September 15, 2014
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May 12, 2009

How to Mastermind a Successful Cause-Related PR Campaign with Celebrities and a Rubber Ducky

By Frank Zeccola

Getting involved with a cause or charity is a great PR strategy. You can score media attention for a company, personality or product and also do good to make the world a better place.

But this comes with a few huge warnings: First, consumers are skeptical. Tenuous ties to the green trend, for example, have led to greenwashing and public distrust of companies making environmental claims. So you better be genuine. Also, the people who work for you or the organization you're working with could be corrupt. Money gets stolen. Funds get diverted into people's pockets instead of toward the cause.

In other words, a good news story can quickly turn bad. Think about the American Red Cross 9/11 scandal. Jack Abramoff. William Aramony of United Way. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Even the Nature Conservancy isn't immune, landing in hot water in 2003 for acting unethically in selling discounted tracts of land to trustees, who then wrote the payments off on their income taxes. 

But this article isn't about scandal or unethical organizations. This is about a charity campaign and the people involved who did everything right.

If you're considering a cause-related PR program, you'll want to implement many of the tactics and strategies in this case study. This will serve as an outline and checklist to make sure you're getting the most out of your campaign—especially if you have a small budget.

The challenge: Get big media coverage for a "little" baby-product company while raising breast cancer awareness. Baby-product maker Munchkin, Inc. came to New York-based PR firm MSandL in 2006 in an effort to make headlines beyond parenting media. Munchkin makes products for infants and toddlers, such as bottles, teething toys, sippy cups, carriers and more.

After Munchkin first approached MSandL, the staffers working on the account began grappling with the obvious issues. "It's hard to make a splash in the national media with a new pacifier," says Vickie Fite managing director for MSandL. "These are low-ticket items. And Munchkin's slogan is, 'It's the little things.' The question then became, how do you get publicity for the little things?"

It would take much more than a generic product pitch to get national coverage for Munchkin. MSandL needed to tie to something newsworthy and attention grabbing.

From a product standpoint, one of Munchkin's most popular items is the classic yellow rubber ducky. Their Safety Bath Ducky is "America's #1 Safety Duck," and includes a temperature gauge telling you when the water is too hot and, when the water cools, lets you know that it's safe to put your baby in.

MSandL advised Munchkin to do something star-studded with the rubber ducks: Send them to celebrities.

Then, they would have the celebrities decorate the ducks to match their personalities—and put them up on eBay. It would all benefit a cause close to the heart of their target audience: Moms.

The strategy: Engage celebrities in the cause with a creative "Project Pink." With Munchkin's target consumers in mind, Fite and her team came up with a cause-related campaign for moms. "We wanted to drive awareness for breast cancer examinations and help raise money for a cure," Fite says. "Breast cancer is a huge charity that really gets women connected."

In addition, the wife of a Munchkin vice president is a breast cancer survivor, and MSandL knew the personal connection to the cause would resonate with moms everywhere. A personal connection to any cause is one of the most important things in a charity campaign. You will alleviate consumer skepticism and also make it real for your brand and consumers.

Munchkin and MSandL decided that sales from the campaign would benefit the popular breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure. 

But before they fleshed it out completely, there were still major challenges to consider: "Breast cancer awareness has intense competition," Fite explains. "Komen has so many sponsors giving away millions and millions of dollars. It's always a challenge to stand out."

To get attention, they had to do something extraordinarily big and attention grabbing.

The result was Project Pink.

It bore the tagline "Don't Duck a Breast Exam" and aimed to help raise awareness and find a cure for breast cancer.

Project Pink launches. Here's how it worked: Munchkin transformed its yellow bath duck into a limited edition pink duck. Then, they created personalized and customized decorating kits for celebrities. They asked the celebrities to decorate the ducks with the materials from the kits and mail them back to be put on eBay. All proceeds would benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "We would not compensate [the celebrities], so they really had to believe in the cause," Fite says.

She adds: "The magic word here is customize. We took great pains to make sure each celebrity kit was customized. If we sent the same exact kit to Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, they wouldn't be as likely to participate. It wouldn't be effective."

In addition: "The kits reflected their personalities. Whether it was sequin or feathers or surfboards, we made sure they got something realistic to them. So McConaughey's kit had a surfboard, and Witherspoon's had a boa."

During the first two years of the campaign, they sent kits to dozens and dozens of celebrities. "We sent pitch letters in advance, and if we got a response, we sent them their kits," Fite says.

Celebrities who participated in the first two years included McConaughey and Witherspoon, Brook Shields, then first lady Laura Bush, Katie Couric, Lucy Liu, Pattie LaBelle, Melissa Joan Hart and more. The first year included 15 celebrity participants, and by the second year, it was up to 23.

Getting their ducks in a row: The keys to successfully selling celebrities—and the media—on a rubber ducky campaign. "We put the ducks in care packages with decorating kits and sent them to celebrities," Fite says. "Some just autographed it, but others spent a lot of time decorating their ducks. After we received the ducks, we put them up for bid on eBay."

Another key to successfully getting the celebrities to participate was streamlining the process for them. "We sent a messenger to deliver the kits and collect them again when they were finished decorating. We made sure it was completely easy and turnkey."

When it was time to reach out to the media, they hit celebrity magazines and morning radio shows, trading the products for on-air banter. In addition, in the campaign's second year, they embarked on some highly successful viral web communications: 

"Munchkin's web agency created a viral game, called 'Email a duck, raise a buck,'" Fite says. "You could decorate a digital duck and email it to friends and family. Every time your email was forwarded, five cents was donated to the campaign. You could track your email online and follow it around the country as it got passed around."  

The results: 300 million media impressions—and $30,000 raised for breast cancer awareness. Throughout the 2007 campaign, MSandL secured more than 300 million media impressions and landed coverage in top outlets like InTouch Weekly, Star, About.com, LifetimeTV.com, XM Radio and 125 other radio stations. In addition, they raised $33,000 for Komen, and landed a very surprising media hit.

Something to write home about: Munchkin lands in "Dear Abby." "One of the most successful hits was the 'Dear Abby' column," Fite says. "She's the mother of all mothers, and her column has huge distribution—1,400 newspapers worldwide, which translated to 100 million in circulation. But more than that, her endorsement of the campaign as a great way to support breast cancer was huge. You could see it tie back to web traffic. There was a huge jump on the website."

The take home: How "little" things can make a big difference. "This campaign shows how the little things can really make a big difference," Fite says. "If you have a client selling small price-point items, don't think they can't play in the big leagues. Every little bit counts—and not everyone can buy a high-priced item. So with a scrappy budget and a lot of creativity, you can get to the forefront of media. This campaign not only raised a lot of money for charity, it also opened up new retail distribution channels for the client. In the end, it's all about selling product."

Secrets for success: Read on as Fite offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Bronze in Personality/Celebrity at the 2008 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity:

1. Broaden the story by diversifying your characters and angles to appeal to a wider audience. "Try to diversify," she says. "In this campaign, we tried to break out into different types of celebrities—actors, musicians, politicians, athletes and more—so that we could span all different kinds of sports and entertainment media. If you have that luxury, diversify to appeal to different kinds of consumers."

2. Conduct consistent, innovative measurement and evaluation to prove the power of PR to the C-suite. "Work with the client to set benchmarks," she stresses. "It's especially important to show movement on the website—so know how much traffic your client normally gets and keep track over time. We also tracked traditional media, with the goal of surpassing media coverage year over year. We showed a sizable jump. There was a following and people understood what we were doing. We were able to take all of the information and show the client that people were catching on."

3. Plan early, customize the campaign for participants and media—and have fun with it. "Be smart with customization," she says. "Especially with a small budget, you have to work that much harder to stand out. Start early and personalize the campaign. At the same time, make sure every step of the process is easy and enjoyable. The big secrets to success were making it turnkey and personalized. We provided the celebrities with supplies and customized the kits to make sure they felt it was unique."

In addition: "One thing we learned is that it's important to start early. We needed several months of lead time to secure interest from the celebrities, send them their ducks and get them back."

Winner's Profile:

MSandL is a leading global communications firm and part of MSandL Worldwide, a network of communications brands and consultancies with 54 offices in North America, Latin America, EMEA and Asia, as well as an extensive affiliate network. The agency specializes in using research, insights and technology to create and execute powerful communications strategies that are critical to client success. With a unique combination of advice, advocacy and action, MSandL delivers measurable business results for many of the world's largest companies and most successful brands.

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