Cause-related marketing: is CRM just a smokescreen for greenwashing?

Cause-related marketing (CRM) is when a company collaborates with an NPO for a good purpose, something that is now criticized by many as a greenwashing guise. Are they right? We get to the bottom of this question.

A company and NPO collaborating in the name of cause-related marketing.
Image: © georgerudy / Adobe Stock
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What is cause-related marketing?

Cause-related marketing describes the collaboration between a company and a nonprofit organization for mutual benefit. However, the term is also used very liberally for any kind of effort to invest in social and charitable causes for marketing reasons.

Popular in the USA since as early as the 1980s, cause-related marketing is now on the radar of companies in Germany, even more so since Krombacher teamed up with WWF on a campaign to save the rainforest with every crate of beer purchased. Today, CRM covers various forms of social marketing, more specifically any initiative launched by a company together with a nonprofit organization to reach a charitable goal.

Win-win-win? Who benefits from cause-related marketing?

Not only does the company in question gain something from a cause-related marketing collaboration, but it also benefits the nonprofit organization and the customers themselves.

  • By using CRM to appeal to customers’ sense of environmental or social responsibility, the company can trigger buying impulses within its target group and set itself apart from the competition as a socially and environmentally conscious brand.
  • The NPO or charitable organization receives more attention as a result of the advertising and marketing measures implemented. It also benefits from the direct financial support of the company.
  • The third beneficiary is the customer, who is given the opportunity to purchase a product that helps clear their social and environmental conscious.
All three parties benefit from cause-related marketing.
Image: © howtogoto / Adobe Stock

A classic case of win-win-win or pulling the wool over customers’ eyes?

Cause-related marketing – just a cover-up for greenwashing?

The more popular cause-related marketing became, the more cases made the headlines of companies advertising a good cause just for the purpose of sweeping an environmentally harmful or socially problematic core business practice under the carpet. The more emphatic an advertising promise is, the more likely it is to lack substance.

Companies that tell such untruths cause lasting damage to their reputation to the detriment of cause-related marketing on a broader scale. Vigilant consumers now always have a sneaking suspicion of greenwashing in the back of their mind.

How does cause-related marketing differ from CSR?

In contrast to adopting corporate social responsibility (CSR) and associated sustainable marketing, cause-related marketing is about marketing a commitment that has nothing to do with a company’s actual core business. For example, Krombacher, a brewery, has no direct connection with the protection of the rainforest, nor is Pampers responsible for the healthcare of African children.

A cause-related marketing approach is therefore no indication of how responsible a company’s business activities are. In Krombacher’s case, it would be more appropriate from a CSR standpoint for it to direct its attention toward combating water pollution or addiction. For a long time, Pampers has implemented cause-related marketing together with UNICEF by providing tetanus vaccinations for mothers and their newborns. It now also pursues a sustainable marketing and corporate social responsibility strategy by using sustainably sourced cellulose in its diapers. However, the company has still failed to see the hypocrisy of calling itself sustainable when it has yet to switch to recyclable alternatives to using polypropylene, polyester, polyethylene, and elastane. That is borderline greenwashing.

How can you spot greenwashing, what are the most common greenwashing practices, and how does it differ from authentic green marketing? You’ll find the answers in our green guide – which you can download here for free.

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4 tips for your cause-related marketing: how to do it right

If you want to successfully implement cause-related marketing, the following four tips are a must:

Tip #1: Choose a trustworthy partner to collaborate with

Teaming up with a relevant and trustworthy partner is key to the success of any CRM campaign. Opt for an NPO that has

  • a good reputation,
  • proven expertise, and
  • the appropriate degree of recognition and visibility

for your chosen cause. The actions of your partner will directly reflect on your campaign and brand.

Tip #2: Ensure transparency

Don’t just tell your customers what good cause they’ll be supporting by buying your product, but also make it clear how much of the sales price will go toward that cause. No matter how good your intentions are, you still have to gain the trust of your customers first. If you generate big profits, but only donate a relatively small share of those profits, you’ll hardly be perceived as trustworthy. For that reason, always communicate the following:

  • The duration and mission of your campaign
  • The amount that will be donated for every product that is sold
  • The exact purpose and who/where it will help
  • Your collaborative partner
  • Publicly accessible documentation that attests to your efforts and their impact (website)

Proper documentation, clear contractual agreements with your collaborative partner, and clarity in terms of tax-related issues are prerequisites for a successful and legally sound campaign from the get-go. You should always be prepared for the eventuality of your competitors taking legal action.

Tip #3: Don’t make yourself an easy target

Choose a cause that bears at least some relation to your core business. Although a clear connection between your CRM project and business activities will make your intentions seem more credible, it also comes with the risk that consumers will pay closer attention to how sustainable and responsible you are when it comes to your core business. Suspicion will arise if you try to cover up apparent blemishes by glossing over everything with your CRM campaign. Tackle areas that you know still have room for improvement head-on and transparently, and communicate goals for implementing the changes.

Marius Hasenheit is of a similar mindset. He is a partner in the Berlin-based agency for sustainability communication “sustentio GmbH”, member of the consulting cooperative “sustainable natives eG”, and board member of the Genossenschaft selbstverwalteter Projekte eG (cooperative of self-managed projects). We asked him:

“Do good and talk about it”: That not only makes sense if you want your sustainable marketing to appear genuine, but also when it comes to cause-related marketing. Does my cause have to be related to my business and core activities for it to appear credible?

Marius Hasenheit: Indeed, credibility naturally also has something to do with how something ties in with the business. Presenting conflicting goals may initially seem as if you’re leaving yourself open to attack, but this approach can generate a range of advantages in terms of credibility. In this context, attention is generated more quickly when solutions positively influence both the core business and sustainability indicators.

Marius Hasenheit, sustentio – agency for sustainability marketing and PR.
Marius Hasenheit, partner in Berlin-based agency sustentio (© sustentio GmbH)

Tip #4: Combine CRM with genuine CSR

Merely implementing CRM will generally not cut it. Consumers now recognize and check whether such a marketing campaign is actually genuine. So, if you take the cause-related marketing route, you can’t avoid also taking your corporate social responsibility seriously. Your efforts will pay off though: by making a serious commitment in this respect and communicating an authentic willingness to make optimizations, you can significantly improve your reach and reputation through complementary CRM measures. The CRM measure should authentically tie in with your CSR and be consistent with how your company presents itself internally and externally. In this sense, CRM should no longer be considered a marketing strategy, but rather a component of a comprehensive sustainability communication framework

If you want to learn what exactly denotes sustainable business and how to implement authentic sustainable marketing, download our green guide here for free.

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Ecosia as a role model: using CRM to attract attention for a genuine purpose

Ecosia, the tree-planting search engine, shows how closely CRM and authentic CSR can be intertwined. You might wonder what a search engine has to do with trees. On the face of it, not much – the idea seems like a typical cause-related marketing campaign. However, there’s much more to it: The publicity-generating CRM aspect of planting trees is only a miniscule element of both a corporate philosophy that is completely built around sustainability as well as a holistically sustainable purpose, as Hannah Wickes, Chief Marketing Officer at Ecosia, explains to us in an interview:

Internet use and climate protection: what do they have to do with each other?

Hannah Wickes: We’re living in a more and more digitalised world, which means we need to be aware of the impact our online behaviour can have. With Ecosia you can connect something you do daily – searching the web – to helping to protect our planet and its people. Search engines generate a lot of money through advertising, money which we believe should be used for other things than profit maximisation. We dedicate 100% of our profits to climate action, of which at least 80% is used to plant trees all around the world.

Hannah Wickes, green search engine Ecosia
Hannah Wickes, Chief Marketing Officer at Ecosia GmbH (© Ecosia).

Do we need to change our search behavior to stop climate change?

Hannah Wickes: So much has to be done to stop climate change, changing your search behavior alone won’t cut it! However, switching to a green search engine such as Ecosia is a step in the right direction: You’re not only helping to regenerate ecosystems and create better livelihoods for people all over the world, your search actively removes CO2 from the air instead of running on dirty energy (thanks to our solar power plants Ecosia searches are powered by 200%+ renewable energy), plus you can see where the money earned from your searches goes in our monthly published financial reports.

You can read the full interviews with sustentio’s Marius Hasenheit and Ecosia’s Hannah Wickes in our free green guide.

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