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Stellar Partnerships

Finding the prince in a sea of frogs

Modern dating is a minefield. There are endless sites that claim to find you the perfect match or you can try your luck with Tinder or Bumble and hope you won’t get swiped left. It was much easier in my day when you could rely on introductions from friends or bagging an attractive groomsman at a wedding.

Finding the right corporate partner can be equally challenging. In the rush for new income you can make some poor choices and find that you’ve ended up with a frog instead of the prince. In the UK the restaurant chain Hooters sponsored an under-10s local boys’ football team to foster better community relations and increase its appeal. Hooters is famous for young waitresses in low cut and skimpy clothing, and their logo, the owl is American slang for women’s breasts. The sponsorship featured the Hooters logo on the boys shirts and a PR picture of the bemused looking kids with two of their curvy waitresses.

There was a storm of protest once the deal was announced, and social media users poked fun at the prospect of a touchline suddenly full of interested dads. The Football Association eventually banned the partnership, slamming it as inappropriate and detrimental to the health and welfare of young people.

Both corporate and non-profits need to think carefully about the right choice of partner. What might look a great idea for one side may be a poor fit for the other and be damaging to their reputation or market positioning.

If you’re weighing up new partnerships, you need think about more than just the income or a well-intentioned donation. Consider the following:

Brand and value alignment

Does the partner share similar values to your organisation? Will it reinforce or enhance your brand? Hooters clearly thought it would be beneficial to nurture the next generation of customers for their restaurants, but for the football club it was a poor fit. Matching primary aged boys with a highly sexualised and sexist brand didn’t sit well with the sporting values of inclusion, health and wellbeing. Importantly, even if you think it might be a good idea, consider the consumer perceptions of the brand alignment. When Heart Foundation gave their heart tick of approval to MacDonald’s they may have been applying technical criteria, but they had not considered the consumer perceptions of an association with junk food. It shredded their credibility and cost a lot more in negative publicity than the $300k donation.

Profile and audiences

Does the partnership enhance your relationship with your existing audience or help you access a new target audience? When Beyond Blue partnered with boot manufacturer Steel Blue it was a natural fit. Beyond Blue needed to reach a tough audience of young males who don’t quickly seek support with their mental health. Steel Blue wanted to deepen their connection to their core audience of young tradies and were able to provide mental health awareness and support.

Fit with strategic priorities

Consider whether this partnership advances your organisational goals beyond a financial donation. Does it contribute to knowledge, research or a core program? Would it be clear to your audience how it does that? On my supermarket shelf I once noticed a cause marketing campaign with Diabetes Australia and Energizer batteries. The link between the two wasn’t one that immediately stood out. Apparently, Energizer provides batteries in high tech medical devices, but it took some digging to find that connection. The link to either the corporate or the non-profit’s long term strategic goals wasn’t obvious.

Operational risks

Partnerships are long term investments of time and resources. Both corporates and non-profits need to weigh up what it will take to make this partnership succeed. Can you leverage your existing staff or budget? What are the deliverables and reporting requirements of each partner and are they realistic? Importantly, can you mitigate the risk of potential conflicts with another key partner? This was a challenge faced by breast cancer charities and their pink ribbon campaigns. When cause marketing was at its peak, plenty of brands wanted to come on board. But that meant plenty of category conflicts and a problem in differentiating between the benefits of a large-scale partnership versus a smaller, local one. Think about potential operational risks and how to mitigate them before you hit send on the contract.

Holistic value of the partnership

Some relationships are for a season, and some are stayers for the longer term. Being clear on the overall value of the partnership to your organisation, its goals and the time frame will help you make the choice between the best fit partners. I once negotiated with a large FMCG retailer about a cause marketing campaign. It became clear they only wanted a short-term winter promotion and weren’t interested in a long-term relationship. The phrase “I’ve only got a $50k budget, which disease can we cure for that?” has long stuck in my mind!

There is plenty of opportunity for corporate-community partnerships. Taking time to work through some key criteria will help you sort the best prospects from the potential energy suckers. You can find the handsome prince or princess, but you’ll need to find ways to identify the ones who’ll never be more than a frog.