I’ve written several pieces on branding this year. In this blog post, I want to call attention to a brand-building strategy that can also build new revenues and create new clients.

Community engagement and cause marketing will lead to more robust relationships with the non-profit organisations, foundations, and corporate/social responsibility departments in your community.

While you are unlikely to find a significant advertising budget line item in their budgets, dig a little deeper and you’ll find they spend a very significant sum on outreach, marketing communications, event promotion, publications, and similar features. Your media organisation is uniquely positioned to be their “partner” in outreach.

Being involved with those players in your market who are striving to make the world a better place, help the needy, and make tomorrow a better day positions your organisation as an activist. The brand attributes in the B2C community of an engaged, “activist” organisation include words like vitality, energy, and relevance.

It is possible to strengthen a media company’s role in a local community.
It is possible to strengthen a media company’s role in a local community.

In the B2B community, your ability to wield your brand as a marketing partner to affect positive outcomes will enhance your a reputation as a “catalyst.” You want to be their most valuable marketing partner. In my career as a CMO, I estimate community engagement in various forms has generated well in excess of US$15 million in revenues.

What is critical here is the process by which you use your philanthropic engagement to forge these relationships.

Early in my marketing career, my department was asked to absorb the public and community relations functions during a downsizing exercise. (Sound familiar?) In fact, we were challenged by our corporate office to either demonstrate the efficacy of those community activities or diplomatically phase them out — quickly!

The question posed was: “We support a national foundation, so why are we making donations and engaging in unprofitable activities at a local operating unit?”

In other words, philanthropy was to be dispensed by our company’s national foundation, and profits were to be dispensed by the local media property.

Public and community relations activities were scrutinised closely to assess value and sustainability. We made a lot of changes, but we started with the concept that everything we did needed to:

  • Be mission driven/centric.
  • Contribute to our brand equity.
  • Be at least revenue neutral (in the short run) and preferably generate a revenue surplus.

Ultimately, we developed the following statement of our “philanthropic” philosophy:

The Art of Doing Good While Doing Well:

The art of structuring philanthropic activities in a manner consistent with the pursuit of long-term strategic business objectives.

Nearly 30 years ago, this was a revolutionary concept. But it worked. It worked remarkably well!

Here is how we approached what is today termed corporate and social responsibility:

We stopped trying to help everyone … and started thinking strategically.

  • We developed clear criteria to screen requests. We focused on causes that would resonate with our audience and/or community. Often these also addressed our community engagement and audience development goals.
  • The criteria included not supporting organisations that did not include us appropriately in their regular marketing spending. This generated a lot of new business from nonprofits that didn’t understand what we could do for them (services and products we offered) and how affordably we could do it. In fact, we developed an informal marketing audit process from which we were able to propose ways we could improve their marketing programmes.

We stopped writing checks … and started writing promotional grants.

  • We determined (correctly) we could be far more effective and generous if we provided promotional support in place of cash. Providing access to our audiences to recruit volunteers, solicit contributions, promote an event, sell tickets to a fundraiser, or invite participants to a walk or run really did much more to benefit the charities.
  • The grants were written to reflect the rate card value of the advertising donated but reflected in expense at incremental cost (e.g. a US$5,000 ad grant might actually cost as little as US$250 to us).
  • Incremental cash spending by the non-profit could, in certain circumstances, trigger disproportionate grant increases (e.g. a US$5,000 grant might multiply into a US$25,000 grant if there is a US$5,000 cash commitment available). This strategy morphed into “challenge grants” where the charity would solicit sponsorship support on the basis of the multiplier (if you provide 20% of the media budget, the media partner will provide a grant for the other 80%).

We focused on the “call to action” outreach and stopped running the “thank you” ads. 

  • We did acknowledge sponsors, honorees, and the like in the promotional support provided leading up to an event, but we never wasted our resources promoting an event after it was over.
  • If there was no role for the community, no way for them to participate or take action, then we simply didn’t get involved.

Cause marketing is not a new concept, and it is closely interwoven with the scenario I’ve described. Unfortunately, it is one I feel many newspaper media companies have woefully neglected.

As stated already, the best use of cause marketing is mission-centric, consistent with organisational goals and brand values. Health issues, hunger, homelessness, literacy, and other causes all have their champions, and each champion has some form of marketing budget. The key is to identify the causes and partners that are best for your organisation and the community you serve.

Here is a quick how-to guide:

  1. Understand brand/goal alignment: Finding the places where your goals and those of potential underwriters are aligned is the key to developing a successful cause marketing endeavour. Do some exploration — most organisations articulate their community and philanthropic commitments on their Web sites.
  2. Identify key partners: Do not limit your list of potential partners to your major advertiser list. In fact, don’t even start there. Major employers, nonprofits and foundations, government agencies, and even major corporations with no local presence may be significant prospects. And you will find those who hold the purse strings to funding in the area of corporate responsibility or philanthropy are not the same individuals who are placing ad schedules with your ad department.
  3. Develop programmatic opportunities: Developing financial support is easier when you can point to actual community engagement, events, or other forms of programming. These need not be events or programmes managed by your company; often you can partner with or adopt an existing initiative in your market. Don’t invent the wheel if it already exists.
  4. Creatively repackage visibility: Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of cause marketing is the fact that, more often than not, those who need it have no interest in or budget for “advertising.” But they do want visibility and mass communication. Including an advertising proposal in a grant request is the kiss of death. Proposing to buy a full-page ad or newspaper insert will not fly. Proposing to affordably print 250,000 information-rich “posters” and distribute them directly to homes in the service area is, however, “genius.“ There is always a line item for things like printing, Web marketing, and direct mail. Never is there a line item marked advertising. If so, it is the first item cut. Package your media in terms they find attractive and perceive as value.
  5. Be prepared to report outcomes: Unlike advertising clients, cause marketing underwriters clearly expect a report on what you have done with their money, not just an invoice.

Ultimately, while being a credible and trusted brand is integral to our success in audience development and an advantage in presenting to advertising clients, it is an intangible. It’s difficult to quantify and, I fear, subject to compromise in some media organisations in pursuit of ratings and revenue.

It may sound like a contradiction of terms, but monetisation of the brand value is not only feasible, it can actually be done in a manner that simultaneously builds brand value. It enables you to attract investment to amplify your organisation's role in community leadership, from both a moral and civic perpsective.

When you can build revenues, brand, and audiences all at the same time, I guess you really are “doing good while doing well.”