Recent studies have shown that 8 out of 10 millennials expect companies to make a public commitment to improving society or the environment. As people, we seek out others who share our values. As shoppers, we want to support brands that speak to our values. The new generation of shoppers want the brands they follow to believe and ACT for a cause they support. In response, many commercial brands have engaged in cause marketing.
What Is Cause Marketing?
Traditionally, cause-related marketing was simply a straightforward effort by non-profit organizations to bring awareness to the charity they represented. ‘Cause marketing’ refers to the recent trend of companies aligning themselves with a specific cause to market their own brands.
Some successful recent examples of cause marketing include:
- Stabilo Boss, a German brand that sells highlighters, perceptively created the campaign Highlight the Remarkable, a play on the saying “behind every great man is a great woman.” The print ads bring attention to remarkable women who never got credit for their discoveries and efforts by ‘highlighting’ them in yellow in historical photos.
- Harry’s brand of shaving products for men brings attention to the high number of male suicides in the UK – 84 every week – with their powerful installation campaign Project 84.
- Nike’s Dream Crazier ad, as we will discuss below, is an attempt to bring awareness to gender inequality in sports.
Nike’s Dream Crazier Ad
Nike has been engaged in cause marketing for a while now, supporting positive change and breaking stereotypes in many ad campaigns. From addressing ageism to supporting people with disabilities, LGBTQ rights, and racial and gender equality in sports, the brand has historically put their support and money behind people who have courageously challenged and changed the rules.
Their most recent ad features tennis star Serena Williams who, as narrator, describes the language often used to dismiss female athletes – ‘hysterical’, ‘unhinged’ ‘crazy’ – and the pluck of some real-life ‘crazy’ women who have successfully broken barriers in sports.
The ad first aired during this year’s Oscars and was an immediate hit, generating quite the media buzz. What was it about it that made it work so well? To answer the question, let’s consider four key principles of what makes a good ad: powerful message; audience; brand commitment; and emotional appeal.
Nike’s ad begins with dramatic footage of modern-day female athletes standing up for themselves and demanding equal opportunity. The narrator lists the words often used to describe these women: dramatic, nuts, delusional, unhinged, crazy.
Then the music shifts and we’re shown footage of actual historical ‘firsts’ that today seem modest – the first time a woman was allowed to enter a marathon, to box, to play basketball, to coach a team… As the narrator points outs, all these women were once called ‘crazy’.
The message is positive and empowering, sharing REAL people stories and showing all that the sky is the limit. It does not attack or single out what’s wrong in society but instead inspires with stories of real people making real change. This aligns with the message Nike has always supported – to go beyond the norm and “Just do it!”
In their effort to take on a cause to drive revenue, many brands fail to ask who exactly the audience is and what they will respond to. So caught up with the idea of embracing cause marketing, they fail to identify what cause will truly resonate with the audience they aim to inspire.
But when it comes to understanding their audience, the Dream Crazier ad hits the mark. The ad is narrated by a woman athlete and is about women athletes, and yet the audience is not just women. It is anyone who shares values of inclusivity. Rather than point the finger at any group for preventing women from being able to ‘just do it’, the ad subtly invites all viewers to think about the situation of women in sport, and assumes men and women alike share the enthusiasm for past and future victories.
And by extension the ad challenges norms or barriers that keep anyone – regardless of sex, race or age – from thinking big and doing what they love. Without pointing fingers, the brand message becomes inclusive and relatable, resonating with the target audience and beyond.
Consumers nowadays are not naïve. They know that cause marketing campaigns are a tactic to generate revenue. Which is why when a brand takes a stand on an issue, the cause better jive with the brand’s overall message and commitments. That’s what makes a brand credible. Nike has proven itself to be credible with their commitment to not just proactively supporting women in sports through sponsorships, but also creating actual product lines that further support and celebrate that diversity, such as gender neutral clothing and a sports hijab.
A cause marketing campaign isn’t just about words. It’s about action. The cause endorsed and promoted should be reflected in brand action as well. Throughout Nike’s Dream Crazier ad, the brand’s tagline “Just do it!” rings true.
Finally, cause marketing almost by definition is about raising awareness of a reality that is regrettable. Issues like inequality and suicide are realities whose appropriate response is often anger, guilt or disappointment. But successful cause marketing ads quickly transition from the negative emotion to a positive, empowering one – a feeling that ‘This should not happen anymore!’ The Nike ad does not linger on negative emotions, but instead turns them into feelings of hope for future progress. Women are ‘crazy’? As narrator Williams puts it: “Fine, show them what crazy can do.”
To sum up, newer generations of shoppers want brands to stand up for something, but these brands better have street cred. Successful cause marketing is good business – as long as the campaign rings true.