As a woman scans the frozen yogurt selection at the grocery store, the pink ribbon on the Dannon brand cup might catch her eye. The mark is universally recognized as promoting breast cancer research, and if she supports the cause, she might choose the Dannon cup over the generic alternative.

It’s a strategy called “cause-related marketing,” and it’s a way to show support for a group while simultaneously encouraging others to become involved. The practice benefits the consumer, the charitable organization and, in many cases, the company behind the marketing.

By becoming a high-profile advocate of breast cancer prevention and research, Dannon can now boast that it has raised more than $1.6 million to help fight the disease. Its commitment has even earned it a coveted spot on the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s list of links to commercial partners.

Whether a business sells frozen yogurt or is in the business of supplying marketing services, it can align itself with a cause that consumers appreciate in order to have a mutually beneficial impact.

A Cone/Duke University study has shown that consumers often gravitate toward businesses that are active in social causes. In fact, cause-related messaging was shown to boost sales as much as 74 percent for some brands. Roughly 85 percent of survey respondents said they had a more positive view of products that were associated with a cause, and 79 percent said they would actually switch to a brand promoting a cause with which they agreed.

The Cone/Duke study also revealed which causes evoke the most positive responses from consumers, in this respective order:

  • Education
  • Economic development
  • Health and disease
  • Access to clean water
  • Environmental issues
  • Disaster relief
  • Hunger

What this means for SEO Marketing

Obviously, the implications of cause-related marketing vary by product or service. A company that provides online services, for example, does not have the tangible, hold-in-your-hand product like a yogurt company. Supporting a cause has to involve more than just placing a sticker or a logo on your site..

Because of this, contributions and support from an online or Internet-based company are often more discrete, but can have the same positive impact as the messaging on tangible goods and services. Supporting a cause or a goal can entice consumers to do business with the firm that commits to this type of social cause, and they might even refer business.

The key is to associate the firm, or the companies with which it works, with the charitable cause. To generate organic support, the firm must alert clients to the campaign via a visible online promotion or by word-of-mouth.

Some SEO companies go so far as to offer their services to nonprofit clients, despite an organization’s budgetary constraints. The firm can establish working relationships with likeminded thinkers or simply boost company morale by doing the right thing.

While nonprofits are often times restricted by their budgets, they are able to help the companies that support them through methods that are less direct. By showcasing their sponsors to their audience, they are informing their audience that “This company supports us and chose to help us reach our goals.” This is not a new tactic, and is the essence of all advertising. Companies support a project because they know that each cause has an audience, and by expanding their brand, they increase the likelihood of growing their sales and profits. And as with the Dannon example, Dannon gets the benefit of having a link back to their site from a well known, highly active, fiercely supported cause, whose members are active in Dannon’s potential market.  While Dannon likely is not supporting this cause in order to receive any kind of kickback, and while search engines don’t necessarily give “dot org” sites higher priority in link value, it certainly does not hurt Dannon to have a high-traffic, reputable charitable organization on its side.

The Balancing Act of Cause-Related Marketing

Consumers often are very dedicated to their causes, but they can also be more hotheaded than the typical consumer. This can generate unwanted attention as quickly as it can draw in converts. While it’s not always the case, some causes can become a political minefield, and companies should tread carefully.

Both online and off, companies would be wise to understand the interests of their targeted demographic groups before committing to a secondary cause. A seemingly innocent contribution to a charitable cause, group or political candidate can trigger unexpected backlash. As an example, Target officials found themselves at the center of a heated debate just last year, as the company became associated with controversial public figures in Wisconsin. Whether or not Target stores shared sentiments with these figures, the association was made and sealed by the company’s financial contributions.

As a rule, make sure your company is mindful of all of the issues surrounding a cause before committing. If you or your company donates to an organization that rescues cuddly koalas from forest fires, for example, you should first double-check to make sure those koalas aren’t strapped with flashlights and sent into the coal mines once they’ve been rescued from the flames. Consumers might not approve.

The purpose of this information is not to encourage a business to support a cause only to receive something in return.  A donation to a good cause remains its own benefit. But similar to tax write-offs affiliated with donations and contributions to 501c3 organizations, there oftentimes is a tangible benefit to supporting good causes. The benefits of aligning with a charitable cause generally outweigh the potential pitfalls. In terms of supporting your ongoing SEO efforts, it doesn’t get much more organic than this. And at the end of the day, companies find gratification in helping to support and promote a cause, and many consumers tend to reciprocate.

Chris Peterson is a copywriter for Straight North, a Chicago marketing firm that specializes in marketing strategy, Web development, search engine optimization, PPC management, social media and e-mail marketing. Follow Straight North on Twitter: @straightnorth and on Facebook.