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IFTD/ICAST Brand Lessons, Part II: On Your Best Behavior

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In Part I of IFTD/ICAST Brand Lessons, I talked about crossing over the brand divide between fly and conventional fishing. It is a topic that came up in several discussions with show attendees. Another issue that came up repeatedly was corporate behavior and how to talk about it without seeming disingenuous.

Prior to going to Orlando, PartnersCreative released a report on how and why anglers connect to brands. In that report, which you can download and read here, anglers, particularly fly anglers, said they value corporate behavior in many ways. Naturally, if brands stand behind their products that’s important. If they resolve issues quickly and do what they said they’ll do that’s important. But of almost equal value in terms of brand connection is corporate responsibility. In fact, donating funds to conservation organizations was listed by nearly 25 percent of all anglers in our study as one of the top-three reasons they choose to connect with a brand.

And while many brands do great things for conservation organizations — donating product for auctions, partnering in membership drives, co-sponsoring projects, donating a portion of sales — several marketing managers told me they struggle to tell the story.

I think that struggle comes from a couple of places. First, conservation isn’t directly tied to the benefits a consumer wants to hear first about a product. They want to know if the rod is lighter or faster or stronger, for example. Second, brands that invest in nonprofit projects do it honestly. They want to improve the habitat, increase fish populations, recruit young anglers to the sport and so on. Touting it in an ad seems crass and inauthentic.

I’d suggest, however, that both issues can be easily overcome simply by changing how you think about corporate responsibility. And I’ll give an example of why you should be talking proudly about your conservation relationships.

If you read part one of this blog you know that I specifically expressed lust for two rods. Scott’s Radian rod and the best of show new product winner Salt by Sage. Both rods are comparable in price. Both rods would perform well for me. Both look great and have strong warrantees. And while they don’t cast exactly the same, I really like both rods. So what does the choice come down to? Brand.

In that case, knowing that one of these brands has a strong conservation ethic and is going to give some of the $800+ I spend on its rod to improve habitat would absolutely matter to me. I don’t happen to know if either company donates to conservation or at what level or in what way, but you know what? I wish I did. I wish it was more apparent. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why? Because there are a lot of well-informed, well-made products on the market, and the fishing market — particularly on the fly side — seems to add them continuously. All things being equal (and in most cases they’re damn close), anglers want to support strong, responsible brands that care about the same things they do.

To me, then, the question isn’t if you should tell the corporate responsibility story, it’s how. That begins by looking at the entire idea of corporate responsibility differently. Here are four ways to think about corporate responsibility that can help you tell better stories and accomplish more for your brand and your nonprofit partners at the same time.

BE CHOOSEY: Like all brands, there are good conservation brands and poor ones. Focus on organizations with a reputation for doing really good, really meaningful work. Also, assess the organization as an entity. Look at the size of its membership, its structure, its online / social credibility, its marketing efforts, and so forth; and be sure it fits with your goals from a marketing perspective. You should be proud (even honored) to share its work with your consumers and feel confident that its brand will naturally fit the story of your brand. If so, both of you will benefit from the connection.

ALIGN WITH ENGAGING PROJECTS: Oftentimes, brands donate to nonprofit organizations broadly or maybe they donate a gear for banquets. In some cases that’s okay, but those kinds of donations don’t lend themselves to great story telling nor will they capture the imagination of consumers. Instead, ask the nonprofit you’re working with if there’s a specific, tangible project you can be part of.

A quick example. Cortland Line Company (full disclosure: Cortland’s a client of ours) is launching a partnership around the future of fishing with several leading conservation groups. Turns out, one of them (Bonefish & Tarpon Trust) needs to raise awareness of its tarpon genetics research program. So as part of the program, Cortland will be reminding anglers they can get a tarpon scale kit from BTT (so they can properly harvest a scale from the fish and send it to be genetically identified). The program is vitally important to the future of tarpon fisheries as it will establish migration patterns and identify critical habitat, in the same way duck banding has for waterfowl. To be successful, the program needs quantifiable angler participation. That’s something Cortland can help BTT get.

From a Cortland perspective, it’s an interesting story to tell, much more engaging than “We gave lines to the BTT fundraising banquet.” Because it’s ongoing, educational and actively involves consumers. By telling this story, Cortland wins, BTT wins and so do tarpon.

THINK PARTNERSHIP, NOT CHARITY: Nonprofits, particularly large national ones, have a lot to offer for-profit brands — exposure, media outlets, buyer loyalty, even direct distribution of products through banquets or membership spiffs. Yet, too often brands go into a relationship thinking of it as “charity.” It’s anything but.

Sit down with your nonprofit partner and ask, “What could we do for you?” “How might our relationship evolve over the course of the next three years?” “What kinds of opportunities are available?” Then bake what you learn into the partnership. If the nonprofit’s goal is to increase membership, you may focus on ways you could help do that. For example, allow shoppers on your site to add a membership to the partner organization with their purchase. If they need awareness behind a specific high-profile project, you might include ads or an AdWord program about the project funded by you under your annual marketing plan.

Point is, if you think “partnership,” rather than “philanthropy,” you’ll naturally arrive at a far more beneficial place. And tell a much more compelling and authentic story. Most importantly, you’ll do more for the organization by giving it more exposure (and you may actually spend less in terms of cash). Keep in mind that when you tout a nonprofit’s work it isn’t self-serving, you’re building its brand, too. That increases its exposure, which adds members, which equals dollars toward its mission.

SEE CONSERVATION AS PART OF YOUR STORY: I’ve never met a marketing director who was worried about saying his company’s line was slicker or its rod casted farther or its waders lasted longer, but many shy away from saying, “Oh, and by the way, our products also improve the habitat you’re fishing in.” What that leads to is an unnecessary separation of conservation and product. The result is that the partnership is relegated to a Web page titled “conservation partners” and buried under “about us.” As you can imagine, it gets about as many hits as a lone beatis dun amid an epic hatch of golden stones (zero) — which accomplishes nothing for you or the conservation organization.

Instead, make your passion for place, fish and water part of your story. For example, add conservation points into the detailed descriptions of your products online or a whole tab section on conservation issues related to that product. Tell your conservation partner’s story in the pages of your catalog. Run ads that show your products being used to fish water that was protected by the nonprofit you’re partnering with. Fund a film series about the nonprofit partner’s work and push it out through social media.

It’s really not that big of a leap. Without rivers, your $800 fly rod is worthless. The durability of your saltwater gear only matters if there’s bonefish on the flats. And a great new series of cold-water fly lines isn’t going to sell if striper populations keep plummeting. Likely as not you got into making fishing products because you like to fish and like being in the places where fish live. So do your customers. It’s the most natural point of brand connection you can make, which makes it a great story to tell.

In my experience, the best brands are the fearless ones. The ones who tell new, interesting stories. The ones who engage consumers authentically based on a set of strong shared values. Marketing around your conservation ethic is all of those things. It’s integral to a strong brand story.

Is it also self-serving? Sure. But that’s okay. Because when more people pick up a rod and go fishing, more people start caring about the resource. And when more people start caring about the resource, the future of our rivers, lakes, flats and reefs gets a whole lot brighter. That’s good for everyone — the nonprofit, the fish and you.

To download our Pre-ICAST Report, click here. If you missed Part I of this article, you can read it here.

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