How to Successfully Align Your Company with the Right Cause

Aligning your company with a nonprofit group or cause—or "cause marketing"—is a way to give back to your community while building credibility and good will for your business. It can translate into customer loyalty and sales.

The idea began with an American Express campaign in 1983 that helped restore the Statue of Liberty. Since then, strategies and revenue for cause marketing have multiplied. In 2008, corporate sponsorships are expected to hit $16.8 billion, up nearly 13% over 2007, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based industry newsletter.

Certainly, cause marketing sends a message that your business isn't only about making money. But cause marketing is not the same thing as outright contributing to charity. It can give your business name-recognition, and is a sharp weapon in the marketing toolbox. Here's some advice about getting some true business bang from linking your company time, skills, or bucks to causes you care about.

Believe in the cause but watch the bottom line

The first step to success in such partnerships is to make sure your advocacy is authentic. There's no mileage in supporting an issue that doesn't resonate with you and your company. Customers are bound to catch on, which could cause your efforts to backfire.

After that, take a hard, analytic look at the potential business benefits.

"Cause marketing was one of the primary marketing vehicles used to get my company on the map," says Adrienne Lenhoff Wise, who owns Shazaaam PR agency, based near Detroit. She says the agency has provided pro bono services of $3.5 million since its launch in 2001.

"We've worked with nonprofits ranging from local to regional and national in scope," she says. Cause marketing works best, according to Wise, when you combine the passion or belief in the cause with clear benefits to the business bottom line. Her alignment with groups such as those in breast cancer research, the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University, and the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners helped raise significant dollars for those causes. Meanwhile, the relationships offered Wise a network of potential clients and elevated her company profile and reputation among executives. All of that translated into business.

Make the cause match your mission

If you run a bakery, you likely don't want to choose a charitable partner that promotes low-fat diets. That's a disconnect.

Think about your target customers and which causes will press their (and your) buttons. That way, you’ll provide additional motivation for buying your products.

Decide what you can and want to give

After you go through the process of choosing the right causes, consider the appropriate donation. Don't commit to contributions that will strain your resources or interest.

Consider where you can make the most impact with the resources you have, advises Jaci Reid, co-owner of Westin Rinehart, a marketing and PR firm based in Washington D.C. Reid's firm hosts a women-only annual "Behind the Bench" luncheon for the National Basketball Wives Association, an association of NBA players' wives that donates money to charitable organizations across the United States.

Before you cement a deal, evaluate what you want to gain from such a partnership.

Besides brand credibility, you can enhance your company image, differentiate your brand from the competition, grow customer loyalty, improve employee recruitment efforts and expand your professional network or potential clients.

Tangible benefits might include increased sales and publicity, such as having the company name visible on banners at walkathons, on posters at events, or as the sponsor of Web sites. You also might want to tap the help of the nonprofit organization’s communications or donor network for local media coverage.

Hold the organization accountable

Although you're working with a nonprofit, make sure you emphasize the business benefits of your agreement. After all, you and the organization are teaming up to leverage your combined brand equity and resources.

Ask for specific results and ask in writing for the details. This could include how often and where your company’s name will appear, and how the charity will describe your contribution or sponsorship in marketing material and on Web sites.

Most importantly, get a signed contract that includes details about how the organization will measure results. This doesn’t mean formal surveys or polls, but you should see periodic reports about results.

Alternatively, you can set up meetings with your nonprofit counterpart to review how sales or promotions are going.

Spread the news of your sponsorship

If you simply want to contribute to charity, just write a check. But this is marketing, so think about spreading the word.

Beyond sending press releases to local media, you might include news of your efforts in an e-newsletter to customers and in the nonprofit's newsletter to its constituents.

You can also create a brochure about your partnership for your online media kit.

Keep the long view in sight

Don't forget that cause marketing typically takes time to yield results, which is another reason to choose a cause you care about.

Maggie Gallant, founder of Spotlight Communications PR agency in New York, recalls a campaign she created for Lifetime Television. It brought celebrity advocates such as "Desperate Housewives" star Marcia Cross to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress about ending "drive-through mastectomies," the practice of forcing women to leave the hospital after breast cancer surgeries before doctors feel they're ready.

Gallant says the campaign taught her to take the long view about cause marketing. Identifying and recruiting appropriate celebrity spokespeople (singer Jewel was another one), convincing the stars to sign on, and then managing the process and the media coverage for the congressional appearance took months of work. When it was over, however, Gallant had earned serious bragging rights and a national profile for her boutique PR firm. Her advice: "Don't expect accolades for producing a one-hit wonder for your advocacy partners. Make the commitment and stick to it."

This article was written by Joanna L. Krotz, founder of Muse2Muse Productions, a custom content company for business and consumer magazines, newsletters, and digital imprints. She is co-author of The Microsoft Small Business Kit, a 500-page guide to launching and running a small business.
Source: Microsoft Live Office