On September 12, 2001, Americans awakened to a new reality. Overcome with a rejuvenated sense of caring and citizenship, they began to re-evaluate their role in society, asking themselves, “What am I contributing?” and “How can I make a difference?” Personal and professional relationships were also re-examined, including those with family, friends, co-workers—even the companies they do business with. In fact, the ultimate question Americans were asking themselves—“What do I stand for?”—was also being asked of corporations as consumers considered companies’ relevance in society.
Forming opinions about a company’s reputation based on its character and corporate citizenship is nothing new for Americans. It is a trend our Cone/Roper research has tracked over the past eight years, and one the national tragedy visibly accelerated and intensified. Americans have maintained high
Long before September 11, companies such as Avon, Timberland and Target recognized the power of comprehensive social commitments to build brand character and differentiate themselves from their competitors. In a marketplace saturated with parity products, employees seeking meaningful work, the Internet unveiling a transparent corporate America to curious consumers, and community residents resisting “big box” retailers, these pioneers forged deep alliances with social issues to build sincere, purposeful relationships with key stakeholders.
Businesses today face not only general marketplace issues, but also rising expectations of corporate citizenship by customers, employees and partners, a war on terrorism and an economic recession. By integrating their social commitments into business strategy, companies can address these challenges while enhancing their reputation, delivering stronger employee morale, increasing sales and strengthening relationships with a variety of stakeholders.
The Evolution of Cause Branding
Cause marketing has evolved from a short-term, promotional tactic used to spike sales, into a powerful positioning discipline used to enliven brand equity, enhance corporate image and achieve significant bottom-line and community impacts.
In 1993, the first Cone/Roper study captured Americans’ enthusiasm for this evolving trend and gave executives benchmark results and fresh ammunition to create a burst of cause programs. By 2000, cause marketing had become a widely accepted business practice. According to International Events Group, investment in cause programs by U.S. companies jumped more than 450 percent from $125 million in 1990 to $700 million in 2000.
During this time, innovative companies began to recognize the power of cause programs to create additional value beyond short-term sales increases. These companies realized it is no longer just about being loosely associated with a cause—it is now about integrating social commitments into an organization’s business strategy and brand identity.
Using complex relationships with nonprofit partners, and supported by substantial advertising and communications resources, today’s leading companies are implementing comprehensive campaigns that are having a genuine impact on business and social issues.
A Case Study: ConAgra Foods’ Feeding Children Better Program
Corporate social responsibility has always been a top priority at ConAgra Foods. North America’s second-largest food company, ConAgra is parent to more than 80 household brands, including Healthy Choice, Butterball and Peter Pan.
Though impressive, the company’s charitable giving was too widespread and scattered to resonate internally at ConAgra Foods or to have a substantial impact on any one of the social issues it supported. In 1998, ConAgra Foods decided to focus its philanthropic efforts on one single issue and to address several key business objectives:
- Demonstrate the company’s commitment to social responsibility as a core corporate value
- Become a rallying point for more than 80,000 employees and 11 business units by enhancing its corporate culture
- Provide opportunities for ConAgra Foods to deepen its relationships with key retail and foodservice customers
Launched in October 1999, ConAgra Foods’ Feeding Children Better program is the largest corporate initiative dedicated to ending childhood hunger in the U.S. The social mission of this program is to make both an immediate and a long-lasting impact on the 12 million American children affected by hunger each year. At the same time, the initiative adds a new dimension to ConAgra’s brand and humanity to its corporate mission.
While hunger appeared to be a natural issue for ConAgra to address, research was conducted to better understand the need surrounding hunger relief and to ensure the issue would advance the company’s business and social objectives. The research found that childhood hunger is a pressing concern in the U.S. and that ConAgra Foods could take a leadership position on this issue and truly make a difference at the national and local levels.
Integral to the development and success of the program are ConAgra’s partnerships with the nation’s leaders in fighting childhood hunger: America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization; the Center on Hunger and Poverty, the leading U.S. scholarly institution addressing hunger policy and programs; and the Ad Council, the nation’s leading producer of public service communications programs.
Through its Feeding Children Better program, ConAgra impacts childhood hunger directly by funding at least 100 new Kids Cafes by the end of 2002. (A program of America’s Second Harvest, Kids Cafes are kids-only, after school feeding programs that provide free and nutritious meals to children in safe and nurturing environments.)
ConAgra also helped to create a rapid food distribution system to revolutionize and simplify the way America’s Second Harvest procures and distributes food donations. By funding updated computer tracking and additional trucking, the program is increasing the speed at which food moves through the food bank network and is reclaiming millions of pounds of food that would otherwise go to waste.
Because childhood hunger is not recognized as a critical problem in the United States, ConAgra also partnered with the Ad Council to develop a multi-year public awareness campaign that will spark a national dialogue on childhood hunger. This campaign is expected to deliver an estimated $30 million in donated media per year, including television, radio, print and online advertising.
Through high-profile speaking engagements and national and local publicity, ConAgra Foods is quickly emerging as the leading voice for Corporate America on childhood hunger and is enhancing its reputation as a socially responsible company.
Feeding Children Better has helped strengthen internal relationships as well. Over the past two years, more than 109 ConAgra Foods plants and operating facilities and thousands of employees across the country have participated in Feeding Children Better initiatives.
Several of ConAgra Foods’ brands, including Butterball, County Line Cheese and Armour Hot Dogs, have joined their parent company in the fight against childhood hunger by creating their own promotions to support Feeding Children Better. These brands have raised additional dollars for hungry children, garnered publicity for their good works and positively impacted sales.
Best Practices for Cause Branding
For corporations to develop sustainable and impactful Cause Branding initiatives, they should keep in mind several critical best practices:
- Build on values and culture. The program should support your business and social objectives and be relevant to your corporate mission, brand values and key stakeholders. ConAgra Foods’ initiative works because the company’s business is food.
- Seek senior-level support. Secure the support of senior executives who are dedicated to making a sincere commitment and investing a variety of financial and human resources to support a comprehensive partnership. ConAgra Foods’ CEO is deeply committed to the company’s program, and his personal commitment and support have rallied employees throughout the entire company.
- Leverage internal resources. By engaging multiple departments—including philanthropy, marketing and human resources—ConAgra Foods has been able to make a more significant impact on effecting positive social change and strengthening business impacts.
- Forge strong, long-term partnerships. Clearly define expectations in a written contract, including program elements, deliverables, roles and responsibilities, timetables and budgets. Establish open, honest communications to nurture trust. Implement measurement tools and be mutually accountable. America’s Second Harvest believes that a key to the success of its partnership with ConAgra Foods was both parties’ agreement on specific goals and expectations from the outset. Following up with measurement criteria, reporting requirements and direct communications mechanisms has helped to assess the partners’ effectiveness in meeting these goals.
- Create branded relationships. Creating a brand and graphic identity for ConAgra Foods’ Feeding Children Better initiative has increased visibility of the program. The program logo has been leveraged on collateral in a variety of high-profile situations, including trucks for food transportation, national press conferences and food trade shows.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Utilize all available communications vehicles to increase awareness of your partnerships. The 2000 Cone/Roper Executive Study finds that well-communicated cause programs are more than 100 percent successful in enhancing a company’s reputation than programs that are poorly communicated.
What Do You Stand For?
As Cause Branding continues to evolve, so too will the public’s expectations about the role companies play in addressing societal needs. In the new reality, companies must implement meaningful, substantive programs around social issues to bring their values to life, articulate their “soul” and answer the question, “What do you stand for?”
Carol Cone is president of Boston-based Cone, Inc.