When a small town gets a corporate sponsor
Part of our series on the future of Main Street
As gauzy, early-morning shots of cars, overgrown lots, and smokestacks roll by, a little girl chants, "A long time ago, things got broken here… Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do."
Then the music crescendoes, and the camera drifts out over the old steel town, and flies up into the sky.
The video is a bold introduction to Braddock, Pennsylvania, a struggling industrial town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh — and it comes from an unlikely source. It's part of a 2010 advertising campaign from Levi Strauss, the American denim manufacturer, which chose Braddock as a star in an advertising campaign which trumpeted the resilience of the American working spirit.
But more importantly for a town like Braddock, which has seen its population plummet and its homes abandoned after years of disinvestment, the Levi's campaign brought nationwide attention and cash to the city. The company ultimately donated more than $1 million to fund a local community center and other projects in exchange for featuring the city — and residents — in its advertising.
"We have a community center and a lot of other things as a result of this, and we don't have anything with a single Levi's logo on it," Braddock mayor John Fetterman said, looking back on the campaign on its fifth anniversary.
Few cities can launch programs with as big of a budget — or ambition — as Levi's Braddock investment. But that hasn't stopped cities and towns across the country from turning to corporations as partners, especially as a lingering economic slowdown has taken a bite out of tax revenues and left main street businesses across the country struggling.
"We've seen a lot of cities go down this road," said William Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, which has followed the trend for the last decade.
And sponsorships can be as creative or mundane as a city needs. Traditional sponsorships, like funding for a new little league baseball field or a concert in the park in exchange for logos and branding, are popular, but so are more unconventional arrangements.
In 2014, Miami Beach, Florida, launched a sunscreen line under the city's name which is sold nationally and handed out to beachgoers by city lifeguards. That same year, Arlington, Texas, partnered with a local hospital to promote local park trails using the hospital brand. And in 2011, San Diego city officials announced that Toyota would sponsor more than 30 of its lifeguard trucks on city beaches.
Even high-profile city programs, like New York's fleet of rentable Citi Bikes, have also launched with the support of major corporate sponsors.
But Ron Brown would like to see the benefits of corporate sponsorship reach cities and towns of all sizes, not just major municipal players who can afford to staff sponsorship departments. He and his partners at NamePlace, a San Francisco-based start-up, are pushing to create a simplified online system where cities and towns with sponsorship opportunities can meet corporations with a marketing budget.
The ultimate goal, Brown said, is to connect corporations to communities on a deeper level than a sign on a basketball court. Instead, he would like to see big businesses earn community trust and help revitalize towns left struggling after nearly a decade of recession.
"How do you reimagine a relationship between cities and corporations and neighborhoods?" Brown said. "Corporations write checks to cities, that's for sure. But corporations don't get out into the neighborhoods."
Relationships can last as long as years, if a business sponsors a local baseball team or helps fund city parks, or as little as a day, if they pay for a concert or a municipal event, Brown said. The end result is the same: help support a city while earning residents' trust.
"Getting a corporation and a city to talk together about neighborhoods is the key," Brown said. "The attraction of a neighborhood to a corporation is that they can't get this kind of engagement everywhere. This is the purest form of social interaction you can get — kids playing soccer and families in the park."
Yet Chipps of the Sponsorship Report says that corporate sponsorships are far from a panacea for small towns or mid-sized cities struggling to jumpstart their revenues and economies.
"The reality is it's much more difficult to do than it may appear," he said. "I've heard of more municipal organizations exploring these opportunities than those that actually have programs."
Navigating government bureaucracy and internal politics can be tough in the first place, he said, and sometimes the idea of corporate sponsorship can be alienating to citizens, too.
"When the public hears sponsorship, they tend to think of the city selling naming rights to the town hall, which is not the way anyone intends it to be," Chipps said.
And corporate sponsorships haven't been without controversy in the past. A 2011 Bank of America advertising campaign on a historic Chicago bridge led residents to complain, while that same year a plan to sponsor attractions in a Brooklyn park led the New York Post to wonder whether visitors would be greeted with "Pampers Playground" and "the Burger King Picnic Area."
Even the Levi's campaign in Braddock has not been without its detractors. In particular, the company came under fire for not manufacturing its denim in the United States while at the same time praising the American workforce.
But Fetterman says much of the criticism came from out-of-town observers. Residents, he said, have been well-served by the campaign.
"The campaign pays dividends every single day in our community," he said. "Levi's genuinely did care. There are no logos, no sponsorship, nothing attached to this except that Levi's appreciates the struggle and are genuinely proud to be part of it."
For cities like Braddock, where Main Street long ago faded and residents have drifted away, corporate sponsorship may have been a much-needed source of investment to jumpstart a local economy. For others, though, entering into a sponsorship agreement can be complex.
"It's a double-edged sword," Chipps said. "There are more municipalities exploring these types of partnerships today, but at the end of the day, they can be very challenging to put together."
For his part, Fetterman would like to see more major corporations take an interest in smaller towns and regular people. He said the Braddock campaign showed that corporations could promote their business while doing good for a struggling city.
"Wouldn't it be great if there was more of that kind of sponsorship?" he said. "At the end of the day, Levi's sells jeans. But to do it in a way that promotes the community and the overall welfare of our residents, no one else was lining up to do that."