Alliance and Sponsorship Development – Part 1: A System That Works

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Question: With the constant constraints on budgets in most functional areas of many departments, can the discipline of alliance development or sponsorship add support to the fulfillment of a department’s goals on behalf of the community it serves?

Answer: The short and definitive answer is absolutely “yes…if.” However, this is the same kind of answer one would give if asked, “Can marketing itself make a significant impact on a department’s strategies and goals?” Yes, if done correctly, strategically and always with an eye to managing the relationships involved.

Alliance development as a marketing discipline has come a long way in the past 20 years. Sponsorships and alliances continue to outpace more traditional marketing mechanisms in the private sector. Many fire departments are old hands in this area, especially in public fire education, fire prevention and resource acquisition. Many of the success stories involving community, governmental, corporate and institutional support of fire departments are based on alliances and sponsorships. Sometimes these are referred to as public-private partnerships.

Why are alliance development and sponsorships becoming popular? First, let’s look at the environment in which we operate. According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the typical American receives 4,000 media and marketing messages daily, up 50% from five years ago. These messages include those we receive from TV (major networks and cable), radio, newspapers, newsletters, magazines, the Internet, signs, direct-mail solicitations, retail “in-store” ads and retail ad packages sent directly to homes. There are even company-directed “plants” or sales contractors who engage (read “ambush”) people, say in a bar, to demonstrate – subtly – the benefits of a product.

The public absorbs and discards more products than ever before. Rapid communication and information (marketing and communication mechanisms) dictate that the “product life cycle” (the time a product or service enters the market, becomes popular, plateaus and then diminishes in popularity) becomes ever shorter. The marketing life cycle for a product or service also becomes shorter. The marketing life cycle is the period during which all of the advertising and public relations efforts are directed to potential customers.

All of this simply means that marketing has never been more competitive. The result is that “the market” – our public – has never been more saturated with products and services, or more cynical about commercial marketing. In my opinion, these observations point to the fact that opportunities for public service marketing have never been greater.

Alliance development and sponsorships offer significant immediate and long-term benefits. They are increasingly popular because they leverage two or more organizations for mutual benefit to build something called brand loyalty. Also, they offer a different approach than the normal marketing, which no longer affects consumers. Finally, alliances and sponsorships can grow and evolve as the partner organizations’ goals and needs change.

The good news is that alliances are familiar to the fire service. Our history of alliance development began when communities needed additional help for major incidents. We continue these mutual aid agreements to this day. Some jurisdictions contract with others for services like vehicle maintenance. We also have myriad intergovernmental alliances and agreements with water, police, weather, emergency management and environmental agencies, so we understand the benefits of alliances. The alliances discussed here deal with the achievement of financial, in-kind and community support from a marketing perspective.

Most of us are familiar with the typical sponsorship in which an organization or company provides support for an event or activity. An example of this is a store that gives the local fire department the signs, space and supplies it needs to promote and present a public fire education class. Such a sponsorship is good for the citizens because they receive the education. It’s good for the fire department because it receives financial and “in-kind” support (meaning things of significant value without actual cash) from the store. The fire department also leverages the popularity of the store to draw citizens to the class. It is good for the store, first, because it can show its customers that it is a good corporate citizen. Of greater interest, however, is the fact that citizens who come to the public education class may buy smoke alarms or other equipment at the store. Just as important is the fact that the class may attract new customers who may become long-term customers.

Readers of this column will remember that the definition of marketing is “exchange for mutual gain.” Alliances and sponsorships define that. Sponsorships can run the gamut from small, one-time events such as a bicycle race to benefit an AIDS charity to complete financial support for a city’s fire museum. A medium-sized sponsorship may include a company that makes thermal imagers providing such resources to a fire department. The fire department gets the equipment and the provider may receive the right to promote the fact that a respected fire department is using its equipment. The fire equipment company must be judicious about how much it gives in any sponsorship because it can set a precedent for every fire department to assume it too can receive free equipment. This is why both parties must think about a mechanism that gives each partner a clear mutual benefit.

At this point, we should explain the difference between sponsorships, alliances and fund-raising. The primary purpose of fund-raising is for non-profit organizations like volunteer fire departments to receive the cash they need to continue to serve the public or to obtain equipment. In some small jurisdictions, the entire financial health of the department depends on raising money from local citizens. There is no question that fund raising many times is the best – or only – source of funding for a small department. However, there is an opportunity to use sponsorships and alliances to enhance such efforts.

The opportunity for the fire and emergency services to develop mutually beneficial alliances with corporations, organizations and institutions has never been better. The development and execution of long-term alliances can yield some of the most significant and benefits to the fire and emergency services in today’s dynamic marketing environment.

Even with the continuing support of the FIRE Act, fire departments and emergency organizations would do well to consider establishing vital alliances with commercial firms and other public organizations. Alliances are nothing new for the fire service as well as many other public service organizations. And, while public-private alliances or partnerships are growing, it is my opinion that there is much more that the fire service can gain in financial and in-kind support from a more aggressive focused and disciplined approach in this area.

I’d like to correct two errors in my November column. The public relations firm Hager Sharp is in Washington, DC, not Baltimore. Kathy Gerstner, the U.S. Fire Academy manager responsible for Quick Response System, may be contacted at kathy.gerstner@dhl.gov.


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.

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