By leveraging a specific cause to communicate with its target audience and by finding a creative way to activate it across its sponsorship portfolio, Bank of America adopted a very clever strategy.
Causes have become a particularly interesting way for companies to capture public attention, foster a feel-good sentiment—which improves their brand image—and even stimulate purchase intention in some product categories.
Philanthropic donations are not a new phenomenon for companies, but brands are increasingly turning to social responsibility to avoid criticism, stimulate their employees and positively influence consumers. For a company, the simple act of being “generous” doesn’t guarantee public awareness (or the benefits that can be gained from such awareness). Some brands earmark significant funds for donations, but are then outsmarted on the awareness level by less generous rivals who have done a better job of making their actions known.
Bank of America has been involved with American veterans for 90 years. Their main objective is to help members of the military transition into civil life with reinsertion, education and hiring programs. They also provide products and services that are adapted to their needs. The results have been impressive: since 2009, 10,000 new jobs have been created for veterans, more than 14 million dollars has been donated to the cause, two million houses have been financed, 1,900 other houses have been provided free of charge, and bank employees have volunteered 40,000 hours of their own time. In 2012, the campaign Express Your Thanks was launched to drive awareness of the historic ties that bind the financial institution to the veteran cause. The bank also seized the chance to activate several commercial sponsorships under the umbrella of the program.
The program gets rolled out in the form of annual campaigns that serve to communicate the important role that the bank plays in veterans’ lives and to increase the public’s overall appreciation of veterans. It also helps the public see the challenges that soldiers face when they return to civil life, and raises funds to support them at every step of the process. Since the first campaign, Bank of America has raised 2.4 million USD for the cause. One of its many initiatives is to invite people to express their thanks towards active or retired members of the armed forces. The testimonials can take the form of messages, photos or videos and must be shared on social media, on the platform website or in the framework of certain events. For each testimonial shared, the bank donates one dollar to the Wounded Warrior Project, which comes to the aid of soldiers who were injured during their military service.
What makes this initiative so original is that it ties in perfectly with Bank of America’s commercial sponsorships—properties like NASCAR and the NFL. The bank effectively chose to activate these sponsorships in a way that would drive awareness of the veteran cause. It’s worth mentioning this because it is rare to see such a degree of overlap between a company’s commercial sponsorships and its social responsibility efforts. To pull off such a feat, the bank first did a study of some of its large-scale properties and discovered that their respective audiences were receptive to the cause they were championing. This insight enabled the bank to deploy a communication strategy to better interact with the public. For a bank that is part of a product category that doesn’t typically inspire much passion, their ability to strike a chord with their target audience proved to be decisive. The fact that the bank is involved in such a concrete way with veterans also puts them on firm ground to communicate their message and protects them from undue criticism.
The other important aspect that makes the bank’s positioning so effective from a sponsorship standpoint is their ability to focus on a single cause and rally their existing sponsorship programs around it. Too many companies have a scattered approach to donations and causes, and, as a result, they don’t garner any concrete benefits when it comes to communication or business objectives.
Lastly, the Express Your Thanks program has relied on public participation since it began back in 2012—a relatively novel concept at the time—enabling them to generate more media coverage than a commercial initiative could ever have done.
So what should we take away from this partnership? First and foremost: if you can find an original way to connect different properties within your sponsorship portfolio, do it. Also, if you’re going to support a cause, it’s best to have a relevant connection to it, and it’s crucial that your involvement go deeper than a simple donation program. This partnership also demonstrates that focusing your efforts, rather than adopting a more scattershot approach, tends to pay off big.
Brands are beginning to understand that, when executed well, cause sponsorships can provide a lot of competitive advantages. As a result, they are choosing their causes more strategically and considering their own interests in the matter. Charitable organizations are feeling the repercussions of this paradigm shift, as they now have to compete with commercial properties in the race to meet their sponsors’ business and communication objectives. In other words, if they want to enjoy the perks that come with sponsorship, they’ll have to evolve with the times and take a hard look at their own strategies moving forwards.