Brands need to be brave, take risks and stand for something, according to a growing chorus of industry thought leaders, conference panel discussions and consultancy papers published over the past few years. "Doing well by doing good" has become a rallying cry for an industry in search of greater meaning beyond hawking products and services, and standout campaigns, like Nike's with Colin Kaepernick last fall, have been held up as the gold standard for how businesses can tap into hotbed cultural discussions and still see business results.
But lost in the desire to center more marketing around causes might be an understanding of how to balance the tone for messaging and a recognition of the innate cynicism most consumers have toward advertising. A study recently published in the Journal of Advertising Research, "How Intensity of Cause-Related Marketing Guilt Appeals Influences Consumers," found that cause-related marketing that turns up the emotional intensity and levels of guilt often does not create resonance, as one might intuit, but actually results in distrust among viewers. In short, marketers may be using a bludgeon and going too broad when trying to be purposeful, ultimately leading to ineffective — and sometimes publicly disastrous — campaigns.
"You're trying to attract attention through this highly evocative messaging. What we've found is that it actually can have a negative outcome — it can evoke perceptions of deception and manipulation," Jaywant Singh, a professor at the Kingston Business School at London's Kingston University and a co-author of the study, told Marketing Dive in a phone interview.
Understanding 'persuasion knowledge'
Part of the issue might stem from marketers' lack of perspective on how people digest advertising messages. Even if brands are eager to attach their names to a particular cause for genuine reasons — and that isn't always the case — it shouldn't be taken as a given that consumers perceive good intentions or that they're ignorant about what is fundamentally a profit-driven business.
"The fact that what we think our audience will take it in a very passive way ... actually reveals [itself] not to be true," Benedetta Crisafulli, a lecturer of marketing at Birkbeck, University of London, and a co-author of the report, told Marketing Dive. "We are active thinkers … we can realize when things are stretched a bit."
One concept that's crucial for informing cause-driven marketing, and a focal point of the study, is that of "persuasion knowledge," or the degree of self-awareness consumers possess that they're being marketed to by a company. If that sounds basic at the psychological level, it's something even marketers good at executing on their cause initiatives must keep in mind when tailoring campaigns.
"Businesses and brands are for making profit, whereas social causes are to make sure that we are all aware of social problems," Singh said. "When the brand is trying to support altruism or whatever goodness, fundamentally there is an element of suspicion — why is this brand supporting a social cause?"
"We found that lower-intensity ad campaigns in cause marketing evoke more desirable responses from the consumers."
Professor, Kingston Business School
Persuasion knowledge is triggered more easily the bigger the advertising swings with its emotional beats, the study argues. Emotional drivers stem from all aspects of the campaign, including the music, imagery and copy. An ad for a hunger relief nonprofit that uses real-world photographs of a child starving or displays dramatic messages — like that the child will die in the next 24 hours without a donation — can create the wrong type of visceral reaction in viewers rather than turning on the waterworks and leading to an action.
"We found that lower-intensity ad campaigns in cause marketing evoke more desirable responses from the consumers," Singh said.
Finding the right fit
But it makes sense, at least on paper, for a nonprofit to highlight the extreme ends of the causes it's looking to raise awareness for. Other cause-related failures arise, not just from a misapplication of guilt and emotional appeals, but also the incongruity of the brand broadcasting the message.
The Journal of Advertising Research paper cites a notorious ad Pepsi ran two years ago that starred Kendall Jenner and made vague references to police brutality and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. The ad, created with the soft drink giant's in-house agency Creators League Studio, spurred immediate confusion and fierce backlash, and Pepsi swiftly pulled it from air.
"That example is a case of fit; of whether Pepsi, a beverage [brand], should be supporting a social cause, which has got highly emotive content by its very nature," Singh said. "That fit has to be checked — the congruence between what [brands] are supporting and how they're supporting it."
An understanding of a brand's core customers and better tailoring the message toward them is another consideration marketers can miss when trying to go big with emotions in their cause-related efforts. A good amount of pretesting and work with third parties, such as agencies, can help marketers ensure they're not coming off as tone-deaf or choosing a cause that's a poor fit for business, according to Crisafulli.
"The takeaway for whoever decides to go down this route of cause-related marketing will be really to think about your audience, to think about the possible negatives that can come from the type of images, language, music that you use," Crisafulli said.
Seizing the opportunity
Marketers will likely need to continue to sharpen their cause marketing skills as the demands for purposeful brands grows louder, but many businesses fail to create resonance. A recent study by Havas Media estimated that 77% of brands could disappear without most consumers caring, and 58% of content from brands lacks meaning and relevance.
"Inevitably for many companies, it's a competitive move," Crisafulli said. "They need to do [cause marketing] because everybody is."
Even with the challenges brands face in overcoming consumer's possession of persuasion knowledge, the opportunity is still rich for savvy brands to leverage cause marketing to their advantage, support impactful movements and build out more robust corporate social responsibility programs.
"Cause marketing has got huge potential, there are so many social causes and so many brands that can come on board," Singh said. "It's a win-win situation for both parties, as long as it doesn't come across as deceptive or trying to manipulate our emotions. I think it will be accepted in the longer-term by consumers."