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Interview with a legend: Carol Cone on cause marketing

November 10, 2009

Carol Cone is the chairman of Cone, Inc. based in Boston, MA.

Carol Cone is a legend. There is no other way to put it. Anyone who works in the cause marketing and social responsibility field knows about her and her firm’s important research.  As an example, yesterday I had coffee with a group of like-minded Tweeters and it didn’t take long until her name came up.  As chairman of Cone, Inc. she’s helped companies and nonprofits raise over $1.2 billion for such household-name causes like the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women program, Reebok’s Human Rights Awards, and the Gillette Prostate Cancer Challenge, to name a few. So it was an honor when she accepted the invitation to tell her story to readers of CitizenPolity.

Q: How did you get your start in the field? As the “mother of cause marketing,” what was the “Aha moment” where you created cause branding?

Linking the Rockport Shoe Company to walking for health and fitness. No AHA moment.   It was just happened.  Through intuition, and necessity, Rockport needed a positioning to help it grow from a fairly unknown $20 milllion company. I looked at the shoe for months, and knew there had to be a way to elevate it beyond just another show.  The eureka was to bring the core innovation in the shoe – the world’s first walking shoe — to life through a new health regime. This provided the company with a deep purpose beyond just making and selling shoes and gave the country a new fitness activity that people could start and keep for life. This walking positioning helped them grow to over $125 million in 4 years.  Reebok then bought them.  For Reebok, together we embarked on a human rights journey.  Then Heinz and saving the modern American family. Then Avon and breast cancer.

Q: What’s your style of leadership? How do you inspire your team?

I ask them to do their homework around a subject, dive deep and really look at a situation from many angles.  I suggest that they collaborate with teammates and really push and prod each other for ideas. The work should inspire the team. Even more so, the end result of the work that should be innovative solutions that are a win-win for the company and the social issue.

Q: As an entrepreneur, what were some of the things you learned that you wished you knew when you were starting up your business?

Establish an advisory board of experienced executives from a variety of businesses and really engage them regarding strategy, growth and challenging issues. Listen well. I wish I had started with 2 – 3 other colleagues who shared my passion, invested their own money in the business and shared the extremely long, often very lonely hours and scary times.

Q: Who do you admire and why? Who inspires you?

Great writers who can process tremendous amounts of information, quickly analyze what the key points are with beautiful and inspiring prose.

I also love innovators who are deeply passionate and never give up:  Steve Jobs, Anita Roddick, JK Rowling, Jim Collins

Q: Overall, what are some of your favorite brands and why?

Apple, beautiful, supremely functional and fun; BMW truly the ultimate driving machine and I have owned many of them over 20 years; Lego the sum of their parts can be amazing, Michelle Obama, she is truly cool; Mad Men, a brilliant tv show despite the drinking, smoking and womanizing.  I did grow up in the 60’s so it is fun to go back in time.

Q: “Social media” is the catchphrase now.  Do any nonprofits come to mind who are leading the charge in social media?

Not so much leading the charge, but ones that are doing interesting things:  Nothing but nets; Salvation Army, Komen, American Heart Association

Q: What makes a cause-marketing brand work? When would a branding effort not work?

Authenticity and a view to longevity.  Brands inserting issues into their DNA for the right reasons, not for brand washing.  5 – 10 year commitments to an issue. Commitment significant resources – people, $millions and in-kind. Engaging a cross function team of senior executives inspired by the CEO to find the shared value between the company and a social issue, then create an innovative response to help the social issue where there is great need.  Also going deep and narrow is key, verses being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Q: Your reports are pretty much legendary. Especially as the cause marketing and CSR field was developing into an actual field of practice and study, your reports provided the evidence and data we all needed – and couldn’t otherwise find — to make the case for cause-marketing, CSR, and strategic philanthropy. I know a lot of the practitioners in the field feel the same way as I do. Where do you see the field going? What has surprised you about how it has changed in say the last decade?

This field has gone from a nice to do to a have to do, from diffuse to focused and strategic, from writing a check to embracing a social issue throughout the organization.

The future is finding the shared value  — the intersection between a company’s needs and a social issue.  Creating an innovative shared value program and sticking with it.  Communicating all along the way and reporting qualitative and quantative measures.  Also once a position is established, inviting in others to collaborate to help solve the social issue.  Tons of deep employee engagement too.  And key to sustainability is using the cause to help drive product/service innovation within the company.  Make money, derive more profits and reinvest some of them back into the cause.

Do this well and the company will create a deeply compelling shared purpose for all its key audiences, that will help them to become more loyal, more deeply commited to each other and the cause.

Q: It seems that companies are becoming more and more focused in their approach to cause marketing and philanthropy. Is there a danger in companies becoming too focused? Will some of the, say, less sexy nonprofits ultimately wind up being the ones to lose out?

Focus is “your friend.”  No one has sufficient resources, human and $ to go too wide.  I really love the “orphan” causes, because they can attract companies that chose to take a different path, or are very local.

Q: A number of companies fall victim to what I call the “PDF syndrome.” They spend so much time and resources to create a CSR report, create a PDF document, upload it on to their web site, and call it a day. How can companies truly differentiate themselves in how they communicate their CSR efforts?

Have others talk about the efforts.  Great cause creates great content.  Real emotion can be found, verses fake emotion.  Cool.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 4:36 pm

    Great interview with a true leader in the field!


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