As one component of a strategic CSR program, corporate philanthropy can boost employee engagement, enhance customer relationships, and decrease risk. But corporate giving can also provide big benefits to your brand.
Quick! Name a place to go get a coffee. Did you say Starbucks? The likelihood that your company name comes up when people are considering purchasing a particular product is brand awareness. Corporate philanthropy makes your brand more visible, generally by more frequent mentions because of the donation. For example, a gift to a local animal shelter could generate a news story and social media posts that include your brand.
Awareness alone isn’t enough to have much of an effect. But by carefully selecting a charity, you can associate your brand with other features or images. Audi is great at this: look in the program for any symphony or opera company in the U.S., and Audi probably has an ad. By sponsoring classy performing arts events, Audi’s brand is absorbing some of that classiness. Specifically, people associate “the kind of people who go to the opera” with “the kind of people who drive Audis.”
This even works on a more abstract level: consumers like to think of themselves as charitable, so a company that’s known for being charitable evokes positive brand feelings even without getting into specifics.
Credibility has three components — expertise, trustworthiness, and likability. Finding the right charity or cause can boost those components. Run a small accounting firm? Boost your perceived expertise by volunteering to be the board treasurer for a nonprofit. Want to improve your trustworthiness? Make a public pledge to support a charity over a period of time, and be sure to follow through. Want your brand to feel likable? Be involved with any charity at all!
Somewhat obviously, connecting your brand to the positive feelings associated with charity transfers those positive feelings back to you. This can even work when it’s not technically your firm doing the donating. For example, Round It Up America gives restaurant patrons the opportunity to “round up” their bill to the nearest dollar, with that money going to charity. It makes the patron feel good, and some of that good feeling is reflected back on the restaurant.
Brand communities form when image and emotion coincide - think about the group of people who closely identify with Harley-Davidson. A strategic CSR program could be designed to tap in to existing communities around a particular cause. A manufacturer of bicycle helmets could be active in an online discussion forum about concussions, not necessarily to sell helmets (that ship has sailed), but to share research and solicit help with product design. Coupled with a percentage of revenue going to concussion prevention and awareness, the firm could start building its own brand community.
The holy grail of brand building is engagement: when customers begin to invest their time and energy into a brand outside of normal purchases (see Harley-Davidson, or any pro sports team). Volunteering is the traditional way to use corporate philanthropy to drive brand engagement. Companies choose a volunteer project, and then invite friends, family and customers to help.
Another option with potentially greater reach is to build a community from scratch. A great example is the Orvis Cover Dog Photo Contest. People love their dogs and love taking pictures of their dogs. Orvis parlayed that into over $1 million for canine cancer research (paid for by customers), added a ton of new names to its mailing list, and didn’t have to pay for a stock photo for the cover of their catalog.
If you’re looking for a more academic take on this, be sure to check out “Building Brand Equity Through Corporate Societal Marketing” by Steve Hoeffler and Kevin Lane Keller in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.