Social Capital: The Fuel That Keeps Cause Marketing Running

By: Sean Daken, CEO

Social Capital. What is it? The formal concept of social capital was first introduced by L.J. Hanifan, West Virginia’s State Supervisor for Rural Schools, in a scholarly paper he published in 1916.

He defined social capital as “the tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit.” He also concluded that the community as a whole benefits from the cooperation of all its parts.

It’s this belief in social capital that drives all the best cause marketing we see on a daily basis. The Harvard Business Review recently published an insightful article that explores how social capital works to connect companies with consumers who go on to become brand advocates – who promote the brand to others, bring in referrals and provide constructive feedback.

The author advises companies looking to forge stronger ties with customers through cause marketing campaigns to be mindful of keeping “social norms” and “market norms” separate, using this example from the Boston Marathon bombings:

Suppose one of the stranded runners in Boston had offered $50 to one of the local residents who gave him a ride, under the rationale that it’s about what a taxi would have cost. That would, of course, have been highly offensive: it would have introduced a market norm into a decidedly social situation.

I can’t imagine too many of us would take offense at having an attack survivor offer them $50 in exchange for some help. These people just experienced a horrific event and most of us wouldn’t expect them to be worrying much about social graces. Of course they get a free pass along with everyone’s best wishes.

However, I also can’t imagine too many of us would actually take the money. Most of us would have helped the stranded runner simply because it would have been the right thing to do: a social norm.

So using the above scenario as an example, a traumatized runner offering money isn’t offensive, but it would have been offensive for the other person to take it. Helping the runner would have been, as it should, its own reward – social capital.

To Work, Cause Marketing Must Be Genuine

I think this also speaks to the topic we covered in a recent Kula blog post, “Causeify” Your Marketing Campaigns and Stand Behind What Your Company Cares About.  The blog discussed the booming “causeification” of marketing and the pitfalls companies need to be aware of in order to support causes without alienating customers. That’s because increasingly cause-conscious and clued-in consumers can tell whether a cause is being supported or exploited.

And when exploitative cause marketing hits the headlines, the company takes a damaging PR hit, making the whole exercise moot, since not even the cause got to benefit.

But if a company is making a genuine contribution and not only communicates that but also takes the next natural step and enlists customers in its efforts – through participatory cause marketing on social media, for instance – everyone wins and builds up some social capital in the process.

Real Support for Causes Yields True Customer Engagement

Picture it: a popular restaurant chain:

  • Follows through on its pledge to donate 75% of profits from a special line of menu items to a nonprofit that trains promising at-risk high school juniors and seniors for careers in the culinary industry.
  • It uses Facebook, Twitter and a mobile app to share the individual success stories its donations have made possible.
  • It encourages customers to further support the cause.

In response, education-conscious patrons, who can easily access the campaign on their mobile devices, contribute their own resources while building awareness of both the company and the cause across their social networks.

That’s the power a well-thought out, genuine and inclusive cause marketing campaign can have. It organically draws customers’ brand and cause advocacy while giving them a chance to get involved with causes they care about.

This is what Kula does through its Cause-Related Loyalty Marketing™ platform: companies can use it to build stronger connections with their customers by allowing them to convert unused rewards into donations to causes they care about. Consumers can also give directly to their preferred nonprofits through at

Because when we build social capital we make our communities better.

What’s the most memorable cause marketing campaign you’ve ever seen? Have you ever participated in a cause marketing promotion? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.