Faculty and Undergraduates Study ‘Cause Marketing’ in an Age of Polarization

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“Patagonia'' was the answer Markets & Management Studies students Katie Kim and Deepthi Chandra both gave when asked for examples of businesses that they believe are successful at cause marketing — a strategy that combines traditional business motives for profits with social good.

It is no mistake that they both answered similarly; the list of businesses who are consistently and universally acknowledged for doing this type of marketing well is slim but growing. Together with Professor Martha Reeves, they wanted to know why. 

In late 2020, with the backdrop of growing divisions over social issues, Reeves began asking how these issues were handled by marketers. Do they risk alienating customers if they decide to take a stand, and if they do, how do they do so effectively? What makes some businesses successful at incorporating causes while others fail?

She invited two undergraduates, Kim and Chandra, to work with her through independent studies, interviewing dozens of marketing and advertising professionals to glean insights on the role of cause marketing. That research has resulted in a recent paper published for the Advertising & Society Quarterly, “Cause Marketing in a Time of Polarization.”

Katie Kim and Deepthi Chandra
Katie Kim (left) and Deepthi Chandra (right)

Often associated with corporate social responsibility, cause marketing provides a way for businesses to demonstrate care and concern for society.

This kind of approach has become almost ubiquitous in recent years, something noted by Chandra, a Public Policy and MMS certificate student, throughout her conversations with marketers in a wide array of industries.

“In the past, brands were not expected to address issues and it would almost be weird if they were playing into these things, and now it is the norm,” she said.

Kim, an Economics major and MMS certificate student, shared that the process of interviewing so many marketers helped her better understand the role of cause marketing.

“Advertising and marketing campaigns reach such a wide range of people. And they really do have the power to make positive change, if done correctly,” Kim said. “I was kind of struck by how many people answered with the most important thing being authenticity when it comes to a brand and their marketing strategy.”

This authenticity factor when adding cause-related marketing was a significant finding in the research. The team found that staying authentic to brand identity — even when addressing social causes — was an important way that businesses communicated their dedication to the cause.

“Even if companies want to shy away from controversial subjects, their customers and employees often want them to take a stand,” said Reeves, director of Markets & Management Studies. “Companies have to be very careful to be consistent in their views. If they say one thing and turn around and do something contrary to their stated view, they will be called out. Social media is a powerful force and news travels fast.”

Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves, Director of Markets & Management Studies

An increasingly important topic for businesses to address, students also care deeply about these topics – both from an academic and personal perspective.

Kim shared that her experience as a Korean American shapes how she interacts with cause-based marketing.

“Seeing how different marketing professionals are addressing different racial issues was something that was pretty important. Growing up with a lack of Asian representation to now, there's been quite a dramatic shift. So it is important to keep up that momentum and make sure all of these companies are doing whatever they can to promote diversity and inclusion” Kim said.

“Today’s students are often critical of what an unregulated, free market has brought on,” said Reeves. “They see climate change, overconsumption, diversity of the workforce, transgender rights, racial justice and many other issues as things that companies need to pay attention to and, more importantly, do something about.”

For Chandra, she welcomed the unique opportunity as a first-year student to work directly with a faculty member like Reeves on an independent study, learning the ins and outs of qualitative research before ever setting foot on campus.

“I think your first year of college is a really good time to sort of try to figure out what you're interested in and try those things that you may not have time for later on,” Chandra said.

“When we started it wasn't clear we were going to write a paper about authenticity and cause marketing; it was more like we're interested in doing research about cause marketing and we'll see what the big focus areas are. Sometimes when you talk to people and keep an open mind, you can find some really cool insights.”

Both students found the project helpful as they navigate what it means to work in marketing in the 21st century.

“We're choosing our first companies and our first jobs and trying to decide where to work. Workplace culture and values matter in terms of showing what the company cares about. I think those kinds of things are really important because the way that a company communicates externally is going to be similar to how it treats employees inside the firm,” Chandra said.

Kim hopes that other students will find as much value from this research as she did, helping her to appreciate the role of marketing and advertising even more.

“I think, for me, one issue that I always had with marketing was I didn't want it to be seen as a superficial thing where you're just helping companies gain more profit at the expense of anything else,” Kim said.

“And I think that could potentially deter a lot of other students from marketing as well. Just by knowing that companies really do take this seriously and that there are companies that have really strong core values and have strong missions, I think we potentially open this career path up to more students.”