These days, as consumers, we expect the businesses we frequent to be concerned with more than just their bottom lines. Sure, we still demand top quality products and services, but merely satisfying our demand for materials, things, and know-how just doesn’t cut it anymore. Businesses need to stand for something, preferably something bigger than just their bottom lines. We expect the businesses we patronize to support causes near and dear to our hearts.

That’s where cause marketing (or cause-related marketing) comes in, and it can be an important part of your marketing tool kit whether you operate a big business or a small one.

Cause marketing differs from philanthropy, which is essentially giving money or time to an organization and expecting nothing in return (other than maybe a tax write-off). While the general idea with cause marketing remains to “do good” for unselfish reasons, its real power comes from how everyone involved truly benefits:

  • Cause marketing is a win for the group, charity, or non-profit involved because it gets an influx of much needed money, materials, manpower, and community awareness.
  • It’s a win for those who benefit from the organization/charity’s good work, such as gaining better access to necessary products, services, supplies, shelter, capital, or expertise.
  • It’s a win for participating businesses that extends far beyond their simply “feeling good” about what they’re doing. Cause-related marketing that’s linked to a company’s overall marketing efforts helps them benefit through increased awareness, stronger community ties, improved staff and team cohesion, higher employee morale, and greater brand loyalty.

Cause marketing also help businesses win new customers and attract new employees. Studies show that the vast majority of consumers will switch brands, all other things being equal, if the brand they are considering switching to supports a cause more aligned with their values. Similarly, socially responsible companies tend to be the destination of choice for prospective employees.

One of the most recent and successful examples of cause-related marketing is the “Movember Foundation,” which involves men being sponsored to grow their mustaches for 30 days during November. Designed to raise awareness of prostate cancer and other male cancers, a whole “culture” has sprouted up around the annual “Movember” event, with participants affectionately known as “Mo-Bros” and their female supporters “Mo-Sistas.” It’s great fun and great name recognition for businesses and individuals involved, plus it generates lots of donations and awareness—case in point: in 2011 alone, some 850,000 Movember participants raised in excess of $125 million dollars worldwide!

Of course, cause marketing does not need to have global reach to be effective or worthwhile. Look to your own backyard. Chances are you’ll find plenty of local groups and organizations ripe for a partner willing to help them raise awareness and donations. Just think of all your community nonprofits, from youth services, church groups, health care organizations, and other charities. Chances are any and all are hungry for attention from the local business community, whether it’s in the form of monetary contributions, donations of materials, or simply having additional “warm bodies” to help out during especially high times of demand for their services (such as over the holidays or in winter months).

Many successful cause-marketing efforts take advantage of the reach of the Internet, notably efforts like Movember and online sales/auctions where sellers donate percentages of their proceeds to certain charities and organizations. Add the power of social media—from Facebook and Twitter, to LinkedIn and a host of others—and spreading the word about a particular cause has gotten easier and a whole lot more effective in recent years.

Of course, choosing the right cause for your business and your marketplace can be a challenge. Start by asking yourself if a particular cause aligns with your values. Now ask if the cause aligns with the values of your clients/customers and how they have come to view your company (and don’t forget to consider your employees). Choose your cause unwisely and you may do your business more harm than good.

Here are some examples of effective “community-based” cause-marketing approaches that can be scaled big or small:

  • Organize ways community members can donate to charities at the supermarket checkout (such as for schools and youth programs).
  • Donate proceeds from the sales of your products to designated charities.
  • Join others in helping to increase public awareness for heart disease, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, and other causes by donating time, staff, money, and resources.
  • Engage in local partnerships and volunteerism with charitable groups and organizations.
  • Sponsor a local team, league, or event and encourage your staff to participate.

Do you know what causes are important to your clients and prospects? How might you support these causes, either through donations of money, your time, or both?

Share your ideas (and your results) here.