Brand and charity tie-ups: guilt-free by association

For brands wishing to be sensitive to the current climate, tying up with a charity can be a winning formula.

Brand and charity tie-ups: guilt-free by association

From BP to Tesco and Save the Children to the Victoria & Albert Museum it seems brands and charitable organisations can't get enough of each other - and for good reason. High-profile corporate partnerships between brands and arts institutions or charities are successfully weathering the recession.

Charities are looking for fresh ways to engage potential donors amid the recession. Brands, mean-while, are seeking more worthy and flexible ways to boost equity along with a feel-good factor, as corporate entertaining and sports sponsorship come under growing scrutiny from shareholders, the media and the public.

Partnerships with brands offer numerous benefits for charities. Moreover, the plethora of emerging tie-ups involving well-established organisations such as UNICEF, as well as smaller charities such as Breast Cancer Care, alongside cultural institutions such as the British Museum, underlines the growing appreciation of the power of such alliances among non-profit organisations.

'Charities want corporate sponsorship money, but they also want to use the association to boost awareness, increase funds or change public perceptions,' says Max du Bois, executive director at brand communications agency Spencer du Bois.

As well as funding, corporate partnerships can also provide a way to amplify a charity's message. Oxfam has had success with its high-profile clothing-exchange programme with Marks & Spencer, as well as tie-ups with Aviva and Vodafone. Oxfam uses the partnerships as a media platform and another opportunity to get its message out to the public. 'Retailers such as M&S have a huge influence over consumers, and being able to promote our message among that audience via a partnership is a vital benefit,' says Liz Lyle, corporate relationships manager at Oxfam.

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Mark Bishop, director of fundraising at The Prostate Cancer Charity recognises a similar benefit. 'Linking up with big brands [including Honda, Tesco, M&S and LoveFilm] gives us a platform for providing a health-awareness message that could otherwise go unheard.'

For arts institutions, relationships with brands also have considerable benefits, beyond the sponsorship fees. This year's Indian Summer tie-up between the British Museum and HSBC, for example, attracted additional visitors and a fresh business-executive audience to the Museum.

The V&A's corporate partnerships, meanwhile, are distinct, with each bringing different benefits to the museum. Jo Ani, the V&A's head of corporate partnerships, cites the museum's tie-up with Ernst & Young and Action for Children for the 'Art Matters' initiative. 'It is helping us to engage with some of the most vulnerable and excluded young people in the UK that we may not have ordinarily been able to reach.'

Charities can also benefit from the knowledge about business issues that brands can contribute. HSBC, for example, was the first major bank to become carbon-neutral and it now helps its charity partners, which include WWF and Earthwatch, to achieve the same.

Such associations also offer pronounced advantages to brands, especially if the partnership is put to work on multiple levels. 'From a brand point of view, there are lots of commercial benefits,' says Douglas Campbell Rouse, head of corporate partnerships at Save the Children. 'Products can take the charity's branding, driving sales and helping retain customers as well as attract new ones.'

Reckitt Benckiser has an ongoing relationship with Save The Children, a partnership rooted in the organisations' common themes of health, hygiene, family and home. 'Some consumers really care about people who don't have access to the products that they do, and they therefore feel better about the brand if they know it is helping,' says Andrea Dawson Shepherd, global corporate affairs director at Reckitt Benckiser. So, while offering donations via purchases of products, such as Nurofen and Dettol, boosts sales and raises funds, the resulting equity this builds for the brand is the most important benefit.

Such product-based partnerships offer a big opportunity to raise funds. For IKEA, which has traditionally been rather modest about the work it does with Save The Children and UNICEF, there has been a growing realisation that by investing more in promoting the partnership, both internally and externally, more funds will be raised. 'While the IKEA brand is not the motivation for the activity, it does provide a method of spreading the message further, so it is a win-win situation,' says IKEA spokeswoman Nicki Craddock.

As a result, the Swedish furniture and homewares retailer is planning its biggest promotional drive to date next month. It will include direct communications as well as in-store magazines and radio, for a soft-toys campaign to raise money for children's charities. 'The more soft toys we sell, the bigger the difference we can make to children around the world,' says Craddock. 'It is about doing good business and making more money so that more can go toward helping the cause.'

Charity partnerships also provide copious potential to boost employee engagement, and subsequently improve morale, as well as raising awareness among staff. This sort of holistic approach to charity partnerships is becoming more prevalent. 'There has been a shift from traditional philanthropic donations to looking at projects and programmes that are more win-win,' says Oxfam's Lyle.

HSBC, for example, has ties with environmental charity Earthwatch and sends employees to visit projects. 'It is good for motivation and makes employees more likely to stay with the company and become effective brand ambassadors,' says Nigel Pate, head of environmental partnerships at HSBC.

Of course it is not all about staff motivation. With marketing budgets facing unprecedented scrutiny, such ties must have tangible business benefits, too. HSBC partnered with the V&A last year for its China Design Now initiative as part of the bank's Cultural Exchange programme focusing on emerging markets. This year's aforementioned Indian Summer tie with the British Museum, meanwhile, comprises exhibitions and events focusing on the subcontinent. 'Our cultural partner-ships need to deliver strong benefits for the brand, business and community,' says Marah Winn-Moon, global head of cultural sponsorship at HSBC.

Despite the need to be seen as socially responsible, brands embarking on charity partnerships need to be aware that their actions and motivations will be under the spotlight. Charities, NGOs and particularly arts organisations also leave themselves open to accusations of 'selling out'.

Shell's sponsorship of the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize is a case in point. It was pulled in 2008 after drawing accusations of hypocrisy, due to the oil company's contribution to climate change. BP's partnerships with the museum have courted similar controversy and called into question the integrity of such institutions for accepting sums of money from businesses.

Despite these issues, many brands are beginning to see the benefits of shifting from corporate entertainment and sports sponsorship toward teaming up with savvy non-profit partners. 'Arts and charities sponsorships are cheaper than sports properties, and in an environment where budget is under scrutiny, there is little appetite for sit-down gala dinners,' says Michelle Wright, arts and sports sponsorship director at Four Communications.

A charity partnership can generate profit and brand equity while boosting CSR credentials and employee engagement. In an uncertain economic climate where consumer trust in major consumer brands has been eroded, a charity tie-up might be just the tonic.