The Fast Food Guide to Good Cause Marketing

Joe Waters
Joe Waters



fast-foodEven if you haven’t eaten at a Wendy’s, I bet you’ve heard of the fast food chain -- and maybe its iconic founder Dave Thomas. What you may not know is that Thomas was adopted, and started a foundation in 1992 to help children find families.

In the early days, Wendy’s adopted an up-and-coming marketing strategy to share the foundation's mission with customers and to raise money. A decade earlier, this same strategy was first used by American Express to raise millions of dollars to restore the Statue of Liberty. They called it cause marketing.

What is cause marketing?

Cause marketing is a partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit for mutual profit. The partnership is win-win in that the nonprofit gains awareness and raises money while the business earns favorability with consumers for supporting a good cause.

It’s not unusual for a company to use cause marketing in support of its own foundation. A good example is McDonald’s and the Ronald McDonald House Charities. The fast food giant has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for its namesake organization, which -- as with Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption -- is a separate nonprofit organization from the for-profit giant.

Why are more companies adopting causes?

Sometimes companies are like people: They have a passion for a particular cause. In the case of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas was adopted at six weeks. He knew firsthand the importance and power of a child having a loving family.

But there’s another good reason for companies to support good causes: Consumers expect it. Ninety percent of consumers want companies to tell them the ways they are supporting causes. Supporting a cause is no longer a nice-to-have option for businesses. It’s a must-have, and it extends to businesses of all types and sizes. Even B2B companies are recognizing the value of cause marketing.

How are companies raising money?

The success of cause marketing hinges on customer involvement. And with good reason: Customers are generous change makers. While many companies are happy to contribute to causes, its donations pale in comparison to consumer gifts. For example, while McDonald’s donated $32 million to RMHC last year, consumers donated $50 million through the donation boxes in McDonald’s restaurants.

In the early years of the Wendy’s cause marketing program, the chain relied on donation boxes in restaurants. The program was low-key, and Thomas found other ways to support the foundation, such as golf tournaments that tapped Wendy’s business partners.

But a lot has changed since Thomas established his foundation in 1992. Consumer expectations for business support of causes has skyrocketed. Supporting a cause has become a central part of the marketing mix, which is reflected in Wendy’s new cause marketing platform that launched on March 24th.

First, Wendy’s has given its Foundation a prominent spot on its website with a new “adoption hub” where visitors can learn more adoption and the Foundation’s work. 


Second, Wendy’s has devoted advertising dollars to the effort. The ads feature Thomas’s daughter, Wendy. (Yep, that’s where Thomas got the name for his restaurant.) 


Third, Wendy’s is putting a bigger focus on fundraising in restaurants. Diners can buy a Frosty key tag for $1, with all proceeds going to the foundation. The tag entitles them to a free junior-sized Frosty when they buy something else.

How can nonprofits get started with cause marketing?

Cause marketing is growing. Companies of all sizes -- and not just big chains like Wendy’s and McDonald’s -- are increasing their investments in cause marketing. Finally, cause marketing can raise your organization a lot of money. Even local programs can raise five or six figures.

Interested? Good. Here’s how to get going.

Target existing sponsors.

Your current event sponsors are good candidates for cause marketing. Remember, sponsorship is when a company cuts you a check in exchange for promotion with your supporters. Cause marketing is when a business promotes your nonprofit to its customers and asks them to support it. It’s a totally different model that will raise more awareness and money for your organization.

Get to know your supporters.

Knowing what companies your supporters work for is as important as knowing their address and net worth. I met with a nonprofit that didn’t know where to start with cause marketing. But after reviewing their board of directors, I recognized the name of a man who founded one of the biggest and most successful retailers in New England. The executive director was astonished. She knew he was wealthy, but she never thought to ask where he made his money!

Cause marketing just isn’t sizzle. It’s a great way to bring home the bacon! 

This is the first part of a three-part blog series in which I’ll guide you through one of the easiest and most successful cause marketing strategies. This strategy has been used by Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and many other businesses, and is a great way to jump-start a cause marketing partnership. 

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