“Cause-Based Marketing,” “Ethical Marketing,” “Marketing With a Purpose” – Whether you work in marketing or not, you’re probably familiar with these terms and they all mean the same thing.
They mean incorporating a cause into your marketing in order to gain customer loyalty, and attract new customers who like to see a company supporting a cause that they care about. This approach to marketing has been around since the ‘70s, but has really taken off in the last few years. However, unlike many trends in marketing, cause-based marketing is extremely risky for companies that try it.
If you “take a stand” on a popular issue, there are millions of people who will likely disagree with you, meaning you could lose a massive chunk of both your current, as well as your potential customer base. Even worse, if done incorrectly, the message can come off as disingenuous, which will result in the loss of a majority of your customers, even those that agree with the stance you’ve taken. There’s no doubt that cause-based marketing is an important and effective form of marketing in today’s climate, but you must be extremely careful when adopting it or you could risk destroying your entire brand in the blink of an eye.
Playing With Fire: Nike and Kaepernick
Before we get into the horror stories, we have to ask: if cause-based marketing is so dangerous, why is it the hottest trend in marketing? The answer comes down to the age-old fact that huge risk comes with the potential for huge returns. No one has done a better job of proving this potential than Nike with their 2018 campaign that centered around former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his controversial decision to kneel during the national anthem at the beginning of games.
Kaepernick used this gesture to silently protest police brutality against Black Americans, a divisive issue since the days of the Civil Rights Movement and even earlier. Nike decided to make a campaign supporting Kaepernick’s protest, which was immensely risky for several reasons, first and foremost being that the NFL was losing viewers at the time specifically because of the protests.
There was a massive chunk of the NFL fan base who saw the kneeling as disrespectful, which was hurting the NFL’s viewership and, ultimately, their bottom line. By taking Kaepernick’s side, Nike risked losing the support of all of these fans that were turning away from the NFL. In addition to fan disapproval, Nike was risking its business relationship with the NFL. The NFL was officially against the kneeling, publicly stating that any players who participated in the protest would be subject to discipline.
By supporting Kaepernick, Nike would be going against the NFL’s official stance, which could be detrimental because Nike was the NFL’s official jersey provider at the time. Supporting Kaepernick could have easily destroyed their lucrative business relationship with the NFL.
So, if standing behind Kaepernick was so risky for Nike, why would they do it?
, “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it, and as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately, I think, why the Kaepernick ad worked.”
Essentially, they did it because the sports world was on fire with the Kaepernick story and the people at Nike knew that it would be more beneficial to take an official stance than it would be to stay quiet on the issue, even if they took a stance that was seemingly unpopular among NFL fans.
Nike realized that there was a lot of opportunity for growth in taking a risk and taking a side on a very divisive issue, but it didn’t work out for them simply because they took a huge risk. After all, it’s not much of a risk if there isn’t an opportunity for failure.
So why did the Nike Kaepernick ad work so well in their favor?
The answer boils down to one word: authenticity.
Nike was authentic in that, as a company, they took the stance that they genuinely agreed with. Yes, they saw the situation as a business opportunity, but they didn’t just take a side because of money. They truly felt that Kaepernick was doing the right thing and should be free to exercise his right to protest.
The turning point for Nike founder Phil Knight was in a
, where James expressed his concern about his son getting his driver’s license and how that increased the chances of his son becoming another victim of police violence towards Black Americans. Knight had never shared this concern regarding his own children, but he could see and hear the genuine fear that Lebron was feeling, so he decided that he needed to acknowledge this concern that is shared among so many Black athletes that wear Nike gear.
This genuine concern for the issue showed through in the ad, where there was very little Nike branding, leaving the clear focus on Kaepernick and the message of, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Not only was this message true for Kaepernick, but for Nike as well, who were putting their brand at risk to support a cause that they genuinely believed in.
In the end, their authenticity was apparent to consumers who either loved or hated Nike for it and, fortunately for Nike, the gain in support far outweighed those who stopped supporting the brand.
, “the company claimed $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales” in the year following the release of the ad.
The Risk of Fizzling Out: Pepsi and Social Justice
Nike’s choice to adopt cause-based marketing in a very risky way paid off handsomely for them, but there are many examples of cause-based marketing that severely hurt the company adopting it. The most infamous example would be the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad that we all wish we could forget. If you’re lucky enough to not remember, the story goes something like this: Pepsi released a TV ad in 2017 featuring reality star Kendall Jenner.
The ad showed many young people, specifically young people of color, in a generic protest that vaguely represented the Black Lives Matter movement, the same movement that Nike and Kaepernick were supporting. While Nike was able to support the cause in an authentic way, Pepsi’s commercial could not have been more inauthentic.
Most of the protesters in the Pepsi ad are people of color, suggesting that the protest is likely for a race-related cause, but the major focus of the ad was on Kendall Jenner, a reality tv star of white European descent. As for the protest itself, Pepsi decided to show a generic protest rather than actually committing to a specific cause, making the whole thing feel generic and fake.
The worst comes at the end of the commercial, where Jenner hands a cold-faced police officer a can of Pepsi and the officer seems to lighten up after he takes a sip of the drink. While there were many other reasons why Pepsi’s commercial came off as disingenuous, the idea that soda is enough to end hatred and serious conflict between people was so absurd that the internet immediately caught fire with criticism, and Pepsi pulled the ad less than 24 hours after releasing it.
Pepsi’s ad was a spectacular failure because it was so absurdly inauthentic, but being genuine with your cause-based marketing is not always enough.
The Risk of Misrepresentation: Brewdog and Women's Issues
In 2018, beer company Brew Dog released a beer that they titled “Pink IPA”—a play on their most popular drink “Punk IPA.” Pink IPA came in a pink bottle. The goal of the drink was to criticize companies that exploit women’s issues for profits.
They tried to convey this message in a sarcastic way by wrapping the beer in a pink label that said “beer for girls,” selling it for 20% less than Punk IPA (the same drink with a different label), and, worst of all, instructing resellers to only sell the drink to people who identified as female.
The sarcasm was lost on consumers, who saw the drink as just another bad attempt at marketing to females, which was exactly what Brew Dog was trying to criticize. The stunt even landed Brew Dog a lawsuit because they were guilty of discrimination for only selling the drink to females.
Overall, they started with a good cause that they certainly believed in, but their execution was so terrible that even the people who agreed with them could not support the product and now, this embarrassing faux pas is what Brew Dog is best known for. They turned their top-selling drink, Punk IPA, into a reminder of their worst failure, forever hurting their brand.
Cause-Based Marketing Comes with Risk, And That's Okay
What can we learn from the success of Nike and the failures of companies like Pepsi or Brew Dog? When it comes to cause-based marketing, there is one golden rule: Be Authentic! You must believe in the cause that you are supporting and you must convey that passion to consumers in a genuine, unassuming way.
Nike succeeded because they believed in what they were supporting and the focus of the ad was on the cause, not on Nike. As Brew Dog learned, you must also be careful about how you go about supporting a cause through your marketing, as taking it too far (or not far enough) can confuse and anger people, even when you genuinely believe in the cause you are supporting.
So how do you know if you should participate in the popular, but risky trend of cause-based marketing? One simple question can answer that for you: Do you want to adopt cause-based marketing because it seems like a good business strategy, or because you have a cause that you genuinely care about and want to support?
If you are in it mainly for the business aspect, then you can bet that consumers will be able to tell that your main goal is to make money, not support a worthy cause, and your brand will suffer as a result. If you are adopting cause-based marketing because you genuinely care about a cause, then your heart is in the right place and cause-based marketing may work for you—just be very careful how you execute it.
Need advice on cause-based marketing? Need advice on marketing in general? Watermark has 40 years in the business and is happy to answer any questions you might have at no cost to you.