Web Exclusive | May 2012 | By Robert Lillegard

Charity, Brand are Ties that Bind

Quick serves find that charitable efforts are a good opportunity to build the brand, too.

Firehouse Subs raised $350,000 at last year's tennis tournament.
Firehouse Subs raised $350,000 at last year's Men’s Doubles Tennis Tournament.
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From May 18–20, Firehouse Subs hosted the annual Firehouse Subs Men’s Doubles Tennis Tournament, which featured hot subs, face painting and bounce houses for children, and tennis matches played by nationally ranked players.

The tournament is an integral part of the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and helps equip, educate, and fund public safety entities—a mission close to the heart of the brand’s founders, who were firemen.

Firehouse Subs isn’t the only quick serve closely linking its branding with its charitable efforts. Increasingly, companies have found they can succeed both in business and in charity by donating time and money to efforts that fit nicely with their overall brand image.

Robin Peters, executive director of the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, says its creation in 2005 was a no-brainer for the founders.

“You’ve got this firefighting history that is really ingrained in our founders’ heritage,” Peters says. “Here, we have a foundation that understands the needs of firefighters. It connects immediately with who we are and what we’re about.”

The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which is a separate 503(c)(3), makes between 30 and 50 donations a quarter. Recent donations have included a dog to a K-9 unit in Mesa, Arizona, for search and rescue and drug detection; a defibrillator to a volunteer fire unit in South Carolina; and a thermal imaging camera to a fire unit in Texas.

“It's important for a brand to have a message that they stand behind.”

The Men’s Doubles Tennis Tournament is a major fundraising piece to the Foundation; it raised $375,000 this year, a $25,000 increase over last year. But the brand also raises money on the local level. Each of the 506 Firehouse Subs stores has an acrylic donation canister; customers can round their meal off to the nearest dollar and donate the rest. Stores also sell their empty 5-gallon pickle buckets for $2 each, and during October, which is Fire Safety Month, sell $1 and $5 medallions.

Peters says these local-store efforts are a key part of fundraising.

“Fifty percent comes from restaurant initiatives,” Peters says. “Considering we’ve only been in existence since 2005, we get great donations at the restaurant level.”

Another brand with focused charitable giving efforts is Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. Paige Blackorby, senior marketing manager for the Dallas-based, 210-unit chain, says that while operators are involved in many different charitable causes, veterans’ issues are particularly important to the entire brand.

“Many of our operators are veterans themselves, so they’re involved with several different veterans organizations,” Blackorby says.

In fact, the chain’s founder, Travis Dickey, started his first restaurant after serving in World War II. Now the chain offers a 33 percent discount to veterans who want to open their own franchises.

Dickey’s has been quick to serve veterans near its corporate headquarters. Last year, it served 600 free meals to homeless vets and supported the Veterans Outreach Program and Rebuilding Together Greater Dallas.

Gary Stibel, CEO of the New England Consulting Group, says that while cause-related marketing can be very effective, it has to be more involved than a simple well-publicized donation.

“Most pay lip service to it and do token efforts,” Stibel says. “You’ve got to be legitimate in terms of what you are doing.”

Stibel points to the Ronald McDonald House Charities as an example of the right approach. He says the good rapport that charity has built helps silent any critics of McDonald’s.

“[It] has actually done a good job buffering and protecting McDonald’s,” Stibel says. “One could argue that had it not been for that, Ronald McDonald would not still be with us today.”

Of course, this kind of cause-related marketing is an investment in time and money. But brands looking at expanding their giving, experts say, should remember that the payoff is more than just a moral one.

“Sometimes people can relate more to a message if you tie it in to a cause that they know about,” Blackorby says. “It’s important for a brand to have a message that they stand behind.”