As Ace Hardware looked ahead to its 80th anniversary in 2004, it wanted a program that would "tie the celebration into Ace's philosophy of helpfulness," recalls Natalie Danaher, PR supervisor for the hardware co-op.
Working with its longtime agency, LC Williams & Associates, Ace developed the New Faces for Helpful Places campaign, an undertaking so successful that the company continued it into this year, expanding it beyond last year's anniversary effort.
The hardware business has become increasingly competitive in recent years, as big-box retailers such as The Home Depot and Lowe's have gone after business traditionally done by neighborhood hardware stores.
Ace Hardware stores have sought to distinguish themselves from their new competitors by touting themselves as helpful places where shoppers can get answers and advice on home projects, in addition to the place where they can buy supplies.
As Ace and LC Williams considered how the company could celebrate the anniversary, the theme of helpfulness kept resonating throughout their discussions. An idea that would involve community service would tie into the theme, they decided.
"We wanted to connect with the communities and extend helpfulness beyond the four walls of the stores," says Danaher. The New Faces for Helpful Places campaign was created to accomplish that.
Initial information about the campaign was developed for Ace's fall 2003 retailers' convention. It involved a contest asking retailers to nominate - through 100-word essays - local organizations that helped their communities. The ultimate prize for the winners would be a day of free renovation work done on their facilities.
Information on the effort was printed in a program distributed daily to retailers, on a special intranet site for Ace retailers, and in forms mailed to retailers who didn't go to the convention.
Ace received 50 entries by December for such organizations as fire departments, violence shelters, free clinics, and food pantries.
Eight winners were selected, and dates were picked in 2004 for each winning organization to receive $5,000 of Ace products and a full day's work from a crew supplied by Ace and Lou Manfredini, also known as Mr. Fix-It and Ace's official Helpful Hardware Man. Manfredini and his "Lou Crew" - local volunteers put together by the nominating Ace retailer - would renovate a part of each winner's facility.
For example, they renovated a nurse's station at a clinic in Rockford, IL, and a rehabilitation facility for abused children in Norman, OK.
Localized press releases and alerts were sent to media outlets several months before work was done, two weeks before the rehab crew arrived, and again the day before to schedule interviews, says Gary Goodfriend, EVP with Williams.
"The publicity was meant to highlight the retailer's role in the initiative, commend the volunteers, and create goodwill for Ace," explains Danaher.
Coverage totaled more than 4.5 million impressions.
The effort recruited 325 volunteers across the country who helped with the projects. After the facelift for the Winthrop (MA) Playmaker's Theater, the local Ace retailer and Ace were thanked before patrons on the opening night of the fall season.
Ace received numerous letters of thanks and appreciation from the organizations helped by the program.
Ace Hardware was so pleased with the program that it decided to do it again this year and to expand the number of winners from eight to 10.
PR team: Ace Hardware (Oak Brook, IL) and LC Williams & Associates (Chicago)
Campaign: New Faces for Helpful Places
Time frame: January 2004 to present (ongoing)