Putting the PR into philanthropy

Strange things have been happening in the legal profession over the last 18 months – law firms are beginning to take pro bono work more seriously. With an increasing number of charities making demands on diminishing public coffers, cause-related marketing is set to become the marketing medium that defines social attitudes over the next few years. So why have you never heard of it?

Pro bono work has traditionally been very much the preserve of individual altruistic interest (Lord Hoffmann's association with Amnesty International is a notable example).

Now some organisations are starting to catch on to changing social attitudes. At their vanguard marches the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG) which was set up to effect a change in professional approaches towards community and ethical concerns.

This is where cause-related marketing, the linking of a brand with a cause, has found its niche, concerned with creating partnerships between business and not for profit sectors for mutual benefit. Organisations as diverse as British Airways, Tesco, the Co-operative Bank and Norwich Union have been quick to recognise that their customers are concerned with the values driving a business. Law firms are keen to promote notions of discretion and professionalism rather than a concern for the community, but as has happened in the US, this may change if client pressure is used to lever attitudes within the legal profession. If the fact that businesses are showing more and more interest in the work of SPBG signifies anything, it points to a shift in the social and ethical climate in which organisations are having to re-examine their own business practices.

When large companies such as Marks & Spencer are spending £14m in one year on philanthropic concerns, one can see that within certain boardrooms at least, such social changes are being recognised. True altruism may indeed exist, but as we enter a climate in which companies are being asked to prove their social commitment more publicly, cause-related marketing is a valuable tool with which corporates can rationalise their social commitments. A strategically worked out partnership can benefit a cause through increased consumer presence, and provide emotive PR for the company.

One example of non-retail-led cause-related marketing can be seen in Norwich Union's "first aid" campaign, a TV ad that linked the insurance company with the St John's Ambulance Brigade under the banner "No-one protects more". The rationale behind the campaign was guided by the need to differentiate Norwich Union from its competitors within an industry that is regarded with cynicism by consumers, and where intermediaries make the separate insurance providers indistinguishable.

Norwich Union was able to sidestep consumer cynicism by displaying concern for the ambulance service. The insurance company underwrote a series of courses promoted by the ad, and set up cross-branded information packs. Against an industry norm of approximately 50 per cent, the level of advertising recognition for this campaign was 81 per cent.

Consumers over the last two decades have gained confidence that their spending power makes corporate organisations answerable to them, while trust in less "democratic" but more traditional institutions has declined. Consequently, companies are becoming more aware that their PR presence has direct correlation to sales and are subsequently endeavouring to include their community values in their communications mix.

The same could be true of the legal profession. While law firms are easily distinguished within a specific context for their particular areas of expertise – we take it as read that a firm will provide a decent service – choosing an actual firm falls into the lap of the Yellow Pages lottery. Adopting a cause, or rationalising a firm's pro bono output will not only go some way to demystifying indivisible tracts of law firms, but also provides emotive reason behind consumer choice.

Marjorie Thompson is director of Saatchi & Saatchi Cause Connection and co-author of Brand Spirit: How Cause Related Marketing Builds Brands.