CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/COMIC RELIEF - Best intentions don't always get the best results

What do brands really get out of their cause-related marketing, Ian Darby asks.

While Comic Relief's Red Nose Day has increasingly come to resemble a showcase for the comedy performers of yesteryear, some of the UK's most dynamic brands are now associated with its efforts for good causes.

The sell-by date on the talent of Lenny Henry, French & Saunders and Billy Connolly may have passed long ago but some of the UK's largest advertisers and strongest brands, such as Walkers, Mr Kipling, Sainsbury's, Vauxhall and Persil, continue to back the fundraising effort.

There are a total of 46 Red Nose Day corporate partners. But why is there such interest from advertisers and is getting involved as wise as it might appear to be?

The principles of cause-related marketing, the high falutin' expression for the corporate world doing good work for charity, make it clear that there must be some payback for the brand or company involved. Brands can achieve benefits while achieving good for a community or heightening awareness of an important issue.

Many of the key players in Red Nose Day seem to have these principles at heart. Walkers is perhaps the most prominent sponsor of this year's antics, with an upfront donation of £1 million, and 1p from every pack of special Baked Bean flavour crisps going to the charity.

Arguably, Walkers' TV advertising from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, featuring a host of flatulent celebrities, will prove to be funnier than much of the content of Red Nose Day itself. And that includes the hilarious conclusions to Celebrity Driving School and Comic Relief Does Fame Academy.

The campaign, which also involves a huge whoopee cushion giveaway promotion, will have been on-air for more than a month by Red Nose Day. But why did Walkers decide to link with Comic Relief? "Comic Relief and Walkers are two brands that people trust and the promotion has had mass appeal for mums, kids and schools. But it has also provided an opportunity to build on our existing links with education - for example, the Free Books for Schools promotion and other school partnerships that we are involved with on a local level," a Walkers spokeswoman says.

Walkers' involvement with Comic Relief certainly seems comprehensive, covering everything from on-pack promotion to local community work. But in hard business terms what will the sponsorship deliver? Mark Mulherne, the account director on Walkers at AMV, says: "The thing is to balance commercialism and philanthropy. Red Nose Day is a highly productive event that will increase exposure to the brand while providing internal focus, because it's great for employee activity. Value targets are attached to the activity, which features a great call to action."

The brand expects to generate more than £1.4 million for Comic Relief from sales of special packs, and clearly these projected sales of more than one million won't do its own revenues any harm.

Perhaps one of the more intelligent brand fits with Red Nose Day, which this year is subtitled "The Big Hairdo", is Wella. The emphasis on comedy hair throughout Red Nose Day has provided Wella with an opportunity to become Official Hair Partner of Red Nose Day. Its use of Gareth Gates in its advertising provides it with plenty of exposure on the night itself. In addition, Wella is providing free gel samples with each Red Nose sold, while arranging fundraising activities at its retail outlets.

Wella's involvement with Comic Relief may be an ideal link but some are doubtful about the value of big business working with Comic Relief. Steve Hilton, a founder of the social marketing agency Good Business, says: "In terms of social benefit, ad hoc spontaneous charity appeals are very much part of the charity landscape and clearly help good causes but they can be pretty superficial. My problem with the British model is that companies are insufficiently creative about using their core business activities for social good."

Hilton argues that UK companies could do more to use their brands' cultural power to make a deeper impact on customers around issues such as health, crime and poverty, rather than creating one-off benefits from event sponsorships.

"It doesn't mean it's bad, just old hat," he says. "Some employees like it but there is so much more brands could do with a more strategic approach."

Walkers, for one, would argue that it is taking a strategic approach to its involvement with Comic Relief. It argues that the activity links with its heritage including its Make a Wish Foundation, which saw children design Christmas packs, and its Free Books for Schools work (6.7 million books to more than 30,000 schools) in focusing on issues around education.

Sainsbury's, another AMV client, has a long-running association with Comic Relief. Its advertising this time around has used Jamie Oliver, James Nesbitt and Gareth Gates to drive awareness of Red Nose Day and to tell people that they can buy red noses at Sainsbury's. It argues that the largest benefits, aside from the £5 million it raised for Comic Relief around the last event, are a large boost to staff morale, a positive impact on the number of customer visits and the reflection of Comic Relief's brand values (fun and trustworthiness) on its own.

This, in a nutshell, is why brands link with Red Nose Day. They should just hope that the event itself lives up to their support.