General Mills Signs on Ford as Partner for its Box Tops School-Fundraising Program

Marks First Automotive Parter in Long-Running Philanthropic Effort

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Traditionally limited to store-bought brands, General Mills' Box Tops For Education program is hitting the open road, signing up Ford Motor Co. as the first-ever automotive partner in the long-running philanthropic effort.

Beginning today, consumers can earn money for schools by requesting Ford brochures, viewing the automakers' online videos or even buying a car, which is worth 250 "eBoxTop" credits -- the equivalent of $25. While that seems like small return for such a large purchase, General Mills has proven it can do big things in tiny steps with the program, which remains one of the most iconic and well-supported corporate philanthropic efforts in the nation.

Now in its 15th year, Box Tops has taken in more than $400 million for more than 90,000 schools. Revenue has jumped an average of 19% each year, with last year's fund-raising total exceeding $59 million. Ford estimates it will raise $1 million by the time its promotion expires at the end of November.

"It provides us a unique way to reach and help students across the whole country," Jim Farley, Ford's marketing chief, said in a statement. Negotiations are underway to extend the arrangement beyond two months, General Mills said.

For Box Tops, the move is part of a strategy to move beyond packaged goods with its year-old "eBoxTop" initiative. Though the program, money is electronically credited to schools in reward for consumers who engage in sanctioned activities, such as shopping online at a special web site portal where goods from Target , Best Buy and other retailers are sold. The largest part of the program remains the more traditional approach, in which consumers collect clip Box Top coupons from products. The coupons are worth 10 cents a piece and are usually collected by schools and sent to General Mills in return for a check.

Ford is Box Top's 11th "licensed partner," meaning it can use the Box Tops brand. (Retailers in the online portal don't enjoy this benefit.) Ford will promote the program at FordDrivesBoxTops.com, where users must order a Ford product brochure or watch five, one-and-a-half minute Ford promotional videos in order to earn Box Top credits.

General Mills started bringing on outside companies in 2005, making SC Johnson's Ziploc brand its first licensed partner. Others that have come aboard include Kimberly Clark, Nestle and Hanes. The companies enjoy category exclusivity, meaning no competing brands can use the Box Tops brand. General Mills also makes sure that it does not include competitors to its own numerous brands. And make no mistake: the program has emerged as a valuable marketing tool for brands, even as it remains focused on school fundraising. According to a General Mills study, 51% of consumers said the Box Tops-affiliated brands increased their loyalty, while 27% said the program actually encouraged them to switch to brands they had never purchased before.

With schools reeling from state budget cuts, "the reality is that the schools need the money more than ever," said Box Tops director Zack Ruderman. "So people are more aware and taking more advantage that these participating brands have made to help their schools."

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