In May 2021, as the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines continued to fall, the US government realised it needed to do something. Large swathes of the population were showing a reluctance to receive their first dose of vaccination, making the threat of indefinite, economy-crippling lockdowns an increasing possibility.
The solution, White House officials determined, lay in the country’s most popular burger chain: McDonald’s. To sway vaccine sceptics, the government decided it would print Covid-19 vaccine information across all of McDonald’s takeaway coffee cups from July 1.
The new packaging would feature art from the national “We Can Do This” campaign, with the idea that McDonald’s customers could receive “trusted information about vaccines when they grab a cup of coffee”. Three days after its launch, the number of vaccinations administered per 100 people climbed by 18%.
For many, this simply highlighted the power that packaging could have on influencing public opinion. However, for others, it brought into question the ethics of using packaging to promote causes beyond the brand and its products. If coffee packaging could be used to increase vaccine uptake, then what else could it be used for?
Why do brands use their packaging to promote causes?
Over the decades, marketing has evolved into a powerful tool not only for encouraging customers to purchase a specific product, but also for generating awareness of various causes.
Known as cause-related marketing (or cause marketing), it can manifest itself in a number of ways, including as emotional branding, open-source branding, and behavioural targeting.
According to Catherine Suzanne Galloway of the University of California, Berkeley, marketing techniques used by consumer brands have increasingly been adopted in the political sphere, thus blurring the lines between the two.
In her study Packaging Politics, she writes: “The US also has a long history of applying the same tools to sway popular opinion about political issues and candidates that are used by manufacturers to market their wares to consumers.”
This, in turn, has led to a number of collaborations between consumer brands and organisations, including NGOs, political parties, and sports teams, the hope being that the wide presence of these brands will bring greater awareness to various causes. More often than not, this results in a temporary packaging rebrand.
A common example is during international football competitions, such as the World Cup. The organisers, Fifa, partner with a wide range of companies to promote the competition across everyday consumer products.
With Fifa’s input, these brands will then redesign their packaging for a set period of time, the idea being that it will boost interest around the competition.
However, the advantages of these collaborations are not limited to the organisations – brands can also benefit.
In an article for CNBC, Edelman’s global head of brand practice, Mark Renshaw, explains that companies which fail to take a stand regarding certain issues risk being forgotten. If, on the other hand, they partner with causes that reflect their own set of values, they can boost loyalty and reach new corners of the market.
He says: “Brands that live their beliefs in all that they do, and invite consumers to take action with them, will be rewarded with more conversation, more conversion, and ultimately, more commitment.”
What are the implications?
Like all marketing techniques, cause marketing is not without its implications, whether for a football tournament or a political campaign.
One of the most significant is the risk it poses of alienating customers. According to a recent study, 57% of consumers are willing to boycott a brand because of its position on an issue.
This means that if a company decides to back a cause that the majority of its customers don’t agree with, it could damage their reputation (in the eyes of their customers) and lose a considerable number of sales.
Another problem with cause marketing tends to arise when the message being communicated is ambiguous or unclear. This could be because the brand hasn’t fully grasped the complexities of the issue, or they may not have the in-house resources to effectively convey the cause.
A classic example of this is Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign, in which baristas were asked to write “Race Together” on their coffee cups to spark a dialogue between customers about racial matters.
While the cause was well intentioned, Starbucks came under fire for its execution, which involved little beyond the two words.
Naturally, the ambiguity of the campaign did little to generate any serious debate about the country’s race relations, with some labelling it an alternative form of “greenwashing”. This can make a brand seem less authentic and potentially damage its reputation.
How to use coffee packaging to effectively promote causes
As one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages, coffee is a popular choice for cause marketing. Accessible, affordable, and, for many, an essential part of the day, it has the potential to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
Rave Coffee is just one of a number of specialty roasters that supports a cause in line with its brand values. Their “1% For The Planet” partnership means that they donate 1% of all sales to environmental causes, including Project Waterfall and One Tree Planted.
Similarly, for every sale of a Timor-Leste washed coffee by Bristol coffee shop Full Court Press, 50p goes towards a flood appeal fund that provides support to coffee-producing communities impacted by floods and landslides.
Both are examples of how coffee brands can use their platforms to promote positive causes. But how does packaging come into it?
Well, one of the simplest ways of promoting these causes is by using QR codes on the side of bags and takeaway cups. QR codes are square barcodes that store information using black and white squares.
Customers can scan the QR codes using their smartphones, which will take them to an app, video, website, or social media page. From here, they can find out more information about the cause.
Not only does this allow roasters to maintain their original branding while supporting a cause, it also provides additional information to remove any ambiguities that may arise.
Consumers have purchasing power, and all roasters alike can unite to contribute to various charitable and environmental causes.
Through packaging, coffee roasters can beautifully describe their coffee whilst also taking on a cause, educating consumers about it, and benefiting society as a whole.
At MTPak Coffee, we can help you design your coffee packaging around a cause, whether including a QR code or creating limited edition bags and takeaway cups.