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Question: Can a fire department or fire service organization create effective alliances and sponsorships with the private sector or other supportive agencies?
Answer: Yes, and it’s getting better all the time. Tune in to the rest of this column for the details.
My January column explored the environment for alliance development and the reasons why it is becoming so popular. This column will review the basics of effective alliance creation and implementation. As I noted last month, this is nothing new for virtually all fire 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.
First, here are a few new observations for you to consider. Recently, in a monthly bulletin I receive called IEG Sponsorship Report; an entire section highlighted a growing trend of municipal governments to partner with private corporations. The projection for private sponsorship of municipal and local governments in 2004 was $272 million (IEG Quarterly Report 3Q 2004). Some examples noted are GM supplying cars for San Diego lifeguards and the activation of a sponsorship by Snapple for the City of New York. In fact, this deal was consummated through New York City’s newly appointed first chief marketing officer.
Second, I noticed an article in the Money Section of USA Today titled “Firefighter-Themed Items on Fire” (USA Today, Oct. 18, 2004). The article noted the rising interest in all things “firefighter.” Among the things “on fire” were Firefighter Brand Products, FX’s “Rescue Me” TV series and the release of Disney’s film “Ladder 49.” We all noticed that during the presidential election, the two candidates made a point to appear to be supportive of firefighters, even appearing with them on TV on many occasions.
This is an interesting progression of events. While I can’t wait to comment on this new marketing environment for the fire and emergency services in an upcoming column, the point is that the public has never been in a more supportive stance 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 (“who”) of Marketing ICS. 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 at times, but 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 because 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 may 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.
Naturally, you would probably want to focus on organizations and firms that may 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?
Second, who has a significant enough budget to provide the support your department needs? Try not to waste time with small firms that can provide only 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 past 10 years, the term “cause-related marketing” (CRM) has become a multimillion-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, such as restaurant companies, building materials companies, rent-a-car companies or grocery chains). Specific examples may include Home Depot, Giant Foods, First Alert or Outback Steakhouse. Think about companies that would have a reason to partner with you. Lowe’s has its own spin-off Home Safety Council. Consider media partners as well. While most media companies do not have so much cash, they can give you exposure, leading to public support.
Once you have chosen a target list, you prioritize and have a meeting with people in a company. One quick note about timing: my suggestion is to begin forming the relationship very early, 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.
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 company 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 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 company you wish to approach. Demonstrate your interest in the company you are approaching. Ask about its 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
This brings us to the “what” of your offering. Very early in the process, put together a list that answers the following questions:
2. What are your various goals? What do you need? How do your goals and needs mesh with the goals of this particular ally?
3. What value do you have to offer? What’s in it for the potential ally? This means the kind of exposure it will receive. Where can it have its logos or marks in association with your department?
4. 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?
5. What benefits will the potential ally receive? This can have as much of an internal mechanism as an external one. For example, you may provide basic services for the employees of the ally, such as blood pressure checks, inspections, safety training or CPR classes.
Finally, 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 may have different levels of participation, giving more “rights” for the more support (value-in-kind or dollars) the department receives. You need to be able to define these categories clearly.
Once the potential ally agrees to work with you, 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 may include the numbers of people who are exposed to the company’s brand, 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 return on investment (ROI) 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 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. Even the best alliances will have problems. It is up to you to be prepared to handle them.
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. Alliance or sponsorship marketing will continue to grow as a source of departmental support as people become more cynical about the 4,000 advertising messages they receive daily.
Ben May 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.