Cause-related marketing certainly existed before Carol Cone came along, but it was—for the most part—a less strategic, less structured discipline. For far too many companies, the selection of causes was almost random (often, the chief beneficiary was the favorite charity of the chairman’s wife) and the implementation was superficial (a quick donation before the issue was forgotten).
Cone’s interest in corporate philanthropy began when she was a student at Brandeis University during the turbulent Vietnam era, and over a 25-year career, Cone developed a methodology to help companies select strategically-appropriate causes and deliver campaigns that went beyond marketing gimmickry to combine brand-building, corporate philanthropy and employee volunteerism and ultimately ensure that what she called cause-branding campaigns were reflective of and became integral to corporate values and culture.
She worked to create signature programs for a host of Fortune 500 companies, including the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, ConAgra Foods’ Feeding Children Better, PNC Grow Up Great, the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women program, Reebok’s Human Rights Awards, Rockport’s Fitness Walking, and the Gillette Prostate Cancer Challenge, among others. Overall, Cone’s signature cause programs have raised more than $1.2 billion for various social causes.
To ensure that cause branding was recognized as a strategic discipline, she commissioned the Cone research series, ultimately providing a decade of longitudinal studies on consumer and executive attitudes towards cause-related marketing. The studies, which overwhelmingly confirm that Americans solidly support cause-related activities and that companies see benefits to their reputation, image and bottom line, are widely quoted in the marketing and business literature and have come to serve as a benchmark for he industry.
Along the way, Cone also built one of the most successful midsize public relations agencies in the country, with her eponymous firm serving a distinguished roster of clients—the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Avon, Ben & Jerry’s, Disney, Gillette, Nestle, Reebok, Rockport, Timberland and more—from its base in Boston.
Cone is a frequent speaker on the topic of cause branding for the Conference Board, The Public Relations Society of America and The Cause Marketing Forum, and has been interviewed on the subject by numerous national media including USA TODAY, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, BusinessWeek and the Harvard Business Review. She has been named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics by Ethisphere Magazine.
Her firm was a founding member of Business for Social Responsibility, a national organization of businesses with two bottom lines, profit and social responsibility. And following the sale of Cone to Omincom, she personally funded a Habitat for Humanity home to honor and recognize the firm’s employees, who built the house in summer 2000. She is also a board member of Net Impact, a global organization of students and professionals using business to improve the world, and serves on the Business Advisory Council of Simmons School of Management.
At the end of March, Cone stepped down as chairman of the firm she founded, explaining: “Last fall I followed the Dalai Lama at a conference about the power of community. My focus was on compassion in business. Something happened there. His Holiness’ aura. His message. Following his speech I met with him. When he held my hand, looked into my eyes and smiled, I realized I had more to do. Leaving Cone, although bittersweet, will give me the flexibility to pursue new ventures related to social issues, especially in content development and global public-private partnerships.”
She is now focusing on a variety of projects, including the completion of her first book, Breakthrough Nonprofit Brands, along with co-authors, Jocelyne Daw, Kristian Darigan Merenda and Anne Erhard.