Petsmart.com, Webvan Group and eToys are among dot-com companies running cause-related marketing programs, aiming to get a positive rub-off in a category where a "connection with a computer is a cold one," said John Garrison, analyst with Xceed Intelligence, the market research arm of Internet architect Xceed.
"In the battle where there will be winners and losers, charity fits into the marketing mix," said Gerry Sweeney, VP-marketing for eVisa, the credit-card company's Internet unit.
For dot-com companies and their entrepreneurial owners, so focused on and accustomed to raising money for themselves, cause-related marketing also can help ward off some of the ill will that has plagued the techno-rich such as Bill Gates in the '90s.
SHOWING SOME WARMTH
"These guys have to give back some warm feelings in short order," cautioned Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, New York. Besides, he added, "It's a great way to build a database."
At a time in Internet history when some consumers are still wary of transmitting their credit-card numbers online, a known and trusted charity can have a halo effect on the start-up's own business.
For others, the charitable connection offers an opportunity to show off distinguishing dot-com features. Webvan, for example, is using its grocery delivery vans to collect donations for the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program.
The charity's logo was added to Webvan delivery trucks while a straightforward outdoor and print campaign using an interim tagline of "Brought to you by Webvan," from agency Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, also is running.
The tie-in allows Webvan to "leverage a unique aspect of our service, our vans and our drivers," who will interact with consumers during toy collections, said Chris Mannella, VP-marketing. It also humanizes the company while putting on a good corporate-citizen face, he said.
In the dog-eat-dog battle for pet supply consumers, Petsmart has taken a charitable tack while duking it out with the canine sock puppet from Pets.com, a site partly owned by Amazon.com. Petsmart is running a TV spot created by Publicis, Seattle, that advertises a dog and cat version of a holiday Luv-A-Pet ornament for $4.99 with proceeds going to Petsmart charities, such as animal shelters. It's also donating $1 of each online purchase to the cause.
EToys, battling to keep its lead online, is teaming with eVisa to allow consumers to buy toys with a Visa card at half-price, with no tax or shipping charges, for donating to Toys for Tots. The effort produced by BBDO Worldwide, New York, was backed with magazine and newspaper ads as well as co-op program with Visa's member banks.
Business support of charity has a long-standing history, and today's on-land giants such as Wal-Mart Stores are sponsoring monumental projects, such as the World War II memorial in Washington.
Accurate numbers on the contribution retailers have made to charity are elusive. But Sean Brenner, managing editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, said his publication estimates retailers' spending on cause sponsorships for 1999 will hit $44 million, up from $38 million in 1998.
"Dot-com sponsorships have definitely started to factor in," Mr. Brenner said.
Consumers appear more accepting of business' involvement with charities. A June Cone/Roper Starch Worldwide report on cause-related branding found three in four Americans don't mind companies linking causes with marketing efforts. Two-thirds said with equal price and quality, they are likely to switch to retailers or brands associated with good causes.