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Does Cause Marketing Actually Work? Measuring The Success Of A “Drink More Water” Campaign

Did the talking water fountains and humorous ads of Michelle Obama’s “Drink Up” campaign keep people more hydrated? New consumer tracking techniques can help answer the question.

Does Cause Marketing Actually Work? Measuring The Success Of A “Drink More Water” Campaign

In some cities, it’s hard to glance in any direction without seeing an advertisement on a bus or subway admonishing you to not smoke, eat less sugar, or get a cancer screening. But it can be hard to directly measure the effectiveness of these kinds of campaigns: who saw the ads? And was it the ads that made them change their behavior?

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But we do know quite a bit about the effectiveness of a public health campaign, Drink Up, that is part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity initiative. New data that tracks consumer shopping habits shows that the parts of the campaign that were online could actually be helping nudge people to drink more water.

The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) is an independent group founded in 2010 in conjunction with Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. It works with businesses to change what and how they sell products and with consumers to try and shift behavior to healthier choices. In 2013, the group launched Drink Up, an effort to convince people to drink more water, any water–whether bottled, tap, or filtered–especially in lieu of sugary drinks that contribute to weight gain and diabetes risk.


Drink Up looked very different than your typical PSA, though it shared strategies in common with other creative cause marketing efforts we’ve seen in the past. Rather than tell people what to do, it adopted positive, fun messaging, such as talking water fountains installed in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. The biggest element was more wide-reaching, online ad campaign that featured historic images of “icons” like Audrey Hepburn, Albert Einstein, and Muhammad Ali drinking water (Ali’s caption: “Water: No wonder he never lost a press conference”). The ads were shown to targeted demographic groups of people online, including categories of people that data marketing firms considered health conscious and “fence-sitters” about healthy living.

“We wanted to do something a little bit more emotional,” says PHA president Larry A. Soler. “We didn’t want to overwhelm people, telling them they have to drink eight glasses a day.”

Data from Nielsen Catalina Solutions, a third-party marketing analytics firm, showed the video ads worked pretty well.

Using anonymous tracking methods common in marketing and advertising (though a little creepy nonetheless), the firm uses a methodology which measures the sales from households that were exposed to the ads, via their frequent shopping cards, compared to nearly identical households that were not exposed to the ads to isolate the effect of the advertising. (The ad exposure data and the shopper card data is linked by an anonymous ID by a third-party agent to protect the consumer privacy). The data showed that, in the second year the ads ran, people who saw the advertisements increased their bottled water and water filter purchases by 4%–or $1.8 million worth of water–compared to people who were similar in age, income, and other factors but did not see the ads. (In the first year the ads ran, they saw a similar 3% lift in retail sales.)

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For PHA, this was a big success–a six-times payback, meaning that for every ad dollar invested in the campaign, six dollars were returned in incremental sales. Lisa Rettinger, with Nielsen Catalina Solutions, says the performance is well above average for similar consumer packaged goods advertising campaigns.

Bottled water might be good for people’s health, but is bad for a number of environmental reasons (not to mention personal financial reasons). The campaign, which partnered with beverage giants like Nestlé, stayed agnostic about the source of water people consumed. However, it was simply harder to objectively measure the campaign’s effect on tap water consumption. Overall, Soler says, the national trend is moving away from sugary beverages for a variety of reasons. A little more awareness could only help.

“It was really an experiment back then and it’s been great to see a year and a half later that we’ve gotten such a tremendous result,” says Soler. “I think it was really only held back by the amount of money that we had to spend.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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