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MKTG Insights: Brand Bravery In Cause Sponsorship

MKTG Insights: Brand Bravery In Cause Sponsorship

It is a lesson taught to us as young children on the playground. It is a lesson that is reinforced to us as we learn about the great leaders throughout history who took bold but unpopular stances. And it is a lesson that is applied by some of the leading brands in our society as they develop and execute cause sponsorship programming.

In today’s cause sponsorship landscape, there is a consolidation of activity centered around large buckets of issues: youth, environment, and community causes, among others. These issues are all noble, they matter to Canadians and they are all worthy of investment in their own right. They are also safe – they have mainstream awareness and in many respects come with a consumer expectation for corporate support.

However, when it comes to CSR activity that brings attention to under-served or “taboo” causes that have lower levels of awareness, or bring with it greater levels of uncertainty, brand bravery is often required. It takes conviction from corporate sponsors to tackle an issue that can be sensitive or misunderstood. But for those bold enough to drive consumer attitudes versus react to them, there can be great opportunity. In Canada, Bell and their investment in mental health has provided a case study based on this insight:

Bell Let’s Talk: Canadian Telecom brand Bell launched their best-in-class cause program “Bell Let’s Talk” in 2010, which seeks to remove the stigma associated with mental health in Canada. Prior to Bell’s program, no national brand had built a major pillar surrounding mental health despite the fact that mood and anxiety disorders impacted an estimated 22% of the Canadian population. The brand’s emphasis on mental health represented uncharted territory but has brought significant awareness and funding to mental health organizations in Canada. While mental health is not a “controversial” issue, it is a highly nuanced and sensitive issue that wasn’t an easy subject to discuss. Historically, it was an under-served cause in terms of corporate support, often taking a backseat to other health related causes or illnesses that are physical and therefore more tangibly understood.

Consumer Attitudes: “The Brand is a Leader”

MKTG conducted proprietary market research leveraging Google Consumer Surveys in order to further understand attitudes toward brands that intervene on under-served / taboo issues. Consumers were asked:

How would you describe brands who create marketing campaigns that focus on taboo or under-served issues in our society (ie: Bell Let’s Talk and Mental Health)?

While there is no breakthrough consensus on perceived brand attributes, the leading response among Canadians was that they view brands who build marketing programs based on taboo or under-served issues as leaders. The notion of brands becoming a driving force behind taking an issue from taboo to mainstream, rather than waiting for public opinion to signal a state of readiness is a behavior highly associated with leadership.

Real Canadians living in real Canadian communities face real issues – brands who insert themselves into the conversation can appear real too, relatable and human. Being perceived as a leader by consumers is a much desired brand attribute. We trust leaders. And trust between a brand and a consumer is among the most powerful dynamics you can have.

Not all consumers will bring the same level of appreciation for brand intervention on a taboo or under-served issues. Research indicated that  21% of Canadians perceive this type of activity to be self-serving. There will always be some degree of cynicism regarding CSR activity. Sponsors invested in cause can hedge against this risk by ensuring that their presence is:

- Authentic: Strategically aligned to the category, business, and brand. No organization or cause is created equal. Bell activated against the idea of breaking stigma though “communication”, which is core to a telecom’s positioning.

- Calculated: Acting boldly / bravely does not mean acting in the absence of research. Sponsors must always due their due diligence.

-Actionable: Follows-up on PR and paid advertising storytelling with meaningful impact (financial or otherwise) for the cause.

Finding the Next Taboo / Underserved Causes For Canadian Sponsors:

Who will be the next Bell? What will be the next Mental Health or #LetsTalk? It is a question debated by the modern-day sponsorship marketer. There are no shortage of worthy causes for brands to support and amplify. In sponsorship, brands are often reactive on when they choose to join a debate. Many times it is in response to a property-level scandal due to public pressure, such as the stance taken by NFL sponsors in the wake of last September’s Domestic Violence scandal. However, building out a proactive program represents its own set of challenges, specifically when dealing with sensitive subject matter.

MKTG asked Canadians to indicate their feelings on the idea of a brand building a cause marketing campaign around their support for a number of “taboo” societal issues, with list including:

– Domestic violence

– Racism

– Sexual Health

– Drug & Alcohol Abuse

– Gun Control

Half of Canadians felt that all of these issues should be off-limits to corporate sponsors, with the leading vote-getting cause receiving a quarter of the sample size’s support (Domestic Violence at 25%). Controversy for the sake of controversy is not good sponsorship strategy. While an issue may represent a white space opportunity for a sponsor and be ownable territory, it doesn’t mean it is worth pursuing.

Just like we learned through playground lessons, and historical figures in our textbooks, cause marketing is many times not just about the bravery to pursue a cause, but the discipline to not pursue it at all.

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