Home » OPINION » Columns » TODD SMITH — Great elements of an effective cause marketing campaign

TODD SMITH — Great elements of an effective cause marketing campaign



What makes a great cause campaign? How do you get people to stop bad habits, adopt good ones, or do something about a societal or health issue that may not even be on their radar?

In developing the strategy for a recent cause campaign, The Harvard Business Review contemplated a three-step approach that studied options for tone, appeal/approach, and the most effective elements.

The results indicated that while there is no magic formula for guaranteeing a cause campaign with impact, there are five key ingredients.

The first step was to analyze what has worked. Every year the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity recognizes the best in advertising and marketing as practiced around the world. One category is cause campaigns that the organization calls “The Grand Prix for Good.” Last year, it included everything from the lighthearted but effective rail-crossing safety campaign Dumb Ways to Die to campaigns that called attention to domestic violence (Look at Me), lack of potable water in Africa (The Marathon Walker), rising fascist movements (Nazis Against Nazis), and iodine deficiency in Indian women (Life Saving Dot).

To get a sense of the tone and appeal or argument each campaign used, the publication plotted the 49 finalists across a number of factors. There were a healthy number of campaigns spread across every area of the grid. The conclusion? Maybe it’s not the appeal/argument of a cause campaign alone that makes it successful. If they didn’t share tone or appeal/argument, what did they share? Here are the five key elements:

1. Simple and inspiring messaging. What you call your campaign matters. Each of the campaigns had a compelling, simple handle: Not a Bug Splat for combatting drone strikes on civilians; The Unforgotten for gun safety; #ITouchMyselfProject for breast cancer awareness.

2. Strong visual storytelling. Studies show people read only about 20 percent of today’s web pages and are driven more by an image or short video than they are by a text-based, fully rational appeal.

UNICEF Chile’s One Shot on Cyber Bullying campaign took a dramatic approach to traditional images of fear and added a modern twist. A set of dramatic black-and-white photos titled “Fatty,” “Nerd,” and “Weak” that appeared on billboards and in magazines showed groups of teenage students aiming their smartphones at their peers as if in a firing squad. In one, the victim is on her knees with her hands behind her head, her back to a firing squad of her peers.

3. A physical element or exhibit. Despite the importance of digital media, there’s a definite place for including an element that people can experience in the real world. While those elements of the campaign may be experienced by few, they can be witnessed by many through earned and social media.

The idea behind The Unforgotten was simple but visually disturbing: Place faceless mannequins, dressed in the clothes of victims of gun violence, around the city of Chicago in the exact places where the victims were shot. Curious people could walk up to each and, once close enough, read the story of the victim’s tragic death.

4. Strong emphasis on social sharing and earned media. The award-winning campaigns didn’t rely on one type of storytelling; they provided multiple media types designed specifically for what’s effective in each social channel.

Dumb Ways to Die was a watershed for cause campaigns in the impact it was able to make using an infectiously lighthearted animated song. But more than that, it also invaded every area of social media with digital games, social campaigns featuring short “outtakes” from the music video, and even physical items, such as dolls and stickers of the main characters. Perhaps most powerfully, it drove people to own the campaign, and express their own creativity, by creating parody safety videos of the original.

5. Focus on a big issue coupled with a request for a small personal action. While most campaigns are calling people’s attention to a big issue, they need to ask them to do something small as a next step and a sign of commitment. This idea is totally consistent with behavior change work being done by BJ Fogg at Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab around the importance of tiny habits.

Among the best examples is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $115 million for ALS research and dominated social newsfeeds for months. The now-widely-known goal was to get people to dump a bucket of ice water over their heads, record it, and challenge up to three of their friends to do the same to raise awareness. Raising funds was the next tiny step, made much more likely once people were engaged in the cause. Most other campaigns called for a digital pledge or commitment.

The second step was to get input from the audience. At the same time that the publication analyzed the tone and appeal/argument of the most successful cause campaigns, they conducted a quick survey of 1,000 consumers to ask them about the type of cause campaigns they tend to remember. Is it the ones that make them laugh or that scare them? The ones that present the facts in a surprising way or a straightforward way?

It found something unexpected: 69 percent of the consumers surveyed said they are most likely to remember a public service announcement that presents the facts in either a surprising or a straightforward way, while only 11percent said they tend to remember those that make them laugh, and 20 percent said those that scare them.

The lesson is that you needn’t shy away from the facts just to be funny or scary; fascinating facts should be the core of the campaign.

The third step was to validate our findings from the first two steps with research on the neuroscience of behavior change. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that “anti-smoking ads with strong arguments, not flashy editing, trigger part of the brain that changes behavior.”

So how can brands create compelling cause campaigns that will make an impact? They must stimulate a public service engagement, not a public service announcement. That means whether you choose to be whimsical or frightening, rational or factual, make sure your campaigns include elements of these five elements, built around the core idea that facts can be fascinating.


Golden or Rotten Mic | Is Apple’s iPhone Stand Gold or Mold? 

The battle between Apple and the government about unlocking an iPhone of a suspected terrorist could be golden or rotten for the iconic brand.

What started as a battle by the tech giant only, now has the backing of Silicon Valley in preserving privacy rights in the face of terrorism. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter are all lining up to support Apple in court.

The government has said Apple’s refusal to help unlock the phone, used by a suspected terrorist, “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and its public brand marketing strategy.” But the company is also clearly at risk in the court of public opinion, where terrorism fears rival or surpass privacy concerns for many.

Apple has filed a motion to vacate an order that would force it to cooperate with the government’s effort to access a phone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters in December.

During Congressional testimony last week, Microsoft President Brad Smith said that it would file a friend of the court brief in Apple’s support. Google, Facebook and Twitter will also take Apple’s side, according to reports by The Wall Street Journal and Reuters. And Amazon told BuzzFeed that it was working on brief options.

The public for now is divided on whether Apple is doing the right thing. Around half of Americans think Apple should help the government, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. About 38 percent said Apple shouldn’t do so.

But getting more official support from other tech companies could help Apple’s cause. On the other hand, it could also drive the wedge deeper between Silicon Valley and middle America, particularly for citizens who believe the U.S. should be doing more to combat terrorism.

This is a profoundly complex legal issue where privacy, terrorism and security are intertwined in an ever-changing digital world. Whether Apple’s shine is golden or rotten on this issue remains murky, but will be the talk of the town – and the ongoing presidential race.

Each week, The Spin Cycle will bestow a Golden Mic Award to the person, group or company in the court of public opinion that best exemplifies the tenets of solid PR, marketing and advertising – and those who don’t. Stay tuned – and step-up to the mic! And remember … Amplify Your Brand!

» Todd Smith is president and chief communications officer of Deane, Smith & Partners, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm — based in Nashville, Tenn. — is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, and follow him @spinsurgeon.


… we’d like to ask for your support. More people are reading the Mississippi Business Journal than ever before, but advertising revenues for all conventional media are falling fast. Unlike many, we do not use a pay wall, because we want to continue providing Mississippi’s most comprehensive business news each and every day. But that takes time, money and hard work. We do it because it is important to us … and equally important to you, if you value the flow of trustworthy news and information which have always kept America strong and free for more than 200 years.

If those who read our content will help fund it, we can continue to bring you the very best in news and information. Please consider joining us as a valued member, or if you prefer, make a one-time contribution.

Click for more info

About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *