The creation and implementation of effective alliances is nothing new for virtually all departments. We all have mutual aid agreements and contractual obligations with other jurisdictions for a variety of services. But the environment is getting better for the formation of strong, mutually beneficial alliances with the private sector as well as other non-profit organizations. The public continues in its support for the fire service community. This means that the opportunity to form alliances and sponsorships with other diverse organizations and the private sector has never been better. So how do you do this in such a great environment? First have a plan.
Alliance Development is a Part of the Marketing/Public Affairs Plan
It's important that alliance development become part of the department's overall marketing plan. It is a part of the "relationship sector" (the who) of the Marketing ICS System. When the marketing or public affairs plan is broken out of the departmental strategic plan there should be a section on alliance development and sponsorships. Then it's a matter of who, what, how and when.
A quick point about definitions. I use the terms sponsorship and alliance development interchangeably sometimes. However, I believe there is a difference. I prefer the term alliance development because it denotes a long-term progression of the relationship. It means that this relationship is going to move forward based on the fact that both organizations (the fire department and the ally firm or organization) have decided that they have enough in common to form a mutually beneficial relationship. Also, the term, development, denotes that you are going to grow or build something together. It has all of the earmarks of good marketing: exchange for mutual gain. The next step is to consider the universe of possible allies.
Who Should You Choose for an Alliance Partner?
Allies and sponsors can come from extremely diverse sources. You just never know who might want to ally with a fire department. This brings us to a few filters to consider when forming an alliance.
First, make sure that the companies you are considering are large enough to even support a sponsorship alliance. Most in smaller towns are not. The companies that can support such an initiative may be taken or are approached by every cause in the neighborhood. Regardless, you should always assume that you are in competition with someone if not just another use for the company's budget. Your job is to prove that your reasons are compelling enough to deserve a portion of the marketing or sponsorship budget.Discuss: Fire Service Marketing In The Public Information & Media Relations Forums on Firehouse.com
Naturally, you would probably want to focus on organizations and firms that might have something in common with your department. The obvious ones are companies that produce emergency equipment and supplies. Other obvious examples are insurance and security companies. The problem here is that these firms may be too obvious. Everybody goes to them first. My suggestion is to consider a wide range of possibilities. You can always shorten the list later. What firms and organization in your jurisdiction are marketing to the public in a big way?
Secondly, who has a significant enough budget to provide the support your department needs? Try not to waste time with small firms that can only provide minimal financial or in-kind support. This can be a real problem because it takes just as much time (usually more) to work with a small sponsor as with a large one. This brings me to a very important point: alliance development can be very time consuming. If you are going to do it, you must have a system and people in place to handle it.
As I have stated in the past, a fire department is not a marketing company but an emergency service. Marketing is only a tool to support this effort. The best situation is to form an alliance with one or two organizations or firms that can assist your efforts with their own manpower. They will want to do this because they will understand the strength of fire department brand equity.
Within the last 10 years the term cause related marketing (CRM) has become a multi-million dollar industry. Companies want to be involved with organizations that have a cause because they want to be seen as good corporate citizens. We are all familiar with the many, many causes that companies support. Search out firms that want to contribute to making a difference in the community and in peoples' lives.
You may also want to work with national or global companies that have regional offices in your jurisdiction. Be sure to consider national firms that have regional offices such as restaurant companies, building materials companies, rent-a-car companies or grocery chains). Specific examples might include Home Depot, Giant Foods, First Alert or Outback Steak House. Think about companies that would have a reason to partner with you. Lowe's has its own spin-off Home Safety Council in Washington, DC led by former NFPA Vice President, Meri-K Appy.
Consider media partners as well. While most media companies do not have so much cash, they can give you exposure, thus leading to public support. If you have a department in a small town, approach the biggest businesses you can find. Once you have chosen a target list, you prioritize and have a meeting with people in the firm.
One quick note about timing: my suggestion is to begin forming the relationship very early on, even before you decide that you need something. Remember this: step one in the development of any marketing effort is to establish a relationship with the market. Do this even before you have a marketing plan or alliance strategy. Just ask yourself the question: whom should we know and how do we want to be known? Then go see the neighbors.
Approach to Potential Ally
My suggestion is to call the highest-level person you can. Even better, try to get a referral from someone who knows someone in the firm who can put you close to people who can make a decision to ally with your department. That way, it's not a "cold call." Another option is to approach someone in corporate communications or marketing if the company is big enough to have one. Try to get some company collateral (annual report or mission statement) to determine how the company markets and to whom. This way you can demonstrate that you did your homework.
Before you meet, you need a bulletproof presentation. This does not have to be a slick PowerPoint kind of thing (although it can be). It can just be a 15-minute discussion. Just have your thoughts organized toward a goal.
Most important, read your audience and understand what approach makes them comfortable. Be prepared to speak to a cast of thousands or just one person. Involve everyone in your objectives. This means secretaries. Take the time to explain in earnest why you want to have a meeting. You will never regret burying your ego and speaking one-to-one with many people in the organization about your purpose. This really involves good "consultative selling" or asking the right questions. It means knowing how the department's mission and vision can apply to those in the firm you wish to approach.
Demonstrate your interest in the company you are approaching. Ask about their marketing goals and plans. In this way you can find out where you might fit into those goals. Know what you want without ever having your hand out for a donation. Businesses rarely do something for altruistic reasons. Remember, you have a brand equity that is worth its weight in gold: fire department and emergency service. Your market is the entire market in your community. You can help get a company exposure in places that may not be so easy for your potential ally.
Determining Your USP and the Value Equation
- Why we are approaching the particular client? What makes the potential relationship a good fit?
- What are your various goals? What do you need? How do your goals and needs mesh with the goals of this particular ally?
- What value do you have to offer? What's in it for the potential ally? This means the kind of exposure they will receive. Where can they have their logos or marks in association with your department?
- What is your "unique selling proposition" (USP) besides the fact that you are the fire department? What is special about your department as an organization?
- What benefits will the potential ally receive? This can have as much of an internal mechanism as an external one. For example, you might provide some basic services for the employees of the ally: blood pressure checks, inspections, safety training, CPR classes, etc.
- Finally, my suggestion is to have some specific guidelines regarding how the potential ally can use the department logo and marks. It's OK to be very particular about this. It gains respect, shows you know the real value of your brand and service to the community and that you are not giving it away for "crumbs". As an example, you might have different levels of participation, giving more "rights" for the more support (value-in kind/VIK or dollars) the department receives. You need to be able to define these categories clearly.
- Once the potential ally agrees to work with the department every aspect of the plan should be put into a simple contract or letter of agreement. This can act as the "battle plan" for implementing the sponsorship. It should define each element of value, how it will be delivered, who will do it and within what time period. If there is money involved it should state how much and when the department will receive it.
- If the sponsorship is event-based or even if it is an on-going alliance, put measurements in place to assist you in demonstrating the value of the alliance to the partner. These might include the numbers of people who are exposed to the company's brand, or anecdotal stories of the goodwill the alliance has created, or, perhaps in the case of an alliance with a smoke alarm company, how many alarms were sold.
The most important reason to manage the relationship is so you do not have to ever ask for another alliance, especially from the same company or organization. A good understanding of ROI (return on investment) dictates that the time involved to create new alliance partners necessitates that you keep the ones you have already established. It costs more to gain new sponsors and allies than to maintain the ones you have. This is the one truth that most organizations pay lip service to, yet do not really appreciate, understand or make a critical part of the plan. Yet it can be the easiest part of the alliance if maintained. It is a matter of good communication and integrity. It means keeping the relationship active over time.
A designated person in the department should manage the relationship throughout the entire process. This is the point person for implementing the sponsorship activities in the case of events such as Fire Prevention Week. In the case of a large alliance such as the land for a fire station or equipment or apparatus, this person should still maintain contact with the sponsor and make those in the company feel like they are part of the relationship.
Remember, the employees inside the ally company are key customers of the leaders of that company. Many sponsorships are created to boost company morale. Nothing makes people in a company feel good about their leadership than being allied with a fire department, especially if they can see the results of that relationship or be a part of it. An alliance is like a marriage in many ways. Even the best alliances will have problems. It is up to you to be prepared to handle them because they will come up.
Making Alliance or Sponsorship Part of the Departmental Plan
Based on the success of your sponsorships and alliances this part of good marketing should be part of your overall marketing and communications plan. It can be one of the foundations of the entire plan if it is large enough and the ally's organization's brand or business is synergistic with the department's mission. For example, if your department is in a small jurisdiction that has many chemical companies, a long-term alliance with one or all of these companies makes sense for the long-term. Alliance or sponsorship marketing will continue to grow as a source of departmental support as people become more cynical of the 4,000 (according to the American Advertising Association) commercial advertising messages they receive daily.
Ben May, a Firehouse.Com and Firehouse Magazine contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District.
May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort.
He is a member of the National Society of Executive Fire Officers, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, The Institution of Fire Engineers, the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.