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Cause marketing used to be easy. You just need to find a charity partner and hand in a check for a photo op, and then the rest would work itself out.

But in a world where people are empowered by more information at their fingertips, customers want more, and what they want varies widely by who they are, their lifestage and worldview. And as more companies embrace worthy causes, marketers need to be more creative and innovative in their approach, making sure to tailor their message to the specific audience they are hoping to impact.

Here are four ways companies are approaching cause marketing today:

1. Taking an unusual approach

For cause marketing to work on the brand level, it needs to be unique, authentic, talkable and iconic. That's the magic of Toms -- the "One for One" program (in which Toms gives away a pair of shoes for every pair purchased) is unique to Toms, it's a great story consumers can talk about, and the shoes are distinctive and desirable. That's also why Patagonia's "Common Threads" initiative (where Patagonia takes back worn clothes to recycle) is so powerful. No one has done anything like that before, it's true to the brand's core values, and consumers find it more credible. Supporting causes that are widespread and generic (breast cancer awareness, Fair Trade, etc.) may win the battle temporarily at the point of purchase—but won't win long-term brand love in people's hearts and minds. - Adam Kleinberg in AdAge

 TWEET THIS: For cause marketing to work on the brand level, it needs to be unique, authentic & iconic.

2. Localizing (or regionalizing) efforts

Coca-Cola Zero ParkLives will see the no-sugar brand launch a series of free organised activities - such as table tennis, tai chi, badminton, pilates, canoeing, rounders, hula-hooping, "Buggyfit" and zumba - across more than 70 parks across Britain in the summer months.

In its first year the program, which has been developed in partnership with local councils, will be run in Birmingham, Newcastle and Newham in London. Coca-Cola says the activities available to try in each city have been informed by regional research and will be led by coaches from the local area.

From 2015, Coca-Cola Zero ParkLives will expand to more cities as the company looks to achieve the ambition set out earlier this year to get 1 million people active in Great Britain by 2020. - Lara O'Reilly in MarketingWeek

TWEET THIS: Global company @CocaCola launches free fitness classes that are informed by regional research.

3. Partnering with non-profits and a celebrity.

Not every company that made a difference [during the 2014 Super Bowl] had to start by writing a large check to Fox. Skittles went a different route. They announced a long-term relationship with Seahawks running back, Marshawn Lynch. When he performs well on the field, they will add seed capital to his Fam 1st Family Foundation designed to help children. So when he crossed the goal line in the second quarter [of the 2014 Super Bowl], $10,000 was deposited into his new Foundation's account, with the promise of more to come. - Bob McKinnon in Fast Company

TWEET THIS: Candy company @Skittles inks a deal with a sports celebrity for a worthy cause.

4. Telling a story that resonates with the audience and reiterates the brand.

While it's important to cater to your audience, you shouldn't lose sight of your own business goals. After all, you want your ads to help build your brand and to eventually move the needle.

Allstate's 90-second spot released [in June 2014] provides a great example. The animated short film remains "true to the spirit" of Pride Month by telling a story of two men who fell in love. The company's brand is reinforced in the concept and title. As Fast Company noted, the campaign hashtag, #outholdinghands, "ties in to Allstate's 'you're in good hands' branding - that's an impressive feat for a company making an authentic appeal to a worthy cause."

There's a fine balance between reinforcing your own brand and telling a good story, but ad testing with the help of your customers can help refine your campaigns before you give them a coming-out party to the world. - Aaron Paquette on the Vision Critical blog

TWEET THIS: Insurance company @Allstate releases a 90-second animated short film to celebrate LGBT Pride.

The examples above show that cause marketing today need to be authentic, fresh and innovative.

Research has shown that corporate social responsibility makes business sense because these expenditures are "essential to a company's long-term brand and value." But how do you ensure that your cause-marketing efforts benefit both the cause you wish to support and your company? It begins by understanding your customers. It starts with knowing your customers' values and uncovering the causes that are relevant to them.

That's where a community of customers can help: Not only can your customers provide insight on which cause is the right fit, they can also help you refine your approach.

As you think about future cause-marketing efforts, think of new ways you can approach it. With the help of your customers, you're more likely to come up with something that benefits your company and the community and causes you wish to support.

How is your company embracing cause marketing? Share your tips by leaving a comment below or by tweeting us at @visioncritical.

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