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Takeaways from the Cause Marketing Forum #CMF10

Last week I had the chance to attend and speak at the annual Cause Marketing Forum in Chicago. Conferences that cover specific topics such as this are a real joy to visit. It’s a chance to peer a little into an “ecosystem” of individuals and companies that are united around a common interest and goal. In this case, it’s a very noble one—cause marketing and corporate social responsibility. I got to speak at a marketers-only dinner during the evening, both introducing Marketing with Meaning as a higher-level paradigm for marketing, and then sharing how Cause and CSR fit in—along with some tips and learnings we’ve seen in this fast-developing space. Instead of rehashing my presentation here I wanted to take this space to share what I learned during the event from some of the biggest marketers in the world. (But do take a look at the video above where I was interviewed at the conference.)


By now everyone has seen the yellow bracelets and admired the very innovative way that Nike has supported Lance Armstrong and his drive to cure cancer. But few have gotten the inside scoop on how the program came about and the results it has seen. Tom Kelley, brand marketer for Nike, shared some terrific insights. He began by setting up Nike’s mission: “To achieve human potential… and bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” He talked about when one of its prize athletes, Lance Armstrong, contracted cancer it became Nike’s first significant cause marketing effort. As Tom said, “We didn’t choose cancer; cancer chose us.” Nike, a brand that sticks very close to its roots in driving athletic performance, saw Lance fight back in the hospital, on the bike, and in the public eye. And when the brand got into the cause, it did so in a very unique way—by creating the yellow band campaign and raising millions of dollars for research.

Nike has also smartly continued its involvement in Livestrong as Lance, too, continues to ride to challenge himself and raise funds to fight the disease. Kelly spoke about the most recent innovation in the cause, the Nike Chalkbot, which debuted in the Tour de France last year. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this great video:

What’s brilliant about the Chalkbot is that it hits on so many levels. It fits Nike’s drive for innovation and it inspires athletes to perform their best. It also builds off a tradition of this tradition-rich sport. It gives people around the world the chance to participate in a live event. And it’s all for a very good cause. I expect to see Chalkbot win a Cannes Lion when I go there in a few weeks.

The results from this one idea have been incredible: 36,000 cheers were submitted, there were 139 major PR stories, membership of Livestrong’s Facebook page rose 77%, and Nike’s Livestrong line saw the largest month ever for both product sales and donations. This year the Chalkbot will be back on the Tour with a few improvements—including a better eraser.

A final point on Nike: I later heard a presentation on Macy’s cause efforts which are vast and impressive. For its programs, Macy’s executives talked about how they closely look toward the causes that its consumers care about. This seems smart and is clearly what most marketers are trained to do. But this was not at all how Nike approached cancer. It didn’t survey its buyers and ask what they believe in; rather, the brand worked according to what it as a brand cares about. Maybe this is the way we are headed in the future: brands as true personalities (powered by social, of course), which attract fans who aspire to know and be like them. Something to think about…

Pepsi Refresh

Everyone wants to know how the Pepsi Refresh is going—mainly because it represents such a big step in a new direction by a major marketer that has done advertising the traditional way for so long. Bonin Bough, Director of Digital and Social Media at Pepsi, took the stage to update an eager audience. He started by grounding the effort on a bigger change, “Refresh is a small part of a transformation going on across PepsiCo… it’s part of our belief in ‘Performance with Purpose.’” (For more on that, check out my blog post a few weeks ago). The idea behind Refresh came from studying a survey of Pepsi drinkers. Thinking beyond just providing liquid refreshment, the brand uncovered the insight that “Optimism is a catalyst for ideas that change society.” Pepsi chose to embrace and encourage optimism, but not through just a logo change and raft of new TV ads—rather, they had to DO something. The marketing team knew they had to “create a movement, not a moment.” So Super Bowl ads were out, and Pepsi Refresh was in.

Best Buy

Tim Showalter-Loch spoke at an intimate breakout group at the forum with the title of “Teen Cause Marketing.” The room fit about 12 people, but somehow 24 people squeezed in to hear how this leading, growing group of Blue Shirts is tackling teen+cause marketing. Best Buy has begun to edge into cause marketing for a few reasons: First, the company is maturing and needs to better differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace. Second, research shows that the rising generation of young people expects brands to have a higher-level purpose. In fact, their research shows that teens see big companies as authority figures—and this generation expects authority figures to step up and solve problems (a variation on the helicopter parenting that they have experienced).

Tim talked about how the brand discovered a big opportunity to embrace “teens’ positive development.” Teens are obviously important because they purchase a lot of Best Buy products and influence their parents to buy a lot more. In fact, today’s teen is the household Chief Technology Officer. Tim made a great analogy to the first generation of immigrant children who grow up speaking the new language and have to translate to their parents. Technology is that new language now.

The company saw an opportunity to do something in “positive development” because the teen years are a time when little decisions and experiences can have a large impact on the personalities and paths of young people. And teens need something more than the “negative” campaigns against smoking, drinking, drugs, and texting while driving.

Best Buy’s focus here has just begun, but it has done some nice, smart work at a site called @15 where it is encouraging kids to learn and innovate. It already has more than 200,000 members thanks to partners such as

Tim talked about how this small start is getting Best Buy’s leaders to think about how they can do more. Perhaps enrolling teens to help design the company’s products and business models. Tim spoke about his evolving belief that “The future is about creating a business that works for social change… don’t just fix your reputation by giving money; do something.” We talked about how Walmart recently closed the gap in Medicare drug prices because of its enormous purchasing power.


John Anton, Marketing Director for Pedigree, spoke about the history of the brand’s embrace of cause marketing around pets. I first wrote about Pedigree well over a year ago here, so I was excited to get more firsthand info on its very successful program. Anton spoke about how Pedigree has a Brand Purpose both around providing high-quality food and a belief that “every dog deserves a loving home.”

Pedigree’s first major efforts in its cause to drive shelter dog adoption came in February 2007 when it aired a commercial twice during the broadcast of the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The ad brought light to the tragedy of unadopted dogs and said that the brand would match donations during the event. This small effort raised more than $1.7 million and showed the brand they were onto something.

Anton provided some great background on the brand’s decision to create its own foundation rather than partnering with other, existing nonprofits in this space. The biggest reason came to light when a national nonprofit that it partnered with supported legislation that was seen as negative to pure-breed owners. Because of its association with the nonprofit, Pedigree received many negative responses and threats to stop buying its food.

So the Pedigree Foundation was set up as its own 501(c)3 organization apart from Mars, the owner of Pedigree. It has its own staff and annual report. Aside from funds from Pedigree marketing, the foundation receives about $1 million per year in donations from individuals. Anton admitted that it was new ground to figure out how to do this, but by creating its own foundation Pedigree is benefiting from added credibility, control, employee pride, and a positive long-term legacy.

Interestingly, this idea of companies setting up their own foundations is fairly controversial, as it creates some competition in the cause market. I’m sure this will continue to be a hot topic in the future.


One small new learning came from a conversation with an executive from JetBlue at dinner. In my presentation I talked about the Marketing with Meaning example of how Hyundai brilliantly grew sales in a down year by introducing the Assurance program—a program so good that brands as diverse as Pfizer and the Toronto Raptors followed with similar programs. She mentioned that JetBlue, too, had offered to fly you free if you lost your job. This program returned immediate results and virtually no tickets were returned.

Many thanks to David Hessekiel and his staff at the Cause Marketing Forum for putting on a great show and inviting me to both teach and learn. It’s clearly a pocket of Marketing with Meaning that is leading the way.

2 Responses to “Takeaways from the Cause Marketing Forum #CMF10”

  1. [...] Gilbreath did a nice overview of his takeaways and programs that caught his [...]

  2. doohan says:

    “But this was not at all how Nike approached cancer. It didn’t survey its buyers and ask what they believe in; rather, the brand worked according to what it as a brand cares about. Maybe this is the way we are headed in the future: brands as true personalities (powered by social, of course), which attract fans who aspire to know and be like them. Something to think about…”

    Loved the part above that you included in the Nike section Bob. I’ve come to believe this is exactly what happens with the best brands and is exactly why consumers spend more on the best brands. Consumers aren’t looking for brands that are “like” them… Brands that listen and glom onto consumer trends command moderate loyalty and no price premium.

    I believe consumers look for brands that have a unique point of view. They’re looking for brands that enhance the individual consumer’s “brand” not reinforce it. Brands that have their own perspective that can be followed or not by consumers have a better opportunity to inspire fierce loyalty and larger price premiums.

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