How Feeding America Became the Go-to Cause for Marketers

Rebranding Catapults Charity Onto Partners' and Celebrities' A-List

By Published on .

CHICAGO ( -- Is it possible to plan a cause-marketing campaign without Feeding America? It sure doesn't seem like it -- which is why the nation's largest food bank is closing in on the "it" status for marketer tie-ins.

BIG MAC: Kraft, Walmart, PepsiCo and United Airlines all support Feeding America.
BIG MAC: Kraft, Walmart, PepsiCo and United Airlines all support Feeding America.
Once known as America's Second Harvest, the charity counts Walmart, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Kroger, United Airlines and PepsiCo among its long list of partners and contributors. The network of 203 food banks that covers every major city in the U.S. gets a lot of screen time with high-profile programs such as "Idol Gives Back" and the Pound for Pound Challenge tied into NBC's "The Biggest Loser." This fiscal year, Feeding America expects to raise nearly $100 million, a 33% jump over last year. It plans to distribute nearly 3 billion pounds of food, a 15% increase.

But it wasn't always this way.

Starting from scratch
Second Harvest wasn't the go-to charity in 2006, when the organization hired Delta Airlines veteran Vicki Escarra as CEO. Ms. Escarra was only vaguely familiar with the program when she came to interview. When she realized the scope of its work, she decided that it was time to start from scratch: rethink priorities, objectives, distribution and maybe even the name. She brought in Wendy MacGregor, a Chicago-agency veteran who had worked at both Leo Burnett and Starcom and was also a VP-marketing at Hyatt.

The first hurdle was to decide whether to undertake the revamp at all, Ms. MacGregor said, because there was a hesitance to spend on marketing "when there were people to feed." Second Harvest had risen to national prominence through grassroots efforts. So as the group moved into a new era, Ms. MacGregor said, the question was, "If we invest in marketing, what's the opportunity to advance the mission?"

She and Ms. Escarra soon began marketing, consumer-engagement and segmentation studies and the process of educating the organization's board about the possibilities associated with name and logo changes. The group called in some big guns: Boston Consulting Group for its brand positioning, Prophet for its segmentation study and Interbrand for the brand identity.

During the process, Ms. MacGregor said Feeding America drew inspiration from the American Heart Association, but also General Mills for its ability to "link cause broadly to business," with programs such as "Box Tops for Education" and Yoplait's "Save lids to save lives."

A breakthrough moment arrived when the team tested the names "Second Harvest" and "Feeding America" against one other. Even though the organization had been operating for 30 years, the newly coined "Feeding America" tested better. Ms. MacGregor said that may be because the name simply describes what the organization does and requires no explanation.

Instantly understandable
After 30 years of doing business as America's Second Harvest, that name had 22% awareness; after the rebrand, "Feeding America" had more than 20% awareness by the end of 2009, just 16 months after launch.

Laura Traut-Coyle, Feeding America's director-cause marketing, said the new name has helped cinch major deals such as the Pound for Pound Challenge. "It's basically too hard to communicate what the organization does when they need to do it in a sound bite," she said. "Feeding America does that, and Second Harvest didn't."

The Pound for Pound Challenge, conducted with General Mills and NBC's "The Biggest Loser," gets consumers to pledge to lose weight, and General Mills donates 14 cents per pound pledged, which pays for a pound of groceries. Participants' pledges are also tied to their community foodbank. This program alone has netted 500 million pounds of food since January.

Feeding America is also one of five charities to be selected as a partner for "Idol Gives Back," the annual charity program for Fox's juggernaut, "American Idol." The program has raised $45 million to be distributed among the charities, and Feeding America's celebrity spokesman David Arquette led "Idol" judge Ellen DeGeneres around a food-distribution center for an on-air segment. It is part of a strategy that's been established by an "entertainment council" for Feeding America, chaired by Mr. Arquette and including Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Rachael Ray, Mario Batali, Josh Groban, Ben Harper and Sheryl Crow.

With A-list celebrities from a variety of backgrounds, Feeding America has scored coverage in People magazine and on "Entertainment Tonight." Last year, a Hamburger Helper program partnered with Beyoncé, turning concerts into food drives and asking fans for $5 donations. Beyoncé's star power also meant major tabloid exposure with every photo opportunity.

Powerful partners
"They certainly have had a lot more interest from corporate partners," said Erica Vogelei, an account director at Cone, where Feeding America is a client. She stopped short of calling it a "hot charity," however. "For them it's really about making sure they're creating really powerful partnerships, and how they turn the interest into longer, deeper partnerships."

Indeed. Longtime donor Kraft Foods is now sponsoring the "Kraft Fights Hunger Bowl" to be held next January. Kraft's Maxwell House, as part of changing its tagline from "Good to the last drop" to "Be good to the last drop" will donate $2,500 to Feeding America every time a contestant wins the bonus round.

Ms. MacGregor describes each deal as a "virtuous cycle" that "helps the company from an image standpoint, but also [in terms of] brand awareness and brand attributes." And, of course, feeding people.

The group's creative agency is Cutwater, San Francisco, which develops public-service announcements in partnership with the Ad Council. Starcom handles media.

'IDOL GIVES BACK': Judge Ellen DeGeneres tours a food-distribution center.
'IDOL GIVES BACK': Judge Ellen DeGeneres tours a food-distribution center. Credit: Ray Mickshaw
Admittedly, Feeding America's reinvention seems to have come to fruition at the perfect time: when purpose-driven marketers are looking for partners and the deepest recession in a generation has pushed more Americans past the poverty line. To stay relevant as the economy recovers, Edelman's Carol Cone said the group will have to keep building unique, integrated campaigns with marketers that also get consumers involved, "so there's deep engagement on all sides."

"That's what Susan G. Komen did," she said. "So it's creating community both internally with your colleagues and externally with your stakeholders, and they're working on it." Programs such as Pound for Pound and "Idol Gives Back" certainly represent moves in that direction.

Gusty move
Tim Calkins, marketing professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, applauded the guts behind the organization's name change, as well as the results. "It was a bold move for them, but I think it's put them in a better space with a stronger brand name," he said. "They made a smart move by positioning themselves as the leader in hunger, and I think that is certainly helped position themselves in the market."

The numbers for fiscal 2009 (ending in June) bear that out. Feeding America's fundraising grew 34% to $75 million, and food donated or salvaged increased by 22% to 2.6 billion pounds.

Looking ahead, Ms. MacGregor said the organization isn't just seeking more opportunities, but better ways to demonstrate value to its partners. Feeding America uses Harris for its brand tracking and is now considering a marketing-mix model, an unusual endeavor for a not-for profit. The group is also building its own metrics models for demonstrating returns to its marketing partners.

Wendy MacGregor
Wendy MacGregor
Ms. MacGregor has more than 18 years of marketing and advertising experience. Having begun her career at a Louisville, Ky. agency working on spirits brands such as Makers Mark, she took an account-management position at Leo Burnett Chicago, working on McDonald's, Minute Maid, Kraft, Kellogg and Altoids. She then moved to the client side as VP-marketing for Hyatt, where she developed the chain's first global ad campaign,'s "Best Rate Guarantee." She was named an Ad Age "Top 50 Marketer" in 2003. Before coming to Feeding America, Ms. MacGregor was senior VP-marketing at Starcom.

Vicki Escarra
Vicki Escarra
Since joining Feeding America in 2006, Ms. Escarra has led the organization through the most-explosive period of growth in its history. Last year, the organization fed 37 million Americans, up from 25 million served when she came on board. To do that, she established, among other things, more-effective local food distribution, a nationwide coordinated fundraising strategy, new and deeper corporate partnerships and new programs with grocery retailers. Prior to Feeding America, she was exec VP-chief customer service officer at Delta Airlines. In her 30-year with the airline, she also served as CMO, during which time she restructured the customer-loyalty program and a established a new customer-research department.

Feeding America partnerships

A small sampling:

The nation's largest one-day food drive May 8 is expected to generate 1 billion pounds of food.

Feeding America, Children's Health Fund, Malaria No More, Save the Children and the U.N. Foundation will split at least $45 million raised following a telethon which starred Elton John, Joss Stone, Carrie Underwood and Alicia Keys, among others.

Mosaic, PepsiCo's African-American-employee group, held a national service day last month, tapping actors Nick Cannon and Raven-Symoné to pack boxes and distribute food along with 1,400 other volunteers.

MAXWELL HOUSE AND WHEEL OF FORTUNE: BONUS ROUND SPONSORSHIP To emphasize Maxwell House's new "Be Good to the Last Drop" tagline, the brand will donate from $2,500 to $200,000 every time a contestant wins the "Wheel of Fortune" bonus round.

The casual-dining chain will donate 25 cents every time a customer orders red-velvet cheesecake until the end of July.

The company will make donations for every purchase of Peter Pan, Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hunts Manwich, Marie Callender's and Orville Redenbacher from March through May for a maximum donation of $350,000. Consumers are encouraged to participate in bake sales, garage sales and other neighborhood events to raise awareness of childhood hunger.

Most Popular
In this article: