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Cause to Celebrate

Some PR firms strive to make a difference by promoting causes as well as products.

Give a PR firm an Enron to represent, and that firm quickly has a PR nightmare on its hands. Assign a breast-cancer research organization to the same firm, and the PR job becomes a bit easier.

Whether it has to do with the Enrons and the Martha Stewarts of the world--and the need to renew public trust in business--or whether promotional agents simply want to do good, marketing with a conscience is becoming more the rule than the exception. As businesses zero in on social issues, including everything from environmental protection and the peace movement to education and public health issues, so, too, do PR and advertising firms. "There's a much deeper awareness that business cannot be divorced from values," says Shel Horowitz, a Hadley, Massachusetts, author of several marketing books, including Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First. "[Consumers] are realizing [they] have the power and the right to demand accountability. Businesses are realizing it's smart to have good principles."

Maria Rodriguez, 45, knew that from the day she started Washington, DC-based Vanguard Communications in 1987. She launched with the sole intent of aligning herself with social concerns, such as environmental protection and health issues. (Farm Aid is a client.)

It's an MO that's proved effective, both from a business and a personal perspective: "We can feel good at the end of the day," says Rodriguez, who projects 2005 sales of just over $4 million. "We never have any second thoughts about what we're promoting."

That kind of selling can lead to what Michael Martin calls "effect marketing"--positively affecting a cause through marketing. "That's the future of marketing, because people see through crass 'Buy Me! Buy Me! Buy Me!' [campaigns]," says the 44-year-old founder and president of MusicMatters, a Minneapolis company created in 1997 to promote causes by combining pop culture, marketing and social activism. MusicMatters promoted the One Sweet Whirled international global warming campaign, created with Dave Matthews Band, Ben & Jerry's and SaveOurEnvironment.org.

This convergence of grass-roots activism with more advanced marketing methods is what makes social marketing effective. "Done right, it can help to increase sales, provide motivation for consumers to buy and increase brand identity," says Martin, whose company averages 20 percent growth annually. And as for the intangible? "Done right, you can generate change."

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the July 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Cause to Celebrate.

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