The San Francisco Zoo, for example, features a picnic area with tables and a food stand furnished by Fisher-Price, logo included. At a recent bird-feeding exhibit, Aussie-theme restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse made its presence known on more than 200 banners with nary a kookaburra in sight. And in Philadelphia, home of the first zoo to open in the U.S., the logos of Dodge, Bank of America, Tastykake and gas-and-electric company Peco are displayed as prominently as the exhibits they sponsor.
Low sponsorship cost
While brand presence of corporate sponsors at zoos is not a new concept -- Philadelphia's partnerships have been in place for nearly a decade -- it's been growing as the 130-year-old industry seeks to broaden funding largely provided by private donors. Marketers are also becoming more interested in such tie-ins, given the "green" conservation halo of zoos, the comparatively low sponsorship cost and the ability to reach a family-friendly audience of 143 million people who visit zoos each year.
"When you look at where the average American family takes its kids, once or twice a year they pass through the zoo or aquarium doors," said Dot Siegfried, marketing manager for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "Corporations are realizing this is a great way to reach Middle America. It's not that new, but I think it's more visible. It may be because they're getting more successful at it."
Desirable family target
In fact, zoos are beginning to attract some out-of-home dollars once spent on sporting venues. "Typically, zoos have higher attendance numbers than most pro sports teams in markets because they're open every day," said William Chipps, senior editor of the Institute of Economic Growth's sponsorship report. "Drawing good crowds and obviously drawing families is a desirable target for marketers."
One of those marketers is Mattel's Fisher-Price, which has partnerships with seven zoos and has its "eye on a hit list for next year," said Brenda Andolina, director-brand marketing.
Moreover, zoo partnerships are relatively inexpensive, costing within the five-to-six figure range; Mr. Chipps said only the larger ones top $100,000. Ms. Andolina said it's more cost effective than say, a mall tour. Malls are "in and out," she said. "If you do something permanent with them it's high cost because you're sort of there by yourself. With zoos, it's one-year partnerships, so there's lots of residuals to everything you do and everything you place," she said. "It's definitely a smarter business decision for us."
It also implies good corporate citizenship. "In many ways, it really animated our brand, but in a setting of a very educationally enriching environment," Ms. Andolina said of a recent partnership with the Buffalo Zoo. "The zoo's mission of teaching conservation and care of animals and philanthropy is obviously very worthwhile and we felt that our brand essence matched well with theirs."
Such meshing of eco-friendly missions helps explain the recent rise in interest among corporate sponsors. "The trend is going to be to continue these partnerships, especially in green marketing, because that's where people want to feel good about themselves," Ms. Siegfried said. "People want to feel good about the environment and about the animals for future generations. If you were a marketing representative at a big corporation, wouldn't you want to give a message that says: 'I'm a corporation that cares'?"
And the reality is that zoos need funding, and marketers are an opportune place to get it. "Zoos are very capital-intensive," said Gretchen Toner, VP-communications at the Philadelphia Zoo. "A big-cat exhibit calls for a lot more intensive buildings that have the kind of behavioral enrichment cats need but can also provide safety to the animals and the public."
But wary of possible controversy
Yet, aware of possible controversy, zoos are treading carefully. "There are some ways to go for zoos, because a lot are concerned with corporate sellout," Mr. Chipps said. "They think, 'If I'm aligning with a corporation, that could tarnish my image."'
Ms. Andolina saw no such problem from a marketing perspective. "Fisher-Price has a 99% brand awareness, so it's not like we need to slap our logo on something and say, 'Fisher-Price,"' she said. "We're much more organic than that. The goal is to help them. We want to do things that make sense for our brand that provide a 'wow' for their guest. The brand's helping to expand or enhance [consumers'] experience at the zoo."