10 lessons from Carol Cone on cause branding

I broke bread with Carol Cone recently, enjoying a spirited discussion about social causes and how B2B companies can help make the world a better place.
If you’re not familiar with Carol, she’s widely regarded as the “mother” of cause branding, a philosophical and pragmatic movement she helped architect over 20 years ago. Carol created signature programs for a host of Fortune 500 companies, including the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, ConAgra Foods’ Feeding Children Better Program, Reebok’s Human Rights Awards and Rockport’s Fitness Walking Program.
Last month, Ethisphere magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in “business ethics.” She was ranked just before Richard Branson. In addition, PR Week named her one of the industry’s 25 most dominant figures last October.
I asked Carol what B2B companies need to know when undertaking cause branding initiatives. Here are some lessons from the master: 
Lesson # 1: cause branding is a real commitment
Carol explains, “The company has to be in a state of readiness to do this. Cause branding won’t work unless it’s led out of the C suite at the highest corporate level. Social responsibility is driven by CEO’s.”
Lesson # 2: it starts with your own people
“This is purposeful work. You have to engage the whole person. Your employees are your brand ambassadors. It must be a shared value.”
Lesson # 3:  it must be authentic
“You can’t put a ribbon on something and call it real. This won’t cut it. It has to be authentic. You have to align your marketing and corporate communications with the values, behaviors and culture of your organization.”
Lesson # 4: your cause can be self-serving
“It’s okay to find a social cause that benefits your business. I call this a socially aligned business initiative. You have to find the intersection between a social cause with the greatest business value and the greatest societal need and impact.” 
Lesson # 5:   sustainability
Alignment with a social cause must not change from one year to the next. It’s not a bumper sticker or a message. It’s a deeply ingrained belief and commitment. “It has to be built to last,” Carol says.
Lesson # 6: get everyone involved
“Cause branding is all about creating behavior change within the organization. You have to move it from awareness to engagement, from passive to active. Cause branding creates employee and customer glue. You need a cross-functional team within your company, not just marketing and PR folks. ”
Lesson # 7: tell people what you’re doing
Not very long ago, it was considered somewhat taboo to tell the world (or at least your stakeholders) how your company is helping make the world a better place. This is no longer true. Cone’s 2007 Cause study revealed that 88% of Americans (up from 86% in 2004) want companies to tell them the way in which they are supporting causes.
Lesson # 8: create your own special cause niche
The four leading causes in America – based on the 2007 Cone study - are health; education; environment; and economic development. These are too general, however, to create successful branding. You have to dig deeper and use research to find and create a unique cause. Carol says, “You don’t have to be first, but you have to find a segment where you are first in your industry.”  She explained that PNC Bank had zeroed-in on education, but this was too general. “Thorough research revealed an unmet need in the pre-school through kindergarten niche, and that’s where PNC focused,” Carol explained.
Lesson # 9: it takes time
“It’s an arduous process to build an authentic, aligned program. In our experience, it typically requires six months to one year to put the key pieces together.”
Lesson # 10: it takes money
If you want to create a lasting, authentic cause brand alignment for your company, you have to make a financial commitment, not just a time commitment. Advertising is a common outlet for cause branding expression. “Be courageous,” Carol says. “Every company needs to be a good corporate citizen. We have to go so far.”    

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