Cause Marketing Goes Experiential: How Brands are Inspiring Social Action

experiential cause marketing

A fun exercise: Go to Google, type “millennials are killing” and look at the list of suggested searches. Applebee’s, paper napkins, beer, even the doorbell industry — millennials get a lot of blame thrown at them when their habits change the business landscape. What gets less attention in our clickbait-filled world are all the positive ways that millennial consumers are pushing brands to be better: to embrace corporate social responsibility and cause marketing.

Cause marketing is no mere fad. Brands that once shied away from taking strong stances on social issues are rethinking that approach when they look at the numbers. Nine out of 10 millennial consumers say they are likely to switch to a cause-branded product (compared to 85 percent overall). Over three-quarters of consumers report feeling a strong emotional connection to purpose-driven brands. Brands that take the safe road and refuse to take a stand might just find their customers — and employees — looking somewhere else.

From large installations and elaborate live stunts, to pop-ups and roadshows, the latest cause marketing trends are borrowing from the experiential marketing playbook. It makes sense: if you want to have real-world impact, why not bring your campaign out into the real world?

Here are five examples of recent activations where cause marketing and experiential marketing became one — and made a real impact:

The Wall from Ipanema

How do you get customers to know that your brand takes waste seriously? Corona decided to build a wall.

Recently, beachgoers heading to the famous Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro found themselves blocked by a dramatic wall of plastic waste. The morass of crushed plastic stood six-feet high and was 49-feet long. It was created from just three days of accumulated trash, and blocked the view of the sea from the sand. What could be seen, however, was a sign that proclaimed, “One day, the trash left on the beach will stop you from getting into it.”

The wall was an activation created by Corona with the nonprofit, Parley for the Oceans, in an effort to highlight the blight of plastics in our seas and the prediction that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050 unless we change how we deal with the waste. Think that one bottle doesn’t matter? Here’s 3-D proof that we should all think again.

Hope Stems from the Opioid Crisis

The last thing most people would expect to see at the annual Macy’s Flower Show is a giant human brain sitting in a greenhouse in Herald Square.

The brain was made entirely of flowers: 9,000 pink carnations and black opium poppies. The activation, created by the nonprofit Shatterproof with McCann Health and McCann New York, served as a poignant illustration of the effect of opioids on the brain, and a reminder of the people affected by the ongoing opioid epidemic in America.

Visitors were invited to pick a poppy, each with a message of hope attached to its stem. By removing the poppy, visitors were encouraged to think about removing the stigma of addiction — and as each black poppy was removed, a healthy pink brain was slowly revealed.

A Bloody Clever Idea

Was “Game of Thrones” too bloody? HBO was certainly aware of its hit show’s reputation, and it used it to great effect in a cleverly conceived experiential cause marketing campaign at SXSW. Their cause? Blood donations.

Partnering with the American Red Cross, HBO drew fans into their activation called “Bleed for the Throne” where they could join an elaborate live “Game of Thrones” scene with 80 actors and the Iron Throne from the show’s set.

“For something like ‘Game of Thrones,’ we don’t have an awareness issue. What we do have is a global blood shortage, and the idea is it’s really not about impressions as a performance indicator, it’s about lives saved,” Steven Cardwell, HBO’s director of program marketing told CNBC.

Every blood donor at the event got a limited edition t-shirt — splattered with fake blood to make it that much more special (and Instagrammable).

Sweet Justice

You know them for their product — ice cream — but Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of cause marketing and activism on social issues well outside the frozen dessert aisle. Recently, they’ve been dishing up some cold truth about the failings of the American justice system using experiential cause marketing with their Justice Remix’d campaign.

The over 400,000 annual visitors to their Waterbury, Vermont factory experience the Art for Justice installation, featuring artists with firsthand experience with incarceration, working through their art to help reform the prison system.

“We can turn the marketing apparatus that we would often use to get people to buy ice cream but to get them to understand and care about the action around the issue,” Jay Curley, Ben & Jerry’s global head of integrated marketing told The Drum.

Online, the brand created infographics and facts related to prison reform for their fans to share. The campaign took to the road as well, on “People Not Prisons” tours serving ice creams from trucks while spreading the word.

“When we can take the connection we have with our fans through all those different channels and get them to join these movements,” said Curley, “that’s where we think that we really can be more than an ice cream company.”

Are any of the causes above the right fit for your brand? Not necessarily, but expect to see more of this: Gen Z is picking up the ball and continuing this trend. They’ll be your customer soon — or they might be if they know what your brand stands for.

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