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ears ago, it was unheard of to be a brand in the youth marketplace without a promotion…These days, it seems that connecting with a cause is cost of entry for companies who create products or experiences for kids, tweens or teens. It’s not enough to focus on making good products – now brands and manufacturers are forced to think about doing good along the way (although, of course, this comes more naturally to some brands than to others).

Or are they?

We’ve been among the many who have noted that this generation of youth wants to make a difference.  MTV’s ongoing work with Millennials suggests that the most recent round of young adults has a can-do kind of consciousness that makes them both altruistic and entrepreneurial. Dosomething.org has been thriving based on its model of making causes accessible to both brands and teen consumers. And our data continues to show that youth of all ages care about causes (56% of kids, 63% of tweens and 64% of teens report having supported a cause in the past month). Recently, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm made headlines when her online activism (she authored a petition at change.org) won her a meeting with Seventeen Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. Bluhm’s cause is hardly new – her petition protested the over photoshopping common to most mags, and asked the magazine to feature one photoshop-free spread each month.

But at the same time that more and more orgs have helped youth channel their passions and companies find their corporate responsibility raison d’etre, we know that many brands have abandoned the altruistic approach. It’s not because they aren’t interested in being nice – it’s because they don’t have evidence that these initiatives have made an impact on youth.

So are youth all talk and no action? Is this generation more selfish than sympathetic? Are they eager to help only when they can help themselves?

While there may be a bit of truth to all of these assessments (and to be fair, couldn’t we say the same about even the most altruistic adults – just a bit?). But we think that getting kids, tweens and teens giving isn’t always as simple as it seems. Because we believe in youth, and we believe in brands doing right by them, we offer a few simple guidelines for getting your cause marketing efforts off the ground:

  1. Take a page from the book of Global Philanthropy Group (advisers to celebrity philanthropists), and know who you are before promoting your cause. This advice serves their celebrity clients well, but it also makes sense for brands. Sound self-serving? Consider this: a message that matches your mantra not only oozes authenticity, but it also removes one step for consumers to climb in order to keep your cause in mind. Six degrees of separation between your brand message and your cause is not only confusing, but it counteracts the altruistic action that you’re hoping to catalyze.
  2. This one sounds so simple that it might not seem worth saying…But trust us, it’s one of the most common mistakes that youth brands make. Here goes: make it fun. That simple. Not every cause is a laughing matter, and we don’t suggest that you should make what might be serious silly. But making it fun (satisfying fun, challenging fun, nurturing fun, social fun, etc.) is as important as aligning with a cause that’s relevant. Brands often stumble when they make their cause efforts to earnest, and forget that kids, in particular, are willing to do good, but will be more likely to do so when they get something for their efforts. Sound too self-centered? Keep in mind that getting in the habit of doing good can be hard – especially when it’s accompanied by self-sacrifice. While some kids might be motivated to make this effort on their own, we think there’s nothing wrong with making kids think that giving back is easy/intuitive/energizing and interesting…and for brands who genuinely want to help, creating a generation of youth who thinks that altruism is a breeze might be the best service of all.
  3. Finally, make it easy. For this one, see above. But importantly, when designing your cause efforts, keep in mind that practical barriers often stand in the way of kids, tweens and teens practicing what they preach. Sure, it’s nice to think that every tween can take a trip to a homeless shelter. But remember, they’re years away from being behind the wheel. They might want to donate, but don’t have the means. And even cause-marketing mainstays – collect labels, lids or box tops – require quite a lot of cooperation from mom or dad. Fortunately for the modern-day cause marketer, youth can connect with their friends over causes online. So make sure your efforts are accessible–Partner with online piggy banks (that allow kids to choose to use their allowance to spend, save or give), like Three Jars or Guluck. Get connected with one of the orgs mentioned above who link like-minded brands with motivated youth. And ask your audience what their obstacles are before asking them to do something out of their reach.