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Rethink, Refresh Nonprofit Licensing

by Laura Ferry, founder and president, Good Company

It’s an exciting time for brands and retailers embracing social responsibility. Products that engage consumers in a shared mission to solve social problems are emerging at retail every day. This fundamental shift toward cause brands and brand citizenship opens new opportunities for the licensing community to work with nonprofits as charity partners that can bring social value to licensing and retail strategies.

This rising trend is in response to the demands of today’s socially conscious consumer, who expects businesses to take the lead in addressing social issues because they no longer believe in the government’s ability to do so.1 In fact, millennial market research shows:

71 percent are more loyal to brands and companies they believe are doing good.
87 percent bought a product associated with a cause over the last 12 months.
91 percent are likely to switch brands to one associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality, jumping nearly 35 percent since 1993.
70 percent are willing to pay more for a product that supports a cause.
91 percent want even more of the products and services they use to support causes.
88 percent want to hear how companies are supporting social and environmental issues.3

Walk into a retail store and you’ll notice that “give back” programs are everywhere. They’re at the register, pinned on walls, and tied to purchases. They’ve generated some of the best brand storytelling we’ve ever seen, and they’ve raised millions of dollars for many causes across the board. Toys “R” Us is asking families to Play with Purpose to support Save the Children, and GameStop raised $2.8 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital with a retail checkout program during the 2015 holiday retail season. Dick’s Sporting Goods joined with on Sports Matter, a powerful crowd-fundraising partnership to help local youth athletic teams raise funds in the face of school athletics program cuts. The partnership includes a comprehensive matching program from Dick’s Sporting Goods, for a total investment of more than $3 million in national school sports initiatives.3 These are just a few programs that are raising millions of dollars for charities while building strong, lasting ties with customers.

What does this burgeoning trend mean for those of us in the licensing community? For one, it means seeing your licensing retail strategy all the way through to the customer at the store register. It also means it’s time to reconsider working with nonprofits, cause partnerships, and promotions. It’s time to get creative with on-package messaging, and point-of-sale communication, and think about collaborations that give back as a strategy for selling more product and building long-term relationships and brand affinity with consumers.

Established nonprofit licensing programs such as National Geographic Kids, Smithsonian, Susan Komen, and Boy Scouts of America have done a great job making an impact, but today’s licensing partnerships can look quite different, giving nonprofits without significant national or global brand equity the opportunity to thrive. Partnerships that are with or between designers (Tommy Hilfiger/Runway of Dreams), newly created brands that support cause brands (Yoobi/Kids in Need Foundation at Target), licensed promotions (Williams Sonoma/No Kid Hungry/American Girl), and product category extensions for buy-one-give-one social enterprises (Toms, Warby Parker) are examples of this. Co-branded products and retail employee engagement (Gymboree/KaBOOM!) are additional opportunities to align with charity brands, while also activating the nonprofit’s mission in a local community with retail staff. Tagging a product with a cause-supporting message that says the purchase contributes to a cause is appealing to shoppers. It also shows that your product is a good brand citizen—doing its part for the greater good—and pushes consumers to contribute through their purchase.

With such a wide array of opportunities to align and license cause-brands, it’s time to view nonprofits as your partners in product sales, whether they have significant brand equity or not. It’s the social problem you’ll be solving that matters to the consumer. So why not embrace this trend as a new opportunity for fueling a new kind of success in the licensing community? 

1The Future of Business Citizenship, MSL-GROUP Insights on Millennials, 2015
22015 Cone Communicationa Millennial CSR Study
3Joe Waters, Selfish Giving, Ten Best Cause Marketing Promotions of 2015

LFerry head shotLaura Ferry is the founder of Good Company, a brand citizenship consultancy recognized for establishing socially responsible joint ventures for national brands, media, and nonprofits. She is known for her achievements in the nonprofit brand licensing, entertainment, toy, education, environment, health, and financial literacy sectors. Good Company is a member of The Purpose Collaborative, an expert collective in the cause marketing space. Contact her at

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