MAKE IT POP!: Cause and Effect – Retailers' Use of Cause-Related Email Marketing

With pink emails filling our inboxes throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the merits of cause-related marketing have come more prominently onto the Smith-Harmon radar. We wondered how well it really works, and MediaPost came through for us by publishing an article on this very topic. MediaPost reports that cause-related marketing can generate double-digit sales gains for brands—woah! No wonder so many companies jump on the pinkwagon in October. Not only do the companies get the satisfaction of contributing to important research; their customers also get to feel good about shopping.

Not surprisingly, there are complicating factors to consider. Paul Jones, president of Alden Keene & Associates, explores such factors on his blog about cause-related marketing. On the issue of transparency, Jones argues that “cause-related marketing trades on trust.” Customers are more likely to trust in the sincerity of brands that are upfront about where money goes and how much money is going there.

An article by Steven Van Yoder also makes the point that the marketing focus should never be lost in the cause. Cause-related marketing is sustainable only if it yields mutual benefits for the charitable organization and the brand supporting it.

We looked at examples of how brands have used email to approach cause-related marketing for several important issues. Here’s what we found:

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Judging by this month’s inbox, pink is the new black. Among many others, Lucy encouraged subscribers to “Shop for a Cause,” White House Black Market invited subscribers to “Give Hope,” and Sephora asked subscribers to “get gorgeous while giving back.” In each of these cases, the brands advertised products and donated a portion of their proceeds or advertised a window of time during which they would donate a portion of total sales.

Betty Crocker’s message was a bit different, encouraging subscribers to celebrate women’s health by making pink (Betty Crocker) cake and announcing General Mills’ donation, which was not tied to sales of certain items. They also invited dialogue on, where cancer survivors can share stories.

Women’s Cancer Research: Saks Fifth Avenue also supported women’s cancer research, but they stepped away from all of the pink of the month and partnered with Key to the Cure to donate funds to the Entertainment Industry Foundation‘s Women’s Cancer Research Fund. At first this struck me as a little odd (was it just so that they could feature stars like Gwenyth Paltrow in their ads?), but with deeper thought it’s clear how Saks’ approach was on-brand, speaking to their audience of high-end fashion connoisseurs. Oscar de la Renta designed the pricey Key to the Cure t-shirt this year, and Mercedes Benz partners with the organization as well.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital: The Williams-Sonoma Inc. brands included banners in their emails last holiday season advertising their fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and they then sent out a thank-you e-card announcing the results of the fundraiser. Gymboree also supports St. Jude, but the link to the fundraiser in their email is tiny and very subtle. I wonder how results differ between this understated approach and the more prominent Williams-Sonoma Inc. treatment.

The Global Fund (to help women and children with AIDS in Africa): This Gap email is almost wholly devoted to the Gap(Product)Red effort to benefit the Global Fund, featuring a special limited time promotion. The subject line: “Can the Shirt off Your Back change the world?” speaks to the headline: “This One Can.” This message barely mentions regular Gap items, but because Gap has established (Product)Red as such a prominent element of the brand, the focused approach doesn’t seem to detract from Gap marketing, and even solidifies Gap’s charitable image.

Musicians on Call: Boomingdale’s “Charity is Chic” message looks pretty much like any other sale email. The headline is cause-oriented but vague, and only in fairly small print does the copy inform the subscriber of where their money is going. I wonder whether it’s effective for Bloomingdale’s to downplay the charity in their creative.

With the high sales increases reported from cause-related marketing, it’s worth considering what could happen if brands began using it more frequently—monthly or quarterly, maybe, instead of at just one or two key points throughout the year. In addition to driving huge sales, brands could all do a lot of good. We’re interested to hear what others have tried and discovered in cause-related marketing.

As ever,
Lisa Harmon and Alex Madison of Smith-Harmon

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