Marketing: Mix of faith, hype and charity may not improve the image: Aerobathon fiasco highlights the risk of using national fund-raising events to increase brand awareness

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LATER this month, more than 20,000 people will walk around London as part of the annual Cadbury's Strollerthon charity event.

The avowed objective is to raise more than pounds 500,000. But there is a dual agenda - the company also sees the event as a useful marketing vehicle for its Strollers brand.

But at the back of many people's minds will be the calamitous Flora Aerobathon event in April, which had the same noble aims. The organisers predicted that 140,000 participants would raise as much as pounds 3m for six charities. In fact, the event attracted a mere 17,000 people, raised just pounds 340,000, ran up debts of more than pounds 1m and resulted in the organiser, Aerobathon Ltd, going into liquidation.

The collapse has brought the whole question of the role, motivation and responsibilities of the involvement of big brand sponsors in charity events to the forefront. It is fast becoming a byword for failure in the world of charity sponsorship.

The key question to be answered is why the Aerobathon, which attracted 26,000 people to a single London venue in 1993 without any significant marketing spend, attracted just 17,000 to five venues 12 months later - despite a pounds 1.2m marketing budget. The answer may lie in the different objectives of the main organisations involved.

Flora, owned by Van den Bergh Foods, offered the marketing support to make it a national event, including a television campaign and a promotion on 55 million margarine tubs. In fact, its parent company Unilever is involved in a dispute with the media sales company Time Exchange, which meant that the 'national' TV campaign did not reach the Border, Grampian, Granada and Scottish regions. In those areas the message was spread via leaflets and radio.

Geoff Morrow, director of Aerobathon Ltd, admits both it and Flora made mistakes.

'We could spend months working out what went wrong,' Mr Morrow says. 'But perhaps Flora was promoting the brand too much and Aerobathon not enough - but they may argue that the name Flora would help sell the event. I don't know.'

Simon Turner, Van den Bergh's marketing director, claims that the television ad campaign was successful - creating 60 per cent awareness of the event among women under the age of 49.

'We are very embarrassed,' says Mr Turner, 'and sorry that the event did not work as well as we had expected. But it was Aerobathon's role to convert awareness into involvement in the event. To generate the level of awareness that we did and get 17,000 people involved is good - there are not many brands that could generate that level of support.'

But it seems inconceivable that Flora, as a member of the all-powerful Unilever family, spent more than pounds 1m on marketing an event over which it now says it had no real control. Several creditors believe the event would not have happened without Flora's support. It lent the event credibility, and the creditors say Flora should take some responsibility for the failure.

'Flora received all the advantages of being clearly involved in the event through its advertising,' says one creditor. 'But as soon as it looked like being a failure, it distanced itself and said it was just the title sponsor.' This is disputed by Mr Turner, who says that Flora has no legal obligation to creditors and fulfilled all its marketing obligations. 'The supplier contracts were with Aerobathon Ltd - we were merely title sponsor.'

The expansion of the event from a single venue to a six-show national event to raise money for six charities - including the Royal Marsden Hospital, NCH Action for Children and the British Heart Foundation - was central to the failure.

'If you look at mass participation events like this, all the indicators are that they grow slowly,' says Richard Frost, head of public relations for Cadbury Schweppes. 'The Aerobathon wanted to go from small beginnings to a national event overnight. We are taking a more measured approach to the Strollerthon and are opposed to a geographic expansion of the event, although we did do a one-off in Birmingham last year.'

But even the assumption that the Flora Aerobathon was designed to raise money for good causes is tarnished by the revelation that the charities involved agreed to write off the first pounds 150,000 raised at each venue - a total of pounds 900,000 - as a contribution to estimated running costs of pounds 1.5m. The figure fell to pounds 750,000 when the Exeter venue was dropped. On top of that, it was agreed that the Royal Marsden would receive the first pounds 500,000 raised after the contribution to costs.

Participants would have had to raise more than pounds 1.25m - the equivalent of Flora's marketing spend - before any of the other five charities would have received a penny.

Flora is now itself on the creditors list - owed pounds 300,000 - but it can comfort itself with the knowledge that brand awareness has been boosted. The other creditors, some of whom face financial ruin, do not have that comfort and are warning ominously that they will not let the matter drop.

It is a warning that should be heeded by other brand owners trying to use charity as a marketing tool to raise the profile of their products.

(Photograph omitted)