Virgin Mobile Leverages and Builds Brand with Youth Homelessness Campaign

I’m always interested to learn about major brands’ philanthropy efforts and cause marketing campaigns.  To what extent do they improve the brand’s competitive advantage?  The best are both philanthropic and improve the core business.  What issues do they focus on?  How are they chosen?

I got the chance to dig into Virgin Mobile’s”pro-social initiative” or cause-related marketing campaign, RE*Generation.  I spoke with Ron Faris, director of Brand Experiences at Virgin Mobile USA, who is in charge of Virgin Mobile’s “non-traditional” brand marketing programs, including lifestyle marketing, events and sponsorships, branded entertainment and cause-related marketing initiatives.  His goal is to “put a smile on fans’ faces.”  I learned five key lessons from the success of his programs.

RE*Generation is a program that is committed to ending youth homelessness.  Why youth homelessness? Not surprisingly, Virgin did its research to choose a cause.  It looked for an initiative that would both be youthful and combat a major problem — and youth homelessness bubbled to the top of the list.  There are 2 million youth on the streets and Virgin wants to give them a chance at life. Instead of donating money directly to the cause, Virgin wanted to promote youth helping youth or “a generation helping its own” as the tagline explains.

“We empower our fans to stand up and donate their voice, time, and/or money to the cause.  We’ve created robust programs to inspire and incent fans to do that,” Faris explained.  For example, Virgin Mobile threw a huge festival, FreeFest, in August of 2009, and waived the cost to people who volunteered at a homeless youth shelter for 8 hours.  This was the start of the Free IP program, and it resulted in 30,000 volunteer hours from just 1 festival – FreeFest.  And I bet these were not the folks that would have volunteered, anyway.

Celebrity sponsors always help.  Virgin coaxed Lady Gaga to join the bandwagon.  Her cause had traditionally been gay rights, but after learning that homosexuality is often a cause of youth homelessness, she joined in.  Enter ladyvirgin.com.  The Free IP Program has continued through Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour. Faris told me that after Virgin sponsored festivals, people have a heightened awareness of the Virgin brand.

I must say I have a positive association with all Virgin brands despite very little interaction.  Perhaps this is due to creative folks like Faris.  In any case, this is all well and good, but what are the lessons here to use when launching your own cause-marketing campaign?

  1. Choose a cause that is relevant to your target audience, as well as pressing – in this case youth homelessness
  2. Chose one authentic theme and stick to it, letting it permeate all activities – in this case it was youth supporting youth
  3. Make it really easy for your target audience to help – Virgin gave fans options of donating, volunteering, and even texting and downloading to contribute
  4. Use the same channels your audience uses – go where they are, don’t make them come to you
  5. Engage memorable spokespeople who can draw a crowd (Jewel, Lady Gaga)

What are other best practices in cause marketing?

Amie runs Cobblestone Solutions, LLC, a consultancy focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, Amie served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at Bain & Co (a global management consulting firm). She is particularly interested in innovations that reduce waste, altering consumer behavior for good, and leveraging the power of business to solve the climate crisis. You can read more from her on her blog, on GreenBiz.com, and on JustMeans.