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It rained nearly every day that the film crew was in the Dominican Republic. As Santa came to surprise the man who wished for a horse, the drone camera overhead spooked the animal. But WestJet Airlines Ltd.'s latest Christmas video was worth the headaches for the company.

The ad shows staff surprising a disadvantaged community with gifts from Santa. It is a follow-up to the company's smash success during the holidays last year. That video – in which travellers told Santa their wishes before boarding, and staff raced to meet them at their destination with those gifts – has been viewed more than 36 million times on YouTube. It made a difference to the company's bottom line, to boot. In December, 2013, visits to WestJet's website doubled, bookings increased 77 per cent compared with the same month in 2012, and revenue rose 86 per cent.

This year, WestJet took a different approach, giving gifts not to customers but to people in a community in need, located in one of the resort destinations where the airline flies.

In less than a week since it launched, more than 2.3 million people have watched the new video. But there is more at work here than simply a bid to "go viral." It's a coup when an ad is entertaining or moving enough to persuade people to pass it around to their friends, as they did with WestJet's video last year. But this year's offering has what could be an extra boost for the business: cause marketing.

Increasingly, companies are not just promoting their corporate philanthropy, but making a cause part of their advertising, and even part of their business model. And it works.

According to a survey of 1,500 Canadians released by Ipsos Reid this week, 84 per cent said that – if price and quality were similar – they would switch to a brand that is affiliated with a good cause. But companies are not communicating those affiliations as clearly as they should.

"There was a strong result for 'none' – no top of mind companies [associated with a cause]," said Ipsos Reid vice-president Barbara Brooks. "So there is an opportunity here."

And it's likely to become more important in the future: younger people over-indexed by 35 per cent on how important they think it is for companies to support causes.

Toronto-Dominion Bank has found success with cause marketing. In a recent campaign called "Make Today Matter," TD surprised 24 people in the United States and Canada with up to $30,000, and gave them 24 hours to use it for something worthwhile. The campaign was the result of a two-day "blue sky session" TD held with a group of its advertising and communications agencies.

The introductory video showed people building a ramp at the home of a disabled woman, and throwing a gala to inspire children in foster care. It garnered one million views in the first 24 hours. By monitoring social media, the company has seen roughly 2,800 conversations about the campaign since it launched in late November. And that extra attention can help the business as well.

"It makes a difference," said Chris Stamper, TD's senior vice-president of corporate marketing, community and environment. "I do see people saying, 'This is a bank I want to be a part of.'... You want to align to brands and organizations that you can see yourself in."

According to Brandwatch, an analytics firm that monitors conversations on social media, the WestJet campaign has been mentioned nearly 10,000 times since its launch. A full 54 per cent of that discussion happened in the U.S. – a coup for any Canadian brand, and especially one that flies to 20 destinations in that country.

More companies are testing the waters with cause marketing. Toronto agency Public launched in 2008 with the goal to create campaigns that both help companies' bottom lines and make a social impact. It has doubled its staff size in the past year, and clients include Unilever Canada and Indigo Books & Music Inc.

Public worked with drug store chain Rexall on its current "Shot for Shot" campaign, which launched in late October and promises one vaccination for a child in northern Uganda for every customer who comes to the stores for a flu shot. In recent years, among the roughly 30 per cent of people who go to a retail pharmacy for their shot, Rexall's market share has been slipping.

"You can actually make a significant health impact, and Rexall can make money and differentiate its brand in the marketplace," said Public's CEO, Phil Haid.

One of the ways marketers slip up after these efforts is by failing to tell customers how their money made a difference. That can increase skepticism of cause marketing. Rexall is planning to release data on its vaccinations and to produce videos about the campaign in action in northern Uganda.

Public's research has shown that one of the most typical ways retailers align with a cause at this time of year – asking for a donation at checkout counters – can leave customers with a bad impression of the brand. More than 60 per cent have a negative reaction. They feel guilty if they didn't give, and often resentful if they did.

"If you start from the question, 'How can I create a significant, measurable social impact,' and you're unabashed that you're going to make money doing it, it's transparent," Mr. Haid said. "You tell people, 'If we can't make money doing it, we can't do as much of it, and we can't repeat it.'… Customers will reward companies that go at it from this perspective. It's transparent. It's honest."

If a cause marketing campaign strikes the wrong tone, however, people may see it as disingenuous or exploitative.

WestJet takes pains to point out that it was present in the Puerto Plata community of Nuevo Renacer, building 23 houses in the past four years, before it ever filmed an ad there.

"What we do is essentially a commodity. We fly to the same Toronto that everybody else flies to. The difference becomes the people," said Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of communications and community relations, who is responsible for this kind of "experiential" marketing. "As a brand that talks about being a caring airline, it's tremendously valuable for us."