Fall typically marks the kickoff to charitable fundraising season and the restaurant industry has been a major player in helping a variety of causes, from hunger relief to breast cancer to literacy.
While these efforts are noble, it's also important for a brand to choose a cause that resonates with its customer base and makes business sense. Doing so can equate to not only a bottom line boost, but also a reputational boost.
According to a blog by Alden Keene & Associates, a consulting group that serves both businesses and nonprofits, cause marketing can directly enhance sponsor sales; help the company's public image and distinguish it from the competition; build employee morale; and heighten customer loyalty.
So, how does a brand choose the right cause, get employees emotionally invested, excite customers and execute the campaign to positively impact the bottom line?
Choosing the right charitable partner
Auntie Anne's recently teamed up with Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF), which raises money to fight childhood cancer, after franchise partners and corporate associates went through a collaborative process to determine a beneficiary that best resonated with the brand.
Bill Dunn, president and COO of Auntie Anne's, said the company was founded with a mission of giving, which has made it easier to get employees and franchisees on board. The process to identify the appropriate national partner involved the corporate office, franchise partners and Auntie Anne's agency, The Richards Group.
"Our research was extensive and based around our demographic, which is largely moms. Keeping that in mind, the pediatric cause category resonates throughout our entire system and with our customers, so that's where we started," Dunn said.
Auntie Anne's then picked the top three organizations that fit this designation criteria and conducted in-person interviews with them. The company presented the research to its franchisees and gained their feedback. Dunn said the process was thorough and took about a year.
Although Jersey Mike's Subs' franchisees have been partnering with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure for the past several years, the chain launched its first national initiative in May.
Like Auntie Anne's, Jersey Mike's charitable work is part of the company's mission statement. Unlike Auntie Anne's, however, the sub chain's objective was to appeal to non-core customers.
"We saw this was a wonderful fit and an opportunity to attract more women to our stores and broaden our consumer base," said Rich Hope, chief marketing officer at Jersey Mike's. "It's also been a beneficial partnership for Komen which was very interested in reaching our male customers with the message that they need to open a dialogue about breast cancer with their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, etc."
Selling the partnership to franchisees
Getting franchisees on board with its national Komen partnership wasn't difficult for Jersey Mike's, according to Hope. The company held town hall meetings with its franchisees throughout the country about building a large-scale awareness program to benefit the organization.
"Each time I asked how many people in the room had been affected by breast cancer, at least 50 percent of the hands went up, and in some cases it was 80 percent. As we heard franchisees tell their personal stories about how they have been touched by breast cancer either themselves or through friends or family members, we knew this was the right partner," Hope said.
Also, at the Jersey Mike's National Conference in June, breast cancer survivors and Komen representatives gave a presentation about the organizations. The company provided all franchisees with a copy of Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker's book "Promise Me," along with Mike's Way to a Cure t-shirts and pink polo shirts to build excitement.
Auntie Anne's also launched its partnership at its convention, held in September, which featured ASLF Founders Liz and Jay Scott.
"They spoke to franchisees during the event and had a booth which really furthered the relationship building and got people interested. During the short amount of time of the convention, three days, we generated more than $38,000 for ASLF. That showed our commitment right away and was really exciting," Dunn said.
Selling the cause to customers
To build awareness of the Komen campaign, Jersey Mike's went all out – releasing Komen-themed sandwich wraps and bags with the iconic pink design and color. Stores have also gone pink, including sneeze guards, meat case banners, register counter clings and donation boxes.
"The sub wrapping paper and to-go bags went a long way to build awareness. We wanted to make a statement and surprise people who were used to our traditional red and blue colors," Hope said.
Sixty-five percent of Jersey Mike's business is carry-out, so every time a pink-wrapped sub went out the door, it had the potential to be noticed, he added.
"Imagine the guys who are tailgating and bring their favorite Jersey Mike's subs in pink paper," Hope said. "That's a conversation starter."
Additionally, Jersey Mike's rolled out specially branded cups as part of a "Pink Ribbon Combo" or as an individual fountain drink sale with 70 cents each going to Komen, and "Mike's Way to a Cure" t-shirts with 100-percent of sales donated.
Auntie Anne's has focused on social networking, communicating to customers through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation is also using email blasts and social networking, perhaps tapping into new customers for the chain.
"There is a power of social networking and if you want to get a message out, it has to be one of the first steps you take. You have to find ways to communicate to every demographic effectively and this is how you reach them," Dunn said.
Translating into an ROI
Jersey Mike's expects to hit its goal of raising $1 million for the Komen organization, which will officially make the effort a win-win, according to Hope.
"We are so excited about the outcome – meeting our goal and we're also happy about the traffic in our restaurants. During a tough economy, we've seen positive same-store sales during the campaign and expect to be up 4 percent for the year," he said.
While the company is still crunching numbers, Hope said there have been new customers and he expects to see the demographic mix shift closer to its target of 50 percent men and 50 percent women.
Dunn said the return from cause marketing also includes the more intangible brand awareness boost.
"There are folks who are passionate about their organization that may not be aware of Auntie Anne's, for example, so that will definitely help our franchise partners and their business," he said. "I think any time two strong brands come together to bring awareness for a great cause, it's mutually beneficial."
Read more about cause marketing.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.