Brand marketers build brand awareness—and goodwill—by sponsoring the actual event volunteers
It takes more than 10 000 volunteers to make the ING New York City Marathon a runaway success every year. Susan G. Komen for the Cure relies on 75 000 unpaid affiliates to keep its annual Race for the Cure events in the pink. And for many regional PGA tournaments hordes of local retirees serve as behind-the-scenes event support teams. Dedicated volunteers have long been the lifeblood of successful events but they have been largely overlooked by sponsors. Until now.
In the past two years Dunkin’ Donuts BlueCross BlueShield Frito-Lay’s SunChips and a handful of others have started taking notice. “When you’re supporting volunteers you’re supporting passionate people ” says Anne Smith marketing manager at SunChips. “And if you can reach passionate people and they become brand ambassadors everybody’s going to benefit.”
Looking for something with more heart than the average outfield signage deal? Here seven strategies for building a volunteer sponsorship program:
1. Pitch the Niche. Volunteer sponsorships are relatively new for most event organizers. Prepare to pitch the idea and then compromise on the deliverables. BlueCross BlueShield of Florida targets volunteers at local PGA tournaments but has to create custom sponsorship programs for each event. “There is definitely no status quo ” says Jeff Warnock BlueCross BlueShield of Florida’s senior manager-corporate marketing sponsorships and events. “They’re trying to promote goodwill and they don’t want to exploit those folks so go in with an open mind about what you can and cannot do.”
2. Shift Your Expectations. Carving out a new space at the event means letting go of some of the perks a pre-packaged sponsorship provides. In 2006 SunChips pitched and won the opportunity to be the national volunteer recognition sponsor for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. The program in its second year includes a volunteer wall on which race participants sign to say “thank you” at the end of the race a registration area on-site sampling and a web site where volunteers can chat pick up race photos and track upcoming events (Agency: Millsport Dallas). Smith isn’t getting the same media value as presenting sponsor Yoplait. But she is getting the same product trial opportunities—just for a lot less money. “We do have to take a backseat to other sponsors ” says Smith. “But when you go to the race you can sample both Yoplait and SunChips.”
3. Deck Them Out. Remind event organizers that special volunteers deserve special uniforms. For the ING New York City Marathon Dunkin’ Donuts outfitted thousands of volunteers with “America Runs on Dunkin’” branded baseball hats which could be seen everywhere along the 26.2-mile route. BlueCross BlueShield gets PGA volunteers out on the golf course in its branded t-shirts. “It’s a promotional army so to speak with people walking around wearing your logo ” says Warnock.
4. Create Media Appeal. When Jacksonville FL put the word out that it needed volunteers for 2005’s Super Bowl extravaganza BlueCross BlueShield stepped up to provide the city with uniforms and training assistance. The resulting media coverage sent the altruistic message the insurance provider was looking for. “Heath insurance is a very price-sensitive issue and sometimes advertising sponsorships and promotions just don’t go over very well ” says Warnock. “A volunteer program is a great way to show we are actually helping.”
5. Think Like A Chair. Race for the Cure is one of the largest volunteer-led organizations in the country. SunChips learned that race organizers nationwide were footing the bill for registration tents so it included the tents in its deliverables. “Think like the primary organizers and try to provide something they otherwise would have to pay for ” says Smith.
6. Stay On Strategy. SunChips’ specially designed pink bags have gained so much popularity that Smith regularly gets calls from organizations wanting the bags for their fundraisers and events. Be careful not to cannibalize the core brand message by over-promoting the sponsorship tie-ins. “Don’t rely on [the volunteer sponsorship] to drive your business objectives ” says Smith. “If people only buy you when you’re pink and don’t know who you are otherwise then you probably haven’t achieved the right goal.”
Dunkin’ Donuts has 99 percent brand awareness in the market so rather than using its marathon sponsorship to introduce a brand that needs no introduction at all it focused instead on driving trial and brand loyalty by giving volunteers free latte cards. “When you create a connection with the ING event… there’s a tremendous amount of loyalty with those who support it ” says Missy Maio field marketing manager at Dunkin’ Brands. “Creating loyalty with the brand is the key to our future.”
7. Leverage Training Opportunities. BlueCross BlueShield uses PGA volunteer training as a forum for short insurance presentations. It gives the company the opportunity to cater its message to a captive—and socially active—audience. “There’s ample opportunity within training sessions to get a clear message across ” says Warnock. “Usually people who are volunteers are active citizens who are talking. Their chances of making recommendations are higher than others.”