If you live in the California and spend a lot of time in your car listening to the radio – or are a fan of talk radio even listening over the internet with a headset on – you’ve probably heard the Sleep Train ads about the company’s work with California Foster Children.

Sleep Train is the largest mattress retailer on the West Coast. The company has about 700 employees and 90 stores throughout California. That alone could potentially give it significant brand recognition. But Sleep Train didn’t stop there. In 2007,  Sleep Train initiated its first annual philanthropic event to help at-risk youths. Since then, the company has partnered with 24 non-profit foster care organizations in California, reaching over 60,000 children. The Sleep Train campaign includes a number of annual drives to collect shoes, school supplies, clothing and more for foster children.

Consider a true giving partnership

two heartsAs an example of cause marketing – a partnership between a for-profit organization and a not-for-profit one for their mutual benefit – the Sleep Train program is exemplary. The company set out to improve the lives of foster children who face enormous challenges. In doing, Sleep Train has raised its visibility and generated enormous goodwill.

You may already be involved in supporting the work of charitable organizations in your community. Whether, it’s a donation of your products or services or a monetary contribution, giving back to the community helps your company in a number of ways (see: Your small business gains when you give back to the community).

Cause marketing takes giving to the community a step further. Your ongoing support of a cause becomes part of the purpose of your small business and part of your brand equity. It gives your customers a reason to buy from you in addition to the value of your offerings. It can help drives sales and makes you stand out from the competition.

Get started with cause marketing

Here are five things to keep in mind as you consider integrating cause marketing into your marketing programs.

Be sincere: A cause related marketing campaign can be perceived as self-serving and disingenuous and that can create a customer backlash. Approach your campaign for the long term. Develop a plan working with your partner that serves your mutual goals.

Pick the right partner: Ideally pick a cause that aligns with your business. As an example, a pet supply store could easily conduct an ongoing campaign with a local humane society. If the connection isn’t an obvious one, be sure to support a cause that has the bandwidth and resources to fulfill its part of the outreach. That can mean putting on events or conducting social media campaigns that showcase your efforts and more.

Put the appropriate resources behind your campaign: You already have lots of demands in running your small business. Be realistic about what activities you can support in terms of marketing dollars and time to make sure your campaign is ongoing and has momentum.

Get your employees involved: Before you select an organization, talk to your team to find out what causes they would like to support. They will be more motivated and engaged to work on the campaign if it’s something they believe in.

Set expectations: Establish clear goals with your partner organization and for your own marketing purposes – sell more products (boost sales by donating a portion of your sales to your partner organization), improve your brand visibility and image and expand your geographic reach.

We live in a highly socially oriented world. Cause marketing can be an enormously effective way for your small business to be socially involved and boost your sales and marketing at the same time.