For years, local chapters of the American Red Cross have tried just about every trick in the book to get people to donate blood.And for good reason: 95% of Americans never donate, leaving just 5% of the public to provide for the entire nation. Though supplies fluctuate, local levels often become critically low after holidays.
In Cleveland, as elsewhere, the period following Labor Day is one of the major near-crisis points of the year. Since 2003, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has sponsored a local blood drive as one of its major community outreach events and to help curtail such shortages.
In August, the transit authority turned for a second year to its agency of record, Brokaw, to come up with a new hook to bring in donors. Brokaw's brainstorm: trade beer for blood.
When the Brokaw team was devising its 2003 campaign for the transit authority, one idea it floated was "A Pint for a Pint," a program in which donors would receive a coupon for a free beer from a local bar or restaurant, along with a free bus pass and a chance at dinner packages at area restaurants.
"We thought at that time it might be a little too out there," says John McCauley, director of PR for Brokaw. "But [in 2004] we decided, 'Let's do it. It's got the shock value, but let's do it in a tasteful way.'"
The campaign targeted a young crowd, especially college students and 20-something residents who live in a thriving area of Cleveland where old warehouses are being turned into upscale apartments, restaurants, bars, and shops.
"We were hoping to make a younger generation more aware and develop a practice of giving blood, which might help us in the future," says Steve Bitto, director of marketing and communications for the transit authority.
By creating buzz among the local media and the warehouse district residents, Brokaw hoped to generate high turnout at the blood drive.
In the weeks leading up to the two-day drive, Brokaw launched a poster campaign in participating neighborhood bars and restaurants. Likewise, the transit authority put up posters in train stations and on buses throughout its system.
Brokaw also created an innovative media kit that included a press release rolled up inside a pint glass with a blood-red inner lining. The firm met with health reporters from local TV stations to explain the campaign, and it was prepared to answer questions from media and community members who raised an eyebrow at the beer-for-blood connection.
"You're always going to get people to question, 'Gosh, should they have connected that?'" McCauley explains. "If someone has an issue of a drinking problem, that's a totally separate subject. We're just trying to draw attention to a critical issue and be up front and professional about it."
Despite poor weather, the blood drive attracted 56 donors, 21 of which were first-timers, yielding 43 usable pints of blood. Local American Red Cross officials also reported that subsequent local blood drives experienced spikes in donor activity.
Cleveland media jumped at the story, and nearly every local newspaper and television and radio station covered it, says McCauley.
When the AP picked up the story, the program attracted national attention from the likes of ABC, CNN, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and National Public Radio.
"It really highlighted the shortage and the need to give on a nationwide level," Bitto says. "It helped the Red Cross tell its story."
The blood drive has become the transit authority's signature community outreach event and will return this year.
"We'll probably do something even a bit more edgy," says McCauley.
PR team: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, American Red Cross, and Brokaw (all Cleveland)
Campaign: A Pint for a Pint
Time frame: Late August to mid-September 2004