PR TECHNIQUE: Finding the right cause to support

For every company, there is a charity that would make a great partner. However, finding the right relationship is not easy.

For every company, there is a charity that would make a great partner. However, finding the right relationship is not easy.

It's hard to hate a charity. It's nearly as hard to dislike a company for lending its good name and resources to one. What's not difficult is resenting a company that's clearly cozying up to a nonprofit only to score some points with the public. That's why not every company is always a good candidate for a cause-related marketing campaign, those efforts in which companies pledge major financial support to a charity in return for use of its name in its marketing activities. If you're an agency person, it may seem like a no-brainer to arrange such a deal for one of your corporate clients, a great way to earn some credibility. But those who do it often say it's a delicate arrangement with the significant potential to backfire or simply fail. It requires a firm with well-honed matchmaking skills, as well as a company with deep pockets and dedication. A CEO with passion for a cause doesn't hurt, either. So which companies are the best candidates for a cause-related campaign? Nearly all can be - if the timing and the match are right. Experts say there is no company that can't find the right charity to team with and do some good while increasing sales. But do it at the wrong time with the wrong organizations, and there isn't any company that doesn't risk looking exploitative. "Cause-related programs should not be a Band Aid," says Cone president Carol Cone, who is often credited with institutionalizing the practice, even by her competitors. "Consumers are pretty smart, and they can see through a patina of insincerity pretty quickly." Her comments reflect those of most experts on the subject. Trying to deflect criticism or repair your image after a public scandal by partnering with a charity is likely to backfire. "Cause marketing is a nice insurance policy, but to some extent it can be very awkward to try and align someone with a charity after a crisis." agrees Melissa Radin, a principal with Boston-based boutique shop PowerPact. Of course, thanks to the due diligence usually performed on both sides of the equation, a scandal-tainted company isn't likely to find any takers anyway. "It's important for the charity to do research on the news front, to look at media clips, and see what is being reported about a company," says Petri R.J. Darby, former brand manager with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and author of several articles on the subject. "You need to ensure that the company is first committed to a cause and not just trying to get over something. Intent is very important." As the agency, it's important to make sure that due diligence takes place on both sides. Financials should be inspected and histories unearthed. Nobody wants to get involved with the next Enron, and in this day of Red Cross and United Way scandals, it's no longer safe to assume that all charities are beyond reproach, either. When marrying a company and a cause, it's important to find the right fit. Look at your client's brand and find a charity that complements it. A senior partner with pet supply chain Petco may have a soft spot for the March of Dimes, but teaming them up won't do much to ingratiate the company with pet owners. Conversely, Petco's customers probably aren't any more inclined than the general populace to donate to the prevention of birth defects. "It's important to have clarity of objectives," says Radin, who has overseen such successful partnerships as the one between yogurt-maker Yoplait and pharmaceutical company Aventis. "We think you have to move the needle on the issue for the charity and move bottom-line sales for the company. If either isn't happening, it's not a successful partnership." The key is a common audience. The relationship between Yoplait and Aventis works because the yogurt maker wants to reach health-conscious women, and Aventis makes drugs to treat breast cancer. But a common audience is only the beginning. Cause-related programs do little good in the short run. They are about building credibility over time, and that requires a major commitment of money on behalf of the company. "The programs that break through are the long-term ones that involve multimillion-dollar commitments from large companies," says Cone. "From the agency side, you really need to advocate for sufficient funds." Surviving the long term takes more than just money, however. You need to be sure the company is truly dedicated to sticking with the program over the years. Choosing a charity based on the passions - and self-interests - of people in the front office isn't a bad idea. It's why Ron Sachs Communications recently decided to team Volvo with the American Automobile Association for a national safe-driving initiative, Drive for Life. "Volvo prides itself on having engineered one of the safest cars in the world, if not the safest. It's their number-one pitch point," offers Ron Sachs. "This was an opportunity for them to take a leadership role in a national safety initiative that is probably worth millions of dollars in ad value." Volvo has a vested interest in the cause, and hence isn't likely to drop out lightly. "You need to have the support from the leadership of the company," says Darby. "It always has to be a top-down commitment. You have to consider what the company wants to achieve from a program to determine whether it is dedicated to committing the resources." Ultimately, the most important thing for an agency to bear in mind is that while there is much it can do to bring a company together with a charity, it should never push the idea on either party. The impetus for the partnership must come from the company. "We don't ever try and convince a client they need a cause," explains Cone. "We believe that in order for companies to do sincere and deep cause branding, they need to come to that realization themselves, whether it's their need to have a more humane face, the need to inspire employees, or their need to connect deeper with women and teens. I've been doing cause work for 20 years and have never persuaded anybody to do one." ----- Technique tips Do perform due diligence. Nobody wants to be hooked up with the next Enron Do push for a significant commitment of money from the company Do find a charity that resonates with the deeper self-interests of the front office Don't enter into a charitable partnership as a way to salvage your image following a scandal Don't expect major short-term results. Cause-branding is a long-term business Don't push a hesitant company or charity into a partnership. The initiative must come from them

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