Maxwell House and Habitat for Humanity: A Cause-Related Marketing Case Study

            In 1996, Maxwell House was struggling to maintain relevance in the coffee market.  With trendy new coffee shops popping up all over the country, the culture of coffee was beginning to change.  Maxwell House’s “Good to the Last Drop” blend reached its peak during an age when coffee was enjoyed at the breakfast table (Hendrix 295).  As coffee became a trendier commodity, it moved outside of the home.  Instead of brewing a cup in the kitchen, people could head down to a popular café.  Maxwell House needed to reestablish their presence in the marketplace.


Noelle Nichelson, a senior brand manager for Maxwell House, said the brand wished “to connect with consumers in a more personal way” (Thompson).  Ketchum, the consulting public relations firm “charged with giving Maxwell House a caring image,” believed a Cause-Related Marketing program would help give the brand a new face (Carver).  The first challenge was deciding what charity or program best matched up with the Maxwell House image.  Ketchum researched 14 organizations after “fram[ing] the portrait of the right partner” (Hendrix 296).  The Habitat for Humanity organization had many characteristics which fit into the picture of Maxwell House’s image.

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian charity who organizes volunteers and professionals across the nation to build homes for low-income families.  Habitat then offers the homes to these families with non-profit, no interest, affordable mortgage loans (

Habitat’s desire for every family to have a safe home connected well with Maxwell House’s “stalwart role as [a] piece of Americana” (Thompson).  This connection made the creation of the Build a Home America (BAHA) campaign fairly simple.


Ketchum and Maxwell House outlined three key objectives for the campaign.  They wished to be recognized as a caring and personable brand, increase brand presence to raise sales and maintain their relevance in the coffee market (Hendrix 296).

Alongside these objectives, three strategies were named.  The first was to design a grassroots campaign to connect with consumers on a personal basis.  The plan for BAHA was to build 100 homes for 100 families in 100 weeks across the nation.  Maxwell House made an initial $2 million donation and “challenged all local Habitat for Humanity affiliates to match its…contribution toward the homes” (Carver).

Ketchum planned a 37-city building tour and initiated an advertising campaign with Ogilvy & Mather to encourage community members to volunteer their time, resources or talents to the program.  Ketchum also trained bilingual spokespersons and altered media content to appeal to Hispanic consumers.

The second strategy was to “structure a ground-breaking national commitment to ensure relevant and sustainable news” (Hendrix 296).  Ketchum and Ogilvy & Mather created media kits filled with press releases, tour maps and biographies and photographs of benefit families to deliver to media outlets.  Each of the 37 cities received different events and media treatment based on the culture and media climate of the area.  Some of these different events included a 12-hour overnight build, all women builds and a Maxwell House employee build.  Representatives from each of the beneficiary families were also flown to Los Angeles to assist in the construction of the final three homes.  The immensity of the project and its different approaches allowed for continued fresh media coverage over the 100 weeks.

The final strategy involved collaborating efforts between public relations, advertising and marketing teams.  Ogilvy & Mather created four national TV spots that aired throughout the two year campaign.  These TV spots stressed the importance of homes and the Habitat cause with “the only visual clue to the sponsor’s identity [being] a quick camera shot of a Maxwell House coffee can filled with tools” (Canedy).  Keeping with the theme of homes and construction, the commercial first aired during an episode of the ABC show “Home Improvement.”

Following the building tour were two Maxwell House traveling cafes.  In these “Airstream diner[s],” people could view an exhibit which stressed the importance of homes and get a freshly brewed cup of Maxwell House coffee.  Maxwell House’s parent company, Kraft, also used the cafes to distribute coupons and sample new products.  These traveling advertisements were open to current volunteers as well as the general public which allowed Habitat to recruit more manpower.

A toll free hotline was also maintained so that people could call to receive information or make donations.  This number, as well as an advertisement for BAHA, was printed onto every can of Maxwell House coffee distributed to grocery stores.


BAHA received a lot of attention and experienced great success.  Habitat for Humanity’s  1998 Collegiate Challenge contributed more than 7,000 college and high school students to the overall total of 70,000 volunteers (Collegiate).  Maxwell House slowed production in their factories solely to allow employees time to participate in the builds.  While this seems like a pretty great sacrifice, they knew it would help their production in the end.  Maxwell House’s overall coffee sales rose 2.4 percent in the markets affected by the program.  The matching funds contributed by outside donors for Habitat for Humanity exceeded $3.2 million. (Carver)


By the numbers alone, it is apparent this program was a success; not to mention the 100 families who now live in homes of their own.  But did Maxwell House achieve the three goals it had intended on reaching?

First, did they earn recognition for being a caring brand?  A year into the program consumers chose Maxwell House’s active role in the community as its second most important attribute.  Mayors of 26 of the cities on the tour declared a Build a Home America Day to recognize the positive impact made on their communities by the program. (Hendrix).

Maxwell House went above and beyond to show that they care.  They did so without constantly trying to sell their product directly.  By allowing Habitat for Humanity’s cause to be the most visible goal, they developed consumer respect and admiration.  Of course one of the ultimate goals was to increase profits, but they reached this goal by helping others and supporting another cause.

Next, did they raise brand visibility and purchase intent?  Out of the non-Maxwell House drinkers that were exposed to BAHA advertising, 58 percent said they were more likely to try the brand in the future.  This is a 24 percent increase over purchase intent when exposed to regular advertising.  The program gained enough attention to be featured in segments on “The Today Show” and “CBS This Morning.”  Oprah Winfrey also praised Maxwell House by awarding the president an Oprah Angel Network Award.  The brand was also featured in numerous print media such as the New York Times, Family Circle, Country Living and Essence.  (Hendrix)

This heightened brand visibility came in part of Maxwell House’s direct efforts, but most of the credit should be given to the many third party endorsers.  The television shows, print publications and prominent people that praised Maxwell House made publics acknowledge and appreciate what the company was doing.  The publicity BAHA received helped to further the programs philanthropic efforts as well as Maxwell House’s business objectives.

Finally, did Maxwell House maintain its market share?  This objective was probably the most important.  The brand was struggling to connect with a new generation of coffee drinkers while maintaining the values they have stood by for years.  They hoped that the BAHA initiative would encourage people to think to purchase Maxwell House over other brands.  It worked.

Sales increased by an average of 2.4 percent in areas surrounding the BAHA builds.  The traveling BAHA café, having visited more than 260 retailers, was integral in improving relationships with distributors.  Grocers and other retailers were able to witness firsthand the benefits of being involved with a brand like Maxwell House.

Cause-related marketing is powerful.  Not only is it great for a company’s image and profits; it is wonderful for our society.  Oprah Winfrey said “Build A Home America is what corporations should be doing,” and she is completely right (Hendrix 299).  When a company uses its success to help others, great publicity and advertising are among the smallest benefits compared with the overall success of the program.  A company that cares for communities and individuals will always be respected and supported by consumers.

  Works Consulted

Canedy, D. (1997, July 24). The media business: Advertising; maxwell house promotes a partnership with habitat for humanity in a national campaign. The New York Times, p. D7.

Carver, B. (1999). Campaigns: Best strategies and top tactics from the world of pr. PRWeek, Retrieved from

Collegiate challenge: Spring break 1998. (1998). Retrieved from

Habitat for Humanity International. Web. 31 Oct 2012.

Hendrix, J. A. (2001). Public relations cases. (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Thompson, S. (1998). Brand builders. Brandweek39(18), 24-26.


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