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Defining Cause Branding

July 21, 2010

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Do you remember when Google was a company and not a verb? This conflation of terms demonstrates how the American language is a fluid form of communication. Every year our society takes the products and tools around us and appropriates their names to form verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Today to “google” something is another form of saying: to use a search engine, browse the internet, or just to search in general.

This appropriation of company names and products is common in every field and cause-marketing is no exception. Although I am initially skeptical of any terms produced and promoted by individual companies, I have accepted that we have incorporated “cause-branding” into our vernacular, despite its similarity to other extant terms.

Cause Branding:

“Cause branding” today is most affiliated with Cone, Inc as a term for one of their marketing strategies. Although remarkably similar to cause-marketing, there are a few subtle differences.

Definition: For the most part, cause branding and cause-marketing share the same definition: A potentially profit-making initiative by a for-profit company or brand to raise awareness, money, and/or consumer engagement in a social or environmental issue. Cause branding additionally attempts to create a permanent association in the eyes of the consumer between the company or brand and the issue.

Purpose: The same as cause-marketing, to raise money and awareness for the company and the cause and to increase engagement with a company’s brand or product. As aforementioned, cause branding additionally looks to take a brand or company and make it synonymous with a cause or partnership.

Attributes: Also the same, at its core cause branding has three major components:

  1. A product, often [but not always] a tangible item that can be bought and sold
  2. A partnership between the corporation behind that product and a non-profit or cause-based institution
  3. And a way to generate for profit

Results: Also the same (enhanced brand/company engagement, improved employee loyalty, more positive corporate reputation, and increased donations and involvement with the partnered non-profit.)


Brand/Company: Ben & Jerry’s – Cause: the environment

Brand/Company: National Football league – Cause: community development (United Way)

Brand/Company: Lee Jeans – Cause: breast cancer (Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation)

The fact that one cannot see or hear these company names and not make these associations is a sign of successful cause branding.

Other deviations from cause-marketing and CSR:

In their recent report “Cause Branding and Its Impact on Corporate Reputation” Barkley Evergreen & Partners defines the differences in the following ways:

  1. While some cause-marketing efforts might be for a limited time (a month, a year, etc.), cause branding is continuous, 365-day-a-year association with an issue.
  2. Cause branding generally focuses on one issue. CSR, on the other hand, tends to be much more broad, encompassing a wide range of issues, both internal and external to the company. Cause branding can be a part of a comprehensive CSR program, but they are not the same.
  3. CSR generally works to establish the brand or company as a good corporate citizen. Cause branding is a way to have the company/brand become permanently affiliated with an issue in the eyes of consumers.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 4:21 pm

    Great post and you’re right – it’s a bit of a gray area between cause marketing and cause branding and it also depends on who you ask.

    The one thing I’d add to this discussion is about the Cause Marketing/CSR relationship, another murky one. As we evolve our collective understanding of CSR/cause marketing/sustainability, it’s a moving target.

    The point of all of it, at the end of the day, is to move companies to a more integrated place with their stakeholders. Cause Marketing and branding can definitely be a part of an overall CSR effort, but they are, unfortunately, typically silo-ized.

    One exception I recently learned about is American Express, who has recently merged their AmEx Foundation with their CSR office. I think we’re going to be seeing more of this integration and I can only believe it’s a good thing for everyone.

    Great post!

    • Henry Frechette permalink
      July 22, 2010 4:36 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Megan. We just put up a post on CSR for that very reason.

      Thanks again!

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