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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

Get Your Hands Dirty
A new trend in charitable giving bypasses traditional donations and gets brands directly involved with those they serve.
Christopher Wolf

In the old model of charitable giving, corporations typically sponsored annual workplace giving campaigns that ended with a newspaper photo of people shaking hands and passing a giant check to the charity of choice. On the local level, store managers traditionally kept a fund of money or coupons to donate to various local charities in exchange for printing logos on shirts or other programs.

There’s nothing wrong with traditional methods of charitable funding like these, and the brand-related goodwill that is built from it. But increasingly, restaurants are finding that there’s more to be gained through guerrilla charity activities, where employees are integrated personally into charities. And while these efforts are not typically part of a marketing plan or budget, participants say they nonetheless serve to grow the brand and business in important grassroots ways that seem to resonate more strongly with consumers today than traditional efforts.

A Guerrilla Movement Jay Levinson created a new term in 1984 when he wrote a book on guerrilla marketing, which he defines as “achieving conventional goals … with unconventional methods, such as investing energy instead of money.” In a similar vein, restaurants are finding increasingly creative ways to make a little charitable money go a long way, not only in terms of changing lives but also in growing their community presence and acceptance. Of course, the challenge with finding examples of this is that guerrilla charity efforts are stealth in nature and difficult to uncover.

To help me get started, I consulted the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Neighbor Award program, where restaurants are encouraged to toot their own horns about maverick local charity efforts in exchange for a $5,000 donation to the winners’ charities of choice.

Although many of the finalists are franchisees with ties to national causes, the guerrilla charity movement is not about big budgets. Rather, it’s the hands-on and personal touches that go the distance.

Matt Weiss is the marketing director for Chair 5 Restaurants, a Qdoba franchisee group serving the Boston area. “Our company preaches local-store marketing as the top level of importance for building brand,” he says. For him, guerrilla charity efforts have been an important means for gaining acceptance of the Qdoba brand and menu. “Not everyone in the Northeast knows what fast-casual Mexican food is. This is a good way for us to get Mexican food in people’s mouths, to build relationships.”

Weiss told me that the company learned a lot in the past few years and evolved its strategy to go a step beyond donations to local charities. “When we are negotiating our contract with Little Leaguers, it’s easy for them to say, ‘Yes, we’ll put your logo on our shirts.’ They need the money. But we want to be involved, so we sample our food at certain big weekend games. After the first practice, the kids come and eat free in their uniforms.”

The guerrilla charity movement
is not about big budgets. Rather, it’s the hands-on and personal touch that goes the distance.”

Cynthia Harbin, executive director of the KFC Foundation, says that KFC also evolved its charity model over the years to enhance local engagement. “We initially used the KFC Feeds program in times of disaster,” she says. “Now we have taken it a step further. If franchisees have something in their hometown that is not just a disaster, we’ve set up that second step so they can come to us. With this economy it has particularly taken on high interest. They can pick anyone that is needing food—a mission, school, children, as long as they meet those guidelines.” Harbin says franchisees are reimbursed for the cost of the food that is served but take on all other expenses involved.

Taco Bell franchisee Tom Cook and his Pacific Bell group have led initiatives to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Boys & Girls Club over the past 12 years, but guerrilla tactics are working their way in. According to Will Starks, a vice president at marketing firm DraftFCB who’s worked with Pacific Bell on these initiatives: “Early on, our relationship took traditional forms—fundraising events where they were the beneficiary. Over time, that has evolved and we have made an increasingly committed effort to not only be a club funder but to be involved in activities—holding company meetings at the center to get to know the kids better, volunteering to do things with the kids, interacting with them, all to help the club.”

Charity and the Bottom Line While 94 percent of restaurant operators have given to charities to support the communities around them, according to the NRA, there needs to be a financial benefit to the business in order for the relationship to grow.

“People hold their dollars more closely to their chest these days,” Weiss says. “Product quality matters, but experience and brand interaction matter as well. Being more active and a part of where people spend their free time makes a difference.”

He’s even seen that at his own Qdoba locations. “Ultimately, you see the traffic counts increase at the stores and feedback from people we work with. In Wellesley, Massachusetts, we do a big fundraiser at a local school—it’s become a staple for us to be there. Because of those kinds of activities, our sales and traffic counts being up at this time are indicative of our involvement in that community.”

Starks has a similar response. “I think that good things come out of smart, good, correct activity,” he says. “If your business is doing more than just sustaining itself and gives support to the community, I think a lot of positives come out of that. People do business with people they trust. Taco Bell’s goal is to be not simply a place that sells tacos but to be a great citizen in the communities we live. If we do that, we’re confident the benefits will flow.”

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.