How to make cause marketing believable

Cause Marketing for restaurants

We’ve been talking about cause branding and cause marketing around the office more than usual as we gear up to do some work for a few great food and beverage brands with true philanthropic causes at their epicenter. These conversations have brought to light many questions of what makes cause marketing actually connect with people. There are so many factors contributing to the effectiveness of a brand that adopts or owns a cause. But two questions are especially salient for brands wishing to pursue cause marketing in 2018 and beyond:

1. What constitutes authenticity in cause marketing?

While authentic cause marketing is a powerful way to win loyalty (especially from millennials), any effort which strikes the audience as inauthentic can massively backfire. How can a brand anticipate these reactions and form a marketing approach that’s true to who they are?

2. What are we primarily selling, the product or the cause?

There is a challenge of deciding what to talk about first: the product, or the cause. Strong arguments and case studies exist to support both approaches. So how can a given brand know which approach makes the most sense for them?

We’ve framed up both of these questions by creating map of the relationship between authenticity and communication hierarchy for cause-related brands.

Defining the Cause Marketing Map

Let’s get an understanding of the axes found in the map.

Authentic Cause

Brands that are oriented high on the map have an authentic cause, which is one that runs through every layer of the brand and the company itself. You could say that an authentic cause is part of the DNA of the organization, its reason to exist, and the driving passion of its leadership. An authentic cause influences the organization’s real world actions, business model and, of course, brand marketing.

Superficial Cause

A superficial cause is one for which the brand has limited history, evidence, or credibility. It pops up in the brand’s marketing, but doesn’t go deeper than that. Superficial causes tend to follow trends rather than set them, change often, and have little to do with the product, company, or business model.

Cause-First Message

A cause-related brand with a cause-first message uses the cause as the tip of the spear in communications. The cause is the “big idea” that drives marketing efforts, and it’s the primary thing that the brand wants to be known for.

Product-First Message

A cause-related brand with a product-first message approaches its audience with a conversation about a product (or service), then tells the story of the cause. In this way, the cause becomes more an feature of the product than the product itself.

Brand Archetypes in Cause Marketing

Now that we understand the cause marketing space, we have a tool for meaningful conversation about where a given brand fits at a given time. We’ve kicked things off by defining some cause marketing archetypes.

Quiet Giver

This brand archetype has an authentic cause but product-first message. This is the company that has an internal mission of accomplishing a social good, but does so through selling a product that is competitive in and of itself. Such a brand has the philosophy that a cause shouldn’t be the reason that the consumer buys a product, but is more of a prerequisite of corporate social responsibility.

Flag Waver

This archetype has an authentic cause and a cause-first message. The company’s internal mission is transparent through communications, which actually sell the cause, rather than the product. Such a brand has the philosophy that spreading advocacy for the cause is the path to growth, and the product is merely a better mechanism of donation than cash.

Super Solver

This archetype has an authentic cause and an even balance in messaging. The brand’s product and cause are closely connected that consumers cannot make sense of one without the other. This approach only works if this close integration is easy for consumers to understand. Otherwise, it can lead to a muddled message.

Box Ticker 

This archetype has a superficial cause and product-first communication. Yet, they still want to somehow leverage cause marketing, so they make half-hearted attempts to associate with some cause that they clearly care nothing about. This is the brand that “saves trees” by using email while pursuing business as usual.


This archetype has a superficial cause but goes to great lengths to present itself as having an authentic cause. This is the fortune 500 company that suddenly becomes an LGBTQ advocate on Superbowl Sunday, or the beauty company that runs an ad with a plus size model then runs a PR effort to celebrate their own brave ad. This is where backfiring can and does happen. It’s important to note that people in a causewashing organization may genuinely care about the cause they are suddenly advocating for, or they may not. Ultimately, the question is fruitless because perception is reality in branding and marketing.


This archetype has a cause that the brand leaders genuinely care about, but which hasn’t been integrated into the company culture, business model, or brand in a meaningful way yet. It’s the brand that “wants to do more” but which wasn’t created for that reason. So they associate with a nonprofit, or run a donation campaign, or try to stand for something in their messaging, but it never seems to land in a meaningful way. We at Vigor suspect that the majority of brands fit into this archetype.

Wherever your restaurant, food, beverage, or hospitality brand might fit on this map, there is a path forward. They key is moving toward authenticity and picking a branding and marketing strategy that is appropriate for your passions and competencies. Such a task isn’t simple, and there’s no perfect roadmap to get there, but we hope that you now have a better idea of your position and path than you did before reading this article. And of course, we’re always here to help.

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