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A client recently asked for my input on a Cause Marketing (or “Corporate Social Responsibility”) initiative they were considering. As some readers might be considering similar projects, I’ll share my thoughts here.

There are several recent studies on this subject, but the one I find most compelling was conducted by K.L. Becker-Olsen and B.A. Cudmore*.

According to this study, three factors influence whether a cause marketing campaign will succeed or backfire: Fit, Motivation and Timing.

1. Fit

Customers must believe the campaign/cause is a good fit with the company that’s sponsoring it. For instance, these campaigns might be a good fit:

  • A coffee company promoting fair trade with coffee growers
  • A soap company sponsoring the clean-up of an oil spill
  • An ice cream company sponsoring an event for children

On the other hand, these campaigns would be a bad fit and would likely backfire:

  • A tobacco company sponsoring a heath or fitness-related event
  • BP sponsoring a fishing contest

If the fit is bad, customers will react negatively even if the next two factors are met.

2. Motivation

Customers must believe the campaign is motivated by good intentions (i.e. that the sponsor is not just trying to boost their public image or make money).

If customers think that the sponsor’s motivations are selfish, they’ll react negatively toward the campaign, even if it’s a “good fit”.

3. Timing

Customers look to the timing (proactive versus reactive) of the campaign as an informational cue.

Only high-fit, proactive initiatives are effective. If customers think you’re just responding to negative PR, they’ll react negatively.


* Becker-Olsen, K.L., Cudmore, B.A., Hill, R.P., 2006. The impact of perceived
corporate social responsibility on consumer behavior. Journal of Business Research
59 (1), 46-53.