People want to feel good about what they buy. Increasingly, that means the products and services they choose come from companies that do some sort of social good.
Research from public relations firm Edelman proves it. Since 2008, the percentage of Internet users worldwide who say that a sense of social purpose is a "purchase trigger" has risen from 42 to 53. About 47 percent of those consumers say they buy from cause-supporting brands at least monthly, up from 32 percent in 2010.
That means brands don't need to just support causes, they have to let the public know about the work they do, and in a way that doesn't seem exploitative or like a publicity stunt. It's a tough balance to achieve, but communicators and public relations specialists offered some advice for how brands can walk the tightrope:
1. Social media.
Crystal Kendrick of marketing firm The Voice of Your Customer says her company simply announces what it's doing using Facebook.
"We make announcements about charitable donations, in-kind support of the local arts community, and giveaways," she says. "We want to share our community service but not make our efforts overshadow our company mission."
Just this month, the Ohio Poultry Association offered to donate an egg to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks for each new Facebook "like" and Pinterest follower it received. In about two weeks, the association had donated nearly 2,000 eggs. People are happy to hear about it, too.
"More than 500 people have 'liked' statuses about it, over 100 have shared statuses about it with friends and there have been dozens of retweets of posts about it," says Hana Bieliauskas of the public relations firm CMA, which represents the association.
Another way brands can show their commitment to a cause is by letting an authority say it for them.
"Businesses that earn our certification receive a web site seal that customers can click on to view, in real time, the business's green profile," says Ashok Kamal of the Green Business Bureau. "We also create press releases and help our members share their stories to media," he says.
3. Getting customers involved.
Larry Vincent, head of The Brand Studio at United Talent Agency, says enlisting the customer in the effort is a way to get the message out there without any chest pounding.
"The most successful cause campaigns position the corporate brand as a citizen who's lined up with other citizens," he says. "Think of how Dove positioned itself with the campaign for real beauty. Dove didn't talk about its deeds. It served as a bully pulpit for redefining what beauty really is."
Daniel Horning of HireaHelper works with the International Justice Mission to end global slavery, donating 1 percent of gross revenues to help. He devised a way to get the message about that out similar to the Ohio Poultry Association's push.
"We approached it from an invitational standpoint, asking followers, friends and past customers to join us in supporting IJM," he says. "We offered to give one dollar to IJM for each new Facebook 'like' that happened within a specific time period. The response was great, and we didn't, I hope, sound
too self-promotional. Instead we thanked the new Facebook fans for what they had done."
4. An unobtrusive widget.
Steve Deckert, marketing and public relations manager for consumer loyalty firm Sweet Tooth, says a simple widget in the shape of a leaf in the bottom corner of his website's homepage is all his company does to tout its charitable contributions.
People only see this when they take action to click," he says. "The customer can then choose to share our charitable actions on Twitter in exchange for an additional donation to the charity."
Jayme Lamm, a PR and marketing manager for IT consulting company Insource Technology, says her firm opted to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project this year instead of sending gifts to clients.
"We are working on a press release with this info, and inside our Christmas cards we included a little note to let our clients know what we did," she says. "For those clients that have received our card with our idea, we have received rave reviews and personal stories about why WWP is a something they are so happy we chose."
6. Conferences and events.
Each year the Office of Resource Stewardship in Leon County, Fla., hosts a Green Summit Sustainability Conference. It's an opportunity for 71 Proof, a bar catering firm that is committed to recycling, to show off what it does.
"It is a great event that gives us an opportunity to let others who are committed to this type of campaign become aware of our work," says LaTanya White founder of Concept Creative Group, which represents 71 Proof.
7. Let the organizations you help spread the word.
Anna DiTommaso of Creative80 Design Studios says her firm does work for nonprofit organizations and other causes at greatly reduced rates and never mentions it.
"However, more often than not, the nonprofit or cause will shout our good doing from the rooftops," she says. "It is never asked for or expected, but it often happens, and often leads to more work. It's a huge win for everyone."