This little gem was published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing back in the Spring of 2002. It’s the kind of article that I love finding because it seems almost like cheating – like the other team just handed you their playbook. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a chunk of the corporate marketing and advertising budget instead of the much smaller and more competitive charitable giving budget?

TL;DR: Corporate societal marketing (CSM) encompasses activities that use company resources to achieve some charitable objective. Successful CSM programs can build brand equity, and the article describes how. Finally, the authors go into some specifics, including ways to determine which cause a company should support.

Why should nonprofits care? Understanding how a corporation truly benefits from a relationship with a nonprofit allows a nonprofit to craft proposals and partnerships that can help keep the corporate money flowing.

Brand, Brand-building, Brand equity

In marketing-speak, brand refers to everything a consumer knows about a product/service/company, and how that knowledge affects that consumer’s behavior.

For example, when you think of McDonald’s, there are thousands of advertisements, news stories, personal experiences, childhood memories and other bits of information that you use to decide whether or not to stop there for lunch. That’s the McDonald’s brand specific to you, but which is also probably similar to other people like you. For marketers, building a brand means adding to a consumer’s knowledge about that product/service/company, in order to change that consumer’s behavior in some way. The sum of everyone’s feelings about a brand is called brand equity.

Corporate Societal Marketing

Much of the corporate funding going to charities falls under the umbrella of corporate societal marketing. In other words, that local bank gave you a $5,000 grant not because it is committed to your mission, but because the bank expects a positive impact on its brand by associating with you.

So does that mean that your mission isn’t important? Of course not. Your mission is your brand, which is why the bank is associating with you in the first place. It just means that the bank is more likely to fund you in the future if they get more than $5,000 worth of brand equity out of that gift.

How Does CSM Build Brand Equity?

Hoeffler and Keller list six ways, but let’s flip the telescope around and look at them from  the nonprofit’s perspective.

  1. A new local company wants to be the major sponsor of your annual gala. Since they’re new, they may be looking for increased brand awareness.
  2. A luxury car dealership gives your opera company a grant. They may be trying to reinforce the perception that owners of these particular cars are cultured, or that the brand itself is cultured. The authors call this “enhancing brand image.”
  3. Similarly, “establishing brand credibility” works by creating specific connections between a nonprofit and a brand. For example, a pharmaceutical company could support a medical research charity with the expectation that the legitimacy of the medical research would rub off on the brand.
  4. Think back several years to the profusion of Nike’s yellow Livestrong bracelets. People gain self-respect when they feel like they have contributed to charitable successes. Providing an outward sign of that contribution (on a product sold by Nike) “evokes brand feelings.”
  5. Starbucks wants its employees to volunteer at your animal shelter for the afternoon. In this case the employees themselves are the targets of the CSM, as it’s “creating a sense of brand community.”
  6. Yoplait and Susan G. Komen are working together at SaveLidsToSaveLives.com to encourage consumers to share their commitments to the cause of breast cancer. These consumers are interacting with the brand by doing something other than buying yogurt. The authors call this, “eliciting brand engagement.”

Together, all of these methods of building brand equity boil down to just one: Marketers are hoping that some of the qualities of your brand will rub off onto their brand.

What makes a good fit?

The authors point out two possibilities: qualities of your brands may either reinforce each other or offset each other. The luxury car/opera example above would be reinforcing the cultured dimension. A common example of offsetting qualities (called “complimentary” in the article) would be oil companies supporting environmental causes. There’s quite a bit of research about the effectiveness of complimentary strategies, and we’ll try to tackle those papers at a later date.

The nonprofit perspective

At the end of the article the authors suggest areas for future research, including “Understanding the Return on Investment for CSM Programs,” which sounds particularly interesting. They recommend formal brand valuations as one possibility, but that’s a little bit out of the price range for most nonprofits.

There is one thing that nonprofits can do to help marketers understand the potential benefits of CSM programs. The only way that CSM can affect consumer brand perceptions is if the program is adequately publicized. If the bank gives you $5,000 and all they receive in exchange is a heartfelt thank you note, it’s unlikely to be effective CSM. Recognizing that at the outset and preparing accordingly might just get you another check next year.

Read it yourself: Hoeffler, S., & Keller, K. (2002). Building Brand Equity Through Corporate Societal Marketing. Journal Of Public Policy & Marketing21(1), 78-89.