The 2015 Special Olympics World Series marketing campaigns were bolstered by help from Microsoft, Toyota, and more.

These digital initiatives are designed to help the Special Olympics spread its message online and reach more consumers, as well as allowing the partnering companies to produce positive brand impressions.

This year’s Special Olympics can provide valuable lessons for any marketer who wants to learn more about authentic, cause-based marketing.

Toyota Shares the Journey

Toyota partnered with the Special Olympics to create an online hub, named Share the Journey (not to be confused with the breast cancer app). This online portal serves as a go-to place for fans, family, and friends, and integrates a variety of social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

The mobile site was designed to build community and create a participatory environment where fans could learn more about the athletes and share stories that matter. The hub integrates the athletes’ background stories, included game countdowns and schedules, images from past events, and more.

For Toyota, this was the perfect opportunity to create a positive brand image, because the community itself did the talking. Rather than attempting to drive the conversation, they were enabling it. The #ShareTheJourney hashtag helped the community drive that conversation from within the hub, while taking full advantage of social media networks to reach beyond the community itself.

Since the fans and the community were the ones creating and spreading the message, it also ensured that Toyota produced a brand image that was authentic. If the company had attempted to steer the conversation in any way, the campaign would have been much less of a success…to say the least.

Microsoft’s Partnership with the Special Olympics

Last year, Microsoft launched a partnership with the Special Olympics that will last several more years. During this time, Microsoft will work together with the Special Olympics to create technology and systems designed to help those who have intellectual disabilities and who are involved in the Special Olympics.

According to the Special Olympics website, “this joint venture will work to influence behavior change through targeted interventions improving Special Olympics’ internal sports, health and research systems.”

Like Toyota’s efforts, this cause-based marketing partnership will help Microsoft boost its image by providing aid to a charitable cause.

The Special Olympics’ New Ad Campaigns

Last year, the Special Olympics began a new ad campaign focused on its agenda of breaking down the barriers between those with disabilities and those without. The campaign, known as Unified Sports, encouraged people both with and without intellectual disabilities to play together.

With headlines such as, “Intolerance, prepare for an upset” and “Odds were meant to be overcome,” this ad campaign was presented both offline and online. The campaign was, for the most part, being handled pro bono by divisions of the Young & Rubicam Group division of WPP.

This cause marketing campaign will complement the efforts of Microsoft, Toyota, and other partners, which demonstrate innovative new ways to grab attention in the digital marketplace.

Like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, this cause marketing campaign looks for leverage through community participation. The chairman of the Special Olympics admires the Ice Bucket challenge because, he says, “It’s not a story about A.L.S. steeped in pity; it’s infused with happiness and fun.”

He adds that “people can contribute to, be part of, something bigger by having a good time.”

Jim Elliot, Y&R New York’s chief creative officer, says that the goal is to include millennials and younger generations, “so it doesn’t feel like marketing.”

How Brands Leverage Cause Marketing

As the Special Olympics of Georgia puts it, “Cause-Related Marketing is a great way to associate with a well-known organization and reach new audiences with information about your product and services.”

While not every organization can contribute in the same ways that Microsoft and Toyota can, they can leverage cause marketing for their own brands by donating a percentage of sales to a Special Olympics chapter, conducting paper icon sales with their customers, promoting Special Olympics, and so on.

In the same way that celebrities and brands were able to use the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to increase brand awareness and produce an authentic, positive brand image of their own, companies can clearly do the same with the Special Olympics.

So how does cause marketing help a brand improve its image?

Simple. Most consumers have an inherent distrust of advertising and marketing in general, and cause marketing provides a way around that.

If a company associates itself with a legitimate cause, then this helps to break down the barriers of prejudice that most consumers instinctively hold towards brands. Leveraging a cause allows marketers to actually contribute to a positive cause, which creates a positive and ideally authentic brand impression.

And one reason cause marketing is so successful is that the brands are actually contributing to the advancement of the cause itself. In this case, for instance, every brand that helps the Special Olympics creates both a positive brand image and positive results for the Special Olympics’ cause.

In this way, companies such as Toyota, Microsoft, and others are able to create campaigns that generate the authenticity lacking in so much of the marketing world.