Charitable support has the power to boost a corporate brand to new
heights. But tying the company to the right nonprofit is essential.
Douglas Quenqua reports.
American Express was hardly the first corporation to ally itself with a
charitable cause. But its 1984 Statue of Liberty restoration campaign
marked a turning point in the collaboration between non- and for-profit
companies. It also introduced a new term to the PR lexicon:
Put simply, American Express spent $6 million publicizing the
fact that one penny of every dollar spent on its credit cards would go
to restoring the aging Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The company
raised $1.7 million for the cause.
It also saw use of its cards jump 28%, while applications for new cards
increased by 17%.
But it was more than a hearty budget that made the promotion such a
It was the synergy between the corporation and the cause - the easy
association in the public's mind between American Express and an
Almost 20 years later, cause-related marketing is a fact of corporate
life. Studies show that consumers expect the companies they frequent to
be "giving back" in some way - and are willing to trade in their brand
loyalty for those who do.
Never has this been more true since September 11. One study,
commissioned by Boston-based Cone Communications, compared American
attitudes toward corporate philanthropy in March 2001 with those same
attitudes in October.
During that time, respondents agreeing with the statement "A company's
commitment to causes is important when I decide what to buy or where to
shop" rose from 52% to 77%. And the proportion that said a company's
philanthropic efforts had an impact on where they'd like to work rose
from 48% to 76%.
Hence choosing the right charity is more important than ever.
The first thing to consider is your objective. Are you trying to reverse
a negative perception about your company, or are you aiming to launch a
product that jibes with a popular cause? Are you trying to deepen
emotional ties to your clientele, or is it your employees whose loyalty
you'd like to solidify?
Naturally, the cause should always match the interests of your target
audience. If you're trying to attract preteens, the AARP is not where
your money should be going. "You're using cause marketing to build the
company's brand, as well as to be a good corporate citizen," observes
Beverly Butler, VP of marketing and communications for the American
Cancer Society's California division. "You want to boost sales and drive
traffic, as well as do something good for the world."
Once you identify a range of nonprofits that suit your needs, it's wise
to consider whether you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or vice
versa. For example, literally hundreds of companies support the same few
cancer organizations. Sometimes it's good to be one of the many
(especially given the name recognition that comes with the better-known
groups), but there are times when a company might prefer to be a small
charity's primary benefactor. That way, one receives the lion's share of
a charity's attention when it comes to publicity.
Different charities offer different grassroots opportunities as well, so
it's important to consider how much is important for your company.
Carol Cone, founder of the aforementioned Cone Communications, points to
an Office Depot campaign during the September back-to-school rush.
"For a certain amount of time, a percentage of every purchase went to
local schools," she says. "They could have given the money to the
(national) PTA, but they decided to localize it." Such strategies are
invaluable when your goal is improving community relations.
Chuck Beeler, SVP with The MRA Group, sees the potential for a new area
of giving, created by the events of last September. "I think the psyche
of the American public has changed, and I think that will change the
potential for some of the community relations and cause-marketing-type
initiatives," he says. "You want to do things that resonate with
constituents - things like personal security, travel, and vacationing.
People feel differently about these things now."
Regardless of which organization you choose, it's essential that you
examine more than just its credentials as a charity - non-profits are
businesses too. Get your hands on annual reports; research what
percentages of donations go to the cause and how much goes to overhead;
meet and interview top executives; find out who would be your primary
contacts, and get to know those people.
According to Cone, a potential benefactor shouldn't be shy about asking
to speak to other companies with which the charity does business. "They
should be able to give you names, just like checking someone's
references," she says.
The nature of your relationship with any charity will hinge on the
timeframe for the collaboration. Some such relationships last only as
long as it takes to complete a single, short-term promotion. Others go
on for years.
If your goal is crisis management - associating your company with a
charity to neutralize negative publicity - a short-term relationship is
often adequate. But if you're looking to forge a connection in the minds
of the public, consider a long-term plan. Perpetual initiatives have
worked wonders for the likes of Avon (breast cancer) and Fannie Mae
Regardless of which cause you choose, always bear in mind that a
campaign will have its greatest impact when the public can make an easy
connection between brand and cause. The goal is for consumers to
associate the name of your company with your chosen charity, even after
your promotion has ended.
A word of caution about the understandable - and commendable - urge to
jump aboard the September 11 bandwagon: Raising money for victims of the
tragedy or firefighters and relief agencies was, in the days immediately
following the attacks, practically a no-brainer. Most companies did it
one way or another, and consumers were happy for it. But as time passes,
data suggests that consumers are becoming turned off by corporations
that reach too far to associate themselves with the relief effort.
American consumers like patriotism and charity now, but they are wary of
anything that smacks of opportunism or exploitation. Be smart enough to
know the difference.
1. Do look for brand synergy
2. Do consider the priorities of your target audience
3. Do examine the financials of your chosen charity, and speak to other
1. Don't choose a charity with dozens of other sponsors if you want it
to devote considerable PR time to your company
2. Don't choose a big national nonprofit if what you need is grassroots
3. Don't jump on the September 11 bandwagon if it doesn't jibe naturally
with your company's profile