Marketing is usually seen as a business-oriented activity.

But if we can agree that at its core, it’s essentially selling something or forming perceptions, then this act of selling can go just beyond products or services.

It can also mean selling an idea or message. It can also involve changing social norms & stereotypes.

In recent decades, creative marketers have used their talent, blending it with the technology available at their disposal, to generate real social impact for causes such as:

  • Environmental protection
  • Women’s rights
  • Hunger
  • Natural disaster relief
  • Anti-racism
  • Animal welfare

In this list, you’ll discover cause-related marketing campaigns that got people to take some matters seriously.

By addressing the needs of their target demographic, these brands came up with human solutions that touched & improved many lives.

Most brands get involved in social issues not just for the sake of showing CSR involvement during annual board meetings.

But when a company genuinely decides to champion the problem, it’s a heartwarming sight because we know they’re taking bold risks by getting involved in serious discussions at the grassroots level.

Of course, it’s still just as beneficial for the brand’s goodwill because end consumers like you & me love to associate with the good guys.

After all, the brands we shop from act as extensions of the causes & world views that we support.

In fact, case studies of impact-driven business models like The Plated Project (Buy plates to feed hungry kids) or TOMS Shoes (Buy one pair, donate one pair) show that it’s indeed possible to run profitable ventures but also help society at the same time.

These stories prove that not all marketers are heartless profit-seekers who only care about promoting their brands – well, at least not all the time.

When we put our hearts into it, we might also end up making this world a better place.

Here’s some evidence!

Tampon Book ~ The Female Company

  • Agency: Scholz & Friends Berlin GmbH, Berlin
  • Year: 2019 for The Female Company, Stuggart

Many laws feel unfair & exploitative because they suffer from being outdated for the current times.

You could try to protest & get them changed, but that is a long uphill legal battle with no guarantee of whether your legislation will be passed by the government, which often works against the interest of the common folk (unfortunately so).

Then there’s always the option of manipulating it. This is a brilliant example of how a brand can “cheat” the system by using loopholes that nobody bothered to use before.

Books have only 7% tax whereas tampons have 19%, so why not just package tampons as books?

This is a ridiculously simple insight when you think about it. But to translate that into an entire product overhaul must’ve surely been a creatively demanding task, and I feel this gorgeous execution is what really made the difference.

The Tampon Book won Gold at Clio & Titanium at Cannes.

Blank Edition ~ An-Nahar

  • Agency: BBDO
  • Year: 2019 for An-Nahar Newspaper, Beirut

For any campaign to work in general, it must be relevant to the subject that it’s addressing.

Often it’s difficult to pick the right context, but this case shows us the power of exercising minute observation on current affairs.

The brand & agency was alert enough to pick up the juicy tidbit from the news, which was the excuse that politicians were using to postpone elections.

And they were quick to react by taking a bold decision to break their usual routines just to tackle the problem at hand.

I’m sure such an idea will have had to fight its way through dozens of skeptical managers before reaching approval because it meant forgoing profits for an entire day’s worth of newspaper sales, which may easily be in the millions.

Often that is the price to pay for taking a stand, but the rewards are priceless.

This campaign catapulted the news network into headlines across the world, which is more than what they would’ve achieved through printing the usual stories in their newspaper alone.

The Blank Edition also won a Titanium at Cannes and a Silver at Clio.

Life Lolli ~ KMSZ

  • Agency: BBDO Germany
  • Year: 2019 for KMSZ (Bone Marrow Donation Center)

This is a good example of how a simple “share-friendly” symbol can be effective in driving a complex & powerful message.

To encourage registrations for bone marrow donation in youth, the hospital created a heart-shaped lollipop placed on top of a swab. So you could eat the lollipop & effortlessly get your DNA on the inner swab via your tongue.

Order it for free at your address, do the thing, and then send it back to the center to mark your registration.

I like how they leveraged influencers to make the initiative to go viral – remember, these guys are always looking to support good causes because it helps in building a positive public image, so you can essentially get them on board for free, provided you have an authentic social mission to fulfill.

The results were tremendous – a decrease in average donor age (meaning more youngsters came forward), and a country-wide interest in the topic of bone marrow donation.

Now that’s as “sweet” as it can get!

Ice Bucket Challenge ~ ALSA

  • Agency: Porter Novelli Boston
  • Year: 2014 for ALS Association

This campaign needs no introduction. It’s the perfect example of the phrase, “Simple is powerful.”

A traditional explicit campaign for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis might have focused on displaying human beings that suffer from it.

But the ALS Association knew that such sad & boring communication would be swept under the radar (or outright avoided) as it didn’t have any virality factor.

So they decided to convey the story & gather support for it in a creative way.

The idea was to raise awareness about the condition by challenging people to drop a bucket of cold icy water on their heads, essentially freezing themselves for a second – which acted as a metaphor to illustrate a person’s inability to move under the disease.

Soon more than 17 million people joined the Ice Bucket Challenge (#ALSIceBucketChallenge), recording their videos & nominating their friends do to the same, which created a snowball effect.

Almost every big face in pop culture also got in on the action.

But it wasn’t just about the eyeballs ALS got. Real cash was raised to help people suffering from it. In total, at least $200 million were donated to the cause.

That’s a massive difference for a campaign that looks utterly stupid on paper.

The lesson for marketers? Make your ideas simple to replicate & share – the easier & more fun it is for people to participate, the greater support the idea will bring you more support on social media.

Think of how the “#NoShaveNovember” campaign started to raise awareness about men’s issues such as prostate cancer, literally asks men just not to shave their mustaches and/or beard for a month – any man could commit to that without fuss.

In a similar way, the “Meatless Mondays” campaign asks people to refrain from eating meat just on Mondays, making them more receptive to going fully vegan/plant-based in the long run.

Hard-core chicken eaters would never agree to a week-long ban on their favorite food, but just avoid it on Mondays? That sounds reasonable!

Make change easy.

Pollution Pencils ~ Otrivin

  • Agency: Wunderman Thompson Singapore
  • Year: 2023 for Otrivin (GSK)

This campaign is a double whammy because not only did Otrivin genuinely help the government schools’ children in clearing the air pollution in their classrooms but they also recycled the toxic air into meaningful mementoes by converting the waste into usable pencils.

I like that it is relevant to the brand since Otrivin’s website highlights the tagline “Helping you Breathe Easy,” which is literally what they did for the poor kids.

The insight is great, connected to the brand’s purpose, and taken to the next level with a genuine creative investment. If they would’ve just installed some air purifiers, it would’ve been another traditional case of CSR activities, which any brand can do. But they infused creativity in their solution by figuring out a way to turn the polluted air into pencils.

That’s why I think the campaign deserves to be on this list!

Little Feet ~ Vistara Air

  • Agency: Ogilvy
  • Year: 2015 for Vistara Airlines

Social impact doesn’t necessarily mean you must reach hundreds of people & permanently change their lives.

It can also be doing a small kind gesture for just one life, or twelve in Vistara’s case.

Vistara Airlines is a joint venture of Tata Group & Singapore Airlines.

For its first-ever flight in 2015, it partnered with Salaam Baalak’s Trust which is a non-profit that helps street children in Delhi & Mumbai, a cause for which Vistara has chipped in as well.

However, going one step forward, the airlines decided to include 12 kids from the lot in their list of first passengers.

These kids, who were aged between 7 to 12 years, were boarded with other passengers.

Their absolute joy of flying for the first time was captured in a two-minute musical ad film titled, “When little feet found their wings with Vistara #FlyTheNewFeeling.”

What hit the nail for me, however, is the copy at the end, “Wouldn’t it be nice if every flight felt like the first one?” Syncing well with the story, it perfectly conveys Vistara’s brand promise to deliver quality flight experiences each time.

The background score brought tears to my eyes, and I could feel the fun those kids had on their journey.

Memorializing it here because I think it’s a simple gesture that every travel, transport, mobility, or tourism-related brand can replicate in similar ways as part of their CSR efforts.

Chalk Soap ~ Savlon

  • Year: 2018
  • Agency: Ogilvy for Savlon India

Savlon wanted to promote the habit of using soap while hand-washing, particularly in rural schools. But inculcating a new habit was tough.

So Savlon gave shape to a simple idea that automatically turned washing hands with soap into an everyday habit.

Most primary-grade students in rural India still use a black slate and chalk sticks to write in schools. This led to the idea of “Savlon’s Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks” – made with a mixture of chalk powder and soap granules.

Before lunch break when kids put their hands under the tap, the chalk powder on their hands turned into soap on its own.

What a brilliant example of integrating your product’s value into the daily routines of your target consumer.

Even if the kids didn’t have the motivation to use soap before eating, this campaign got them familiar with the product by seamlessly hiding the product in their study routine itself, requiring no extra steps to produce value in their lives.

It also shows that Savlon genuinely wanted to solve the problem & not simply gain PR points – after all, the campaign “hides” their product more than it shows it.

So they don’t stand to gain a lot personally, besides the fact that the kids may become curious about the brand & ask their parents to buy the pack at home.

Considering their brand mission of building a “Savlon Swasth India,” this initiative does everything right.

Also, just for the record, Savlon’s competitor Lifebouy replicated this idea in 2020 with their agency Geometry Encompass at the Kumbh Mela festive gathering in India. They labeled their campaign “Hackwashing.”

The intention was the same – to prevent the onset of diarrhea and other diseases due to a lack of soap-washing habits before eating at the gathering.

Only instead of creating soap chalks, they created soap stamps, which were stamped on people’s hands at the time of registration during their entry into the Kumbh Mela grounds.

So when folks washed their hands before having the bhog (religious meal), the stamp dissolved into soap, cleaning off germs from their hands and halting their spread.

The Good Note ~ Bou Khalil

  • Agency: JWT Beirut (J.Walter Thompson)
  • Year: 2016 for Bou Khalil Supermarche

Lebanon had absorbed more than 2 million Syrian refugees, half of them being children.

This drastically increased the number of children begging on the streets. Some were exploited by gangs, who took the money they received to buy illicit items. So the Lebanese public lost trust in kindness & stopped giving, leaving the rest of the children without basic necessities.

How do we get the Lebanese to trust and help again?” That was the question the good people at the Bou Khalil chain of supermarkets asked.

The Lebanese note could buy anything. So the brand introduced a new note that can only buy good things – The Good Note. So it was basically turning the concept of a branded shopping gift voucher/coupon into a full-fledged currency on the streets.

The Good Note could only be spent at Bou Khalil supermarkets across Lebanon and its affiliated pharmacy on necessities and medicine. This ensured the recipients could only use the money to buy food & necessities.

This is a great case study on how to nullify a negative situation by cutting off your antagonist’s ability to exploit the resource.

With this initiative, the brand not only brought in more footfall into their store but actually ensured that their inventory could reach kids on the street without interference.

Lucky Iron Fish ~ University of Guelph

  • Video Agency: Geometry Global Dubai
  • Year: 2015 for Lucky Iron Fish

University of Guelph student Christopher Charles was conducting epidemiological health research in Cambodia.

His team discovered that about 60% of pregnant Cambodian women were anemic as a result of dietary iron deficiency, resulting in premature labor and childbirth hemorrhaging. Iron deficiency was the most widespread nutritional deficiency in the country.

Their initial solution was to provide a block of iron that could be immersed in utensils while cooking, which was projected to help in meeting up to 75% of the person’s daily iron requirements.

However, the local population, which wasn’t educated enough, rejected the block idea, not really using it consistently or taking the problem seriously. A more elegant flower design was also distributed but it didn’t gather any support either.

Through their conversations, they learned that the fish is considered a symbol of hope and luck, so they designed the block to model a fish, and distributed it with the message of bringing change to every family’s lives.

It was handmade with sustainable methods, and the lifespan of the product was pegged to be five years, both of which made it possible to keep the price point low.

Use of the iron block (now an iron fish) shot up overnight, with iron deficiencies dropping by 50% over a 9-month testing period.

Firstly, this use of cultural listening and empathy is a trait every marketer should develop. When you’re developing marketing solutions to social problems, you must take some time to understand the local traditions, customs, and routines.

If you can embed your innovation within the language people already use and believe in, you are less likely to face resistance to change.

What Charles did was actually a very minor tweak in design. But it addressed a big mental barrier, changing people’s perceptions & encouraging them to use the block for their family’s good luck, if not their health.

Sometimes, we think that logos (logic) or pathos (credibility) is the best way to win people’s support. But as we saw in the case, neither worked. The people couldn’t properly grasp the use of the iron block, nor was sending health workers or doctors enough to convince them.

In this case, the use of ethos (emotion) lowered the defenses, which tells us that it’s worth appealing to people’s hearts, especially when you’re trying to form an entirely new habit.

Secondly, it’s worth mentioning that this project was transformed into a full-fledged startup business, “Lucky Iron Fish,” which is operating worldwide to this day, solving iron deficiency in dozens of developing or underdeveloped nations.

That makes it an inspiring case study of a student going on to become a social entrepreneur by identifying issues and then developing solutions that not only alleviate the problem but also provide a sustainable source of revenue to keep the project going.

Smart Fill ~ Hindustan Unilever

  • Agency: VMLY&R Commerce
  • Year: 2022 for HUL

Sacrificing your own branded packaging to fight plastic wastage caused by your products’ usage? That’s a bold statement.

HUL (Hindustan Unilever) worked with VMLY&R Commerce India to create “Smart Fill” stations across retail stores in the country, where people could use their household plastic items to refill Unilever’s range of household products such as Vim dish soap liquid and Surf Exel washing machine liquid.

This encouraged the recycling of old material that would’ve otherwise ended up as scrap, and the whole idea also helped consumers save some money (the parent company could as the packaging was no longer involved).

So the whole campaign was well in sync with the Indian cultural habit of saving on groceries.

I’ve included it in this list because although the technology investment required to set up such booths is too high for smaller brands, it speaks volumes about HUL’s commitment to reducing plastic waste.

The campaign won several awards at Cannes, New York Festival, and Gerety.

Mother Blanket ~ Fundación Vivir & CCPDA

  • Agency: Ogilvy Bogotá
  • Year: 2022 for Fundación Vivir

Ogilvy Colombia reinvented the most affectionate Andean tradition in an effort to save lives.

Over 300.000 children living in isolated communities in the Ecuadorian Andes suffer from chronic undernourishment, with almost no periodical medical visits. But the best way to evaluate whether a child is doing good is to measure their growth in height over time.

To help mothers become self-evaluators, the agency took inspiration from the Sikinchi, a blanket that mothers use to carry their babies securely, and created the “Mother Blanket.”

Taking cues from the traditional Andean textile, the Mother Blanket featured the OMS Healthy Growth chart directly sewn into the design, printed in local dialects for mothers to easily understand.

The blankets were distributed to moms via on-ground touchpoints at their places of employment and medical centers.

The result was that 15,000 chronic cases were identified due to the self-evaluation done by moms, and over 70% of moms returned to the hospital/medical centers for follow-up checkups.

This is not only a noble initiative but the cultural sensitivity behind the campaign is worthy of applause. It proves that understanding your target’s local traditions can help you craft a solution that appeals to them on a personal level.

Honorable Mentions

Before we conclude, here are some more genuine attempts at social impact marketing. But many of them didn’t quite make the cut as I felt they were a bit “forced” i.e. the connection wasn’t that strong.

In other cases, I felt the idea was too grand & the execution was a bit too complex to be replicated by mid-sized brands/agencies.

I know that sounds like a stupid excuse but the goal of all my blogs is to give references that marketers to borrow for their brand in some way, so highly technical ideas aren’t something I want to feature here, although I obviously appreciate them very much.

1Pave for PizzaDomino’s offers to fix potholes as they ruin “good pizzas” during transit ~ CPB (2019)
2Harmless GunsDagoma hacks the system to fight 3D gun printing online ~ TBWA France (2019)
3Trash IslesLAD Bible builds an entire country out of ocean trash ~ AMV BBDO (2018)

So that was our list of marketing campaigns that generated a real, measurable social impact. Which stories inspired you the most? Did we miss any good ones that should be on this list?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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