth exactly the same amount as one given in pure altruism. When the motivation for our philanthropic giving is marketing, the process is typically called “cause marketing.” American Express gets credit for inventing the term in 1983. Jerry Welsh, head of the company’s travel services division, was looking for a cause with which to partner. He pitched a number of ideas to company Chairman Louis Gerstner Jr.

Pitches built on partnerships with higher education, historic preservation, and arts organizations were all shot down as too bland or disconnected from the brand. Then, Welsh pitched a restoration campaign for a historic landmark just a few miles from the company’s headquarters in New York: the Statue of Liberty.

Gerstner was sold on the idea and, in the fall, the company launched (and heavily promoted) a campaign that donated $0.01 of every transaction placed on an AmEx card to the restoration of the famous landmark.

It was an unequivocal success. During the campaign, AmEx transactions were up 30%, and the program raised $1.7M for the preservation of Lady Liberty. That’s a donation worth over $4.1M in today’s dollars. The company recognized the brilliance of its formula, coined the term “cause marketing,” and spent more than $30M on cause campaigns over the next five years.

While AmEx invented the term, they certainly didn’t invent the methodology. A hundred years earlier, Joseph Pulitzer was using the same statue’s cause to sell newspapers.

In 1885, the Statue of Liberty was in New York in pieces, awaiting assembly and a platform to stand on. The government of France had donated the statue, but neither the city of New York nor Congress could figure out how to appropriate the money needed for the plinth.

Enter Joseph Pulitzer, the man who once said, “Publicity, publicity, publicity is the greatest moral factor and force in our public life.” He launched a fundraising campaign for the statue’s base, covering it extensively in his newspaper, The World, and promising to print the names of donors in the paper.

The campaign was an immense success, raising the needed money and boosting sales of Pulitzer’s newspaper. So much so that cause-related fundraising campaigns became a mainstay of The World for years to come.

Today, cause marketing is often a key part of a successful marketing strategy. The best campaigns tie together the company with a cause that’s near and dear to its customers’ hearts.

Buy a pair of Brooks trail runners at REI, and you’ll be supporting the National Park Foundation. Eat at Cracker Barrel, and you’ll be helping to put the chain’s iconic rocking chairs on the front porches of veterans through Operation Homefront. Buy a Moana Blu-ray, and you’re helping Disney’s efforts to empower young women through coding camps and STEM education initiatives.

Want to emulate that success with a campaign of your own? Here are a few principles that’ll set you on the right path.

First, start by picking the right cause. That can mean either a cause that’s tied directly to your products, as with REI and the National Park Foundation, or something with a looser connection to your products but a strong connection to your employees and customers.

Adopting pets doesn’t have much to do with ordering shoes online, but that hasn’t hampered the success of Zappos’ “Friends on Us Fridays” campaign. It covers adoption fees at select shelters around the country one day a week. The company likely performed in-depth demographic studies before launching the campaign, but it could have reached the same place with a conversation along the lines of: “What does everybody love?” “Puppies.” “Ok, let’s do that.”

Keep in mind that authenticity should always be the goal. If your company’s employees, leadership or products have an authentic connection to a cause, that’s your answer.

Second, develop a partnership with the nonprofit you’re planning to support. For nearly every cause marketing success story, there’s a corresponding failure. Developing your nonprofit partnerships and coordinating your campaign early on will help avoid pitfalls and ensure your campaign is maximizing its potential positive impact.

Finally, don’t be afraid to promote your campaign, but make sure the cause stays at the center of that promotion. The promotion isn’t about you; it’s about what you have the opportunity to do for your worthy cause.

Do it right, and you’ll be giving genuine support to a worthy cause, while giving a strong boost to the effectiveness of your marketing and outreach programs. It might not be a purely altruistic proposition, but it’s certainly something that can be good for your brand—and good for the causes you support.