What does your company stand for?

If it's largely to make more money than God and pay executives outrageous salaries and perks, don't count on customers, prospects and employees to believe in you.

Who wants to support a company whose values are out of whack with the rest of society? Companies driven solely by quarterly sales figures and stock price increases demonstrate they're in business largely for themselves and little else.

But companies with a cause--how they're making the world a better place--often create emotional connections with customers. Those customers in turn tend to become its advocates and biggest supporters--its evangelists.

A cause is not always the same as a mission/vision statement. A cause is simple yet meaningful. It is something to believe in and rally around, because a well-defined cause usually:

  1. Defines a company's vision
  2. Makes people better
  3. Generates big effects
  4. Catalyzes selfless actions
  5. Polarizes people

A cause is a grand plan to change the world. It's a piece of someone's soul. It gets people talking at a deeper level, using emotional constructs.

Richard Cross and Janet Smith outline how "identity bonds" are formed between customer and company.

In Customer Bonding: 5 Steps to Lasting Customer Loyalty they write, "Identity bonds are formed when customers admire and identify with values, attitudes, or lifestyle preferences that they associate with your brand or product. Customers form an emotional attachment based on their perception of those shared values."

Emotional attachment is at the heart of creating customer evangelists, that volunteer force of customers and prospects who spread the word and convince friends, family and colleagues you're your products and services are the best. There are two simple ways to build emotional attachment underneath the umbrella of a cause:

  1. Adopt a charitable cause.
  2. Sell dreams instead of products.

Let's look at the differences between these two concepts.

Adopt a Charitable Cause

American Express is credited with coining the term "cause-related marketing." Business in the Community, a London-based organization focused on corporate social responsibility, defines the term as "a commercial activity by which businesses and charities form a partnership with each other to market an image, product or service for mutual benefit."

Now more than a short-term tactic to spike sales, cause-related marketing has evolved into a positioning discipline to enhance corporate image with significant bottom-line and community aspects, says Carol Cone, CEO of Cone Communications, a strategic marketing firm that develops and implements cause programs.

Her research in the Cone/Roper Cause Related Trends Report has found that American consumers consistently support cause-related programs. The 1999 report found that given a buying choice between two products of equivalent price and quality:

  • 78% of adults said they'd be more likely to buy a product associated with a cause they care about
  • 66% said they'd switch brands to support a cause
  • 61% said they'd switch retailers to support a cause
  • 54% would pay more for a product that supported a cause they care about.

The Cone/Roper survey found that 80 percent of Americans prefer companies that commit to a specific cause for a long time period rather than those who opt for multiple, short-period causes. Cone calls the former companies "cause branders," companies that take a long-term, stake-holder-based approach to integrating social issues into business strategy, brand equity, and organizational identity.

Companies that support causes for the long haul win the hearts of customers. Companies synonymous with their causes include:

  • Avon: supporting breast cancer research and treatment
  • Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream: environmental and social issues
  • The Body Shop: environmentalism, human rights and no testing of products on animals

Sell Dreams Instead of Products

In a world of so much marketing smog, how does your company stand out?

Sell something bigger than the product itself. Sell a dream. Attract customers by demonstrating that you are in the game for more than meeting your quarterly sales numbers. Evangelize how you are helping customers live better lives.

This does not mean slap a dreamy slogan on a product and announce that it will change your customer's life forever. Plenty of late-night TV infomercials already sell crap too good to be true. Prospects are skeptical of contrived play-acting marketing.

A cause is not something the marketing department dreams up. A cause embodies the principles and values of an organization's leaders and employees. From the receptionist to the CEO, employees demonstrate their belief in the cause with their actions every day. The marketing department communicates the cause's message on the web, in brochures, in the PR, and the advertising. Company strategies are devised around the cause.

A Few Examples of Companies and How They Sell Dreams Instead of Products:

  • Southwest Airlines: It sells a commodity product--airline seats--but ask an employee the company's cause and she'll tell you it's "freedom." Freedom to be an individual, freedom from complicated, expensive and sneaky fares of competing airlines, freedom from the years of legal maneuvering that nearly prevented the company from starting decades ago in Texas.
  • Starbucks: Its product is coffee, but each Starbucks location is really a meeting point for neighborhoods and communities. Starbucks' cause is strengthening the threads of community.
  • Apple: It was the first company to define a personal computer as part of a larger cause. The famous "1984" commercial introducing the Macintosh set new standards in advertising and defining its precedent-setting technology as the antidote to tyranny (in this case, the "Big Brother" of standards-bearer IBM). While Apple may not have made some of the best decisions for making its operating system the dominant force, one of the primary reasons it's still in business 25 years later is an evangelistic customer base.

How Can You Create and Demonstrate Your Organization's Cause? Consider This:

  1. What's your company's cause? More importantly, how do customers say you're changing the world?
  2. Define societal issues that affect your customers and prospects. Build plans to demonstrably and systematically support those issues.
  3. Sell a dream instead of just selling products. Discover how your company's products and services improve lives and changes the world, no matter how small the "world."

When it comes to a cause, challenge yourself and your organization to think big.

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the co-authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force (Dearborn Trade, available in December 2002. They can be reached through www.CreatingCustomerEvangelists.com.