Getting the message across: Alison Eadie looks at the trend for business to favour 'community sponsorship' over arts and sport

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The Independent Online
FROM the Isle of Wight to the Orkneys, 'lollipop' people can be found wrapped in bright yellow waterproof coats with reflective stripes, carrying a 'Drive Safely' message on the back and a Volkswagen logo on the front.

Neighbourhood Watch stickers, the badge of respectable suburbia, may soon be sporting the logo of the Scottish insurer, General Accident. The Good Trustee Guide, available from National Council for Voluntary Organisations Publications, has National Westminster Bank's logo on it.

This autumn television advertising and on-pack sales promotions for Bisto gravy will combine celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the Bisto Kids with fund-raising for NCH Action for Children, the charity devoted to the homeless, children leaving care and families in need.

The list goes on. Community sponsorship is one of the fastest growing areas of corporate sponsorship. Businesses have reviewed every aspect of their marketing spend in the recession to ensure they obtain maximum value for money.

The process has caused some to switch sponsorship away from high- profile, high-price sports or arts events - often driven by the demands of corporate hospitality - to the community. They argue that community sponsorship is more cost-effective, more relevant to the company's product and image, and fosters a warm feeling among employees.

Volkswagen's sponsorship of School Crossing Patrol Officers is part of the company's 'Safe and Secure' campaign which was launched last year, offering a product to combat car crime. The sale through VW dealers of car radios with detachable fronts - a great deterrent to thieves according to the police - was intended as the first step of a relationship that could lead to the sale of a car.

VW still sponsors the arts and sports, including the women's tennis championships at Eastbourne this year and last, but its focus in the future will be on events where the business is more directly involved.

Paul Buckett, public relations manager, said VW was increaingly looking at product-oriented sponsorships producing tangible benefits.

General Accident has similarly changed tack. For nine years until 1992 it sponsored the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas races at Newmarket. It spent pounds 5m in the three years to 1993 sponsoring the European Open Golf Championships.

It has now abandoned prestigious sporting sponsorships in favour of Neighbourhood Watch. The cost last year was pounds 250,000. GA's commitment has risen to more than pounds 1m, but not all will be spent this year.

Ray Andrews, manager of communications and media, said: 'We were looking for a worthwhile community-based activity, which was pertinent to our business.'

Neighbourhood Watch seemed the perfect partner, because of GA's involvement in loss prevention.

Sport was no longer appropriate to an organisation that lost more than pounds 320m pre-tax in the three years to 1992 and made thousands of staff redundant. It could even have a negative impact, Mr Andrews said.

He questioned the accepted practice of putting an advertising value on the number of times a golf caddy emblazoned with GA logo appeared on television, pointing out that an advertisement would at least tell the viewer about GA's products.

Neighbourhood Watch produces postive returns. Mr Andrews said that through combining Neighbourhood Watch sponsorship with hospitality for GA's broker network - from weekends at Gleneagles Hotel to cheese and wine evenings - he could count the number of policies being added.

A desire to reflect the company's business activities and values has led the oil major Esso to concentrate on promoting science and technology education and caring for the environment.

It sponsors the Esso Footpaths Award run by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, is an important supporter of Neighbourhood Energy Action, a national charity combating fuel poverty through promoting energy efficiency, and sends a travelling exhibition on energy efficiency around the nation's primary schools.

Peter Truesdale, community affairs co-ordinator, said: 'We look to reflect our own values and priorities, the needs of the voluntary sector and items high on the public agenda.'

Community sponsorship not only improves the corporate image with customers and shareholders, but also with staff. NatWest discovered that some 1,200 of its staff acted as trustees and treasurers to charities. As well as sponsoring the Good Trustee Guide, the bank donated pounds 250,000 to charities with a staff connection.

Amanda Jordan, NatWest head of community relations, said: 'In any sponsorship we expect a return, but not neccessarily a commercial one. It is not just about logo exposure.'

Bisto's support for NCH is a new departure for the company, part of Ranks Hovis McDougall. Paula Moss, group product manager at Bisto, said: 'Previously we gave charities a cheque, but had limited involvement. Now we are a full partner with NCH and work together on a variety of issues.'

She pointed out that Bisto was a family brand and should be involved in issues relevant to the family. 'This is totally consistent with what the brand is about.'

It also makes employees happy. 'Marketing is a cut and thrust world. This partnership is rewarding. I feel good about it.'

Bisto aims to raise pounds 125,000 for NCH this year through matching promotional prize money with donations.

Texaco similarly enthuses about the beneficial effects on staff of community sponsorship. When celebrating its 75th year of operations in the UK two years ago, the company offered to match money raised by the staff for NCH. The target of pounds 75,000 was easily beaten and pounds 301,000 raised.

David Robinson, assistant general manager, said: 'Many in the company, not in management positions, had the opportunity to shine. It was a win-win situation.'

Moira McMillan, corporate press officer at NCH Action for Children, said the charity expected to raise pounds 2.2m this financial year from corporate sponsors. Increasing professionalism was required from both parties.

Companies took a hard-headed marketing approach to sponsorship and charities were no longer the preserve of the chairman's wife, said Ms McMillan. Charities, too, had to be more professional working with corporations. 'We can offer the full range of services a company needs, including organising corporate events and booking celebrities.'

Corporate support for the environment, the homeless, crime prevention, road safety and a host of other community issues evidently makes sound business sense.

(Photograph omitted)