The rise of cause sponsorship

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become an indispensable tool for brands looking to set themselves apart from the competition. Consumers today expect companies to contribute to the collective wellbeing by reducing the environmental impact of their activities and by doing their part to alleviate social problems.

A recent study conducted by the CROP research firm notes how such an approach influences the consumer perception of companies. The study confirms that CSR is an effective lever to engage consumers and positively influence them in their purchase intention. What’s more, it reveals that CSR not only influences their decision-making, but also how much they are willing to pay: half of the respondents claimed that they would pay more for products made by a socially responsible company.

Social responsibility can benefit a company, and, inversely, a lack of it can be detrimental. One out of six consumers claim that they have rewarded a company for its positive actions in the last year, and one out of five consumers say that they have punished a company that they perceive as socially irresponsible. The harshest judges also happen to be the consumers most sought after by companies: young people, educated people and people with higher incomes.

Being associated with a cause is an effective way for companies to get involved socially and earn the approval of consumers, which is a tack that a lot of companies have taken in recent years. In fact, there has been a significant rise in the number of brands partnering with social causes, both from a qualitative and a quantitative standpoint.

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The importance and the benefits of CSR can no longer be cast in doubt. Causes now have leverage with brands, and brands are increasing their degree of investment in them. There is also a trend where we see companies take funds traditionally earmarked for donations and philanthropy and shift them into investments that meet their communications goals. In fact, publicizing support for a cause is no longer viewed negatively and companies are acting on that, even if it means sacrificing a few fiscal advantages along the way.

In Canada, some companies are doing a particularly good job of communicating their support for causes and people are taking note. Tim Hortons is an excellent example with its Timbits program that provides equipment to minor sports teams and encourages kids to be physically active. For its part, Canadian Tire has a Jumpstart program, which supports families in need by helping kids access sports that might otherwise be too costly. And McDonald’s has its Ronald McDonald House, which opens its doors to the parents of children who are hospitalized far from home.

In Quebec, four of the top five most socially responsible companies are also historically the most beloved companies, which goes a long way in demonstrating the link between CSR and public appreciation. McDonald’s is the only exception: it is one of the least loved brands in Quebec despite having a strong CSR rating.

Companies and causes joining forces is a promising venture. So why do some partnerships have greater success than others? In other words, what makes a successful partnership tick?

The key: rethinking the relevance of cause sponsorship

Getting involved with a cause is one thing. Finding an effective and unique way of doing it is another thing entirely. The congruence between a company and the cause or organization that it supports is most often seen as the key element for success. The question of the right fit is huge in traditional sponsorship. In fact, it has been widely proven that a relevant fit between the sponsoring company and a property can lead to better recall (consumers linking the cause back to the brand), higher consumer appreciation of the brand and an increase in purchase intention.

In traditional sponsorships, the notion of congruence can extend to the image, the target audience and the use of products and services. When a natural fit doesn’t exist between two organizations, as is often the case with financial service categories, you have to build the partnership from scratch and have an entire arsenal of communication tools at your disposal. This is what is called “articulation.”

But do all of these different “fits” really matter that much when it comes to cause sponsorship? One thing is for certain: they seem to be at the core of a lot of campaigns. Isn’t the new “Buy a lady a drink” campaign, that brings Stella Artois together with the Water.org organization, based on a shared target audience? This campaign clearly wants to raise awareness about the worldwide water crisis and the challenges that women around the world have to overcome just to find healthy drinking water for their families. And doesn’t the “Save the bees” campaign from Cheerios—whose logo is none other than a bee—rely on a good fit in terms of brand image?

Even if these associations make sense from a strategic point of view, there is no guarantee that consumers will connect with them. The results of the CROP study mentioned above show that consumers also expect companies to support causes that are a good fit with their business sectors. It’s interesting to note the correlation between the three most important causes for consumers and the three industries they expect the most from in terms of CSR: the environment and oil and gas companies; healthcare and the food services industry; the fight against poverty and financial institutions.

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McDonald’s and Tim Hortons have adopted a balanced strategy, which has proven to be quite effective. The two fast food chains both operate in the junk food sector, but the negative effects on consumer perception are balanced by their partnerships with causes that support children’s health. Inversely, the Royal Bank supports causes that aren’t particularly relevant to its business sector, and consumers in turn don’t perceive it as being a very responsible company—despite the fact that it’s ranked among the Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada by Corporate Knights magazine (which bases its ranking system on how a company does in terms of the environment, social responsibility and corporate governance). Though every cause is a worthy cause, the Royal Bank would no doubt benefit from fighting poverty rather than trying to save the environment.

One thing is abundantly clear: consumers get behind partnerships that are real and authentic. Companies would do well to keep this in mind when choosing their partnerships.

Source: we would like to thank our friends at CROP for this research.

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