What Kraft Heinz and Subway are doing right with their Food Banks partnerships

The companies offer important lessons to other brands that are struggling to connect their support to other brand initiatives.

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The first months of the pandemic witnessed a groundswell of corporate and philanthropic support for Foods Banks Canada, the national charitable organization representing the country’s vast network of local food banks. More than 130 national and multinational brands signed on to support the organization – most of them for the first time – as food insecurity became a widespread side-effect of the global health crisis.

That momentum, it turns out, was just the start of a much larger movement that has stretched into the early recovery phase.

As of last week, Food Banks had more than 500 national and multinational corporate or foundation partnerships on the books, a number that chief development and partnerships officer Tania Little says far outpaces the 60 to 65 partnerships the organization can expect to have on any given (regular) year.

“It’s extraordinary how many companies and leaders saw the tangibility and the impact that food banks were having and wanted to be able to support that from a causal lens,” Little says. She notes that it’s still too early to know whether all these new partners will stay on, but adds that the charity is so far “seeing a decent rate of return as far as partners who are renewing.”

In March 2020, Food Banks launched a $150 million fundraising campaign aimed at helping the country’s food banks manage the compounding effects of a spike in demand and a recession-induced drop in monetary and food donations. Within 14 months, it surpassed its goal by $10 million, in part due to the $30.7 million provided by brand partners.

While Food Banks has benefitted from the outpouring of support, Little says many brands have missed an opportunity to articulate how the partnerships connect with their CSR programs or corporate purpose. And many have struggled to communicate the values behind the partnerships to their employees, customers and consumers – stakeholders who have grown more influential.

“[There’s] lots and lots of talk about purpose – diversity, equity, inclusion, reconciliation – lots of talk and dialogue around employee engagement,” she says of the conversations she has with brand leaders. “But I would say the observation from those of us that work in the impact space is, it’s a lot of talk for a lot of these companies.”

For many partners, the challenges are as fundamental as understanding what it means to be a purpose-led company, how that work should manifest itself to internal and external stakeholders, and how programs can be executed in a powerful and meaningful way, she says. Within the last year, Little has also observed a greater level of accountability coming not from consumers, but employees.

“We’re hearing this quite a bit from the brands: How can they share information with their employees? How can they demonstrate they’re doing the work, that they’re living their values?,” she says.

But while some brands have had difficulty capitalizing on their partnerships, others, such as Kraft Heinz Canada and Subway Canada, have doubled down and successfully tied their support back to their brand positioning and corporate purpose, according to Little, offering other brands important clues on how that kind of work can and should be done.

Kraft Heinz, for one, has been an active Food Banks partner for the past seven or eight years. It activated on its partnership once again for World Food Day last fall, promising to match every purchase of a participating Kraft Heinz product with a donation to Food Banks – part of a larger five-year, $20-million commitment of first-run product for the charity.

“In our world, it’s called dedicated manufacturing,” says Little. “Basically, we get to go shopping. We get a full inventory run and we’re able to pick the products that would be most valuable to the food bank network at that time. So that’s a million dollar donation per quarter of product that is highly valued by the food banks, because it’s first-run, it’s got full shelf life – typically two-plus years – and in a lot of cases it’s food that food banks would otherwise have to buy.”

“A partnership like that provides flexibility, clarity, consistency and stability,” Little adds. “And there are a lot of facets to it, from a storytelling lens, from a consistency lens for employees – we work with a whole variety of operational teams to bring it to life. There are great volunteer components and retail and partner engagements. So to me, it’s a class A example of what an excellent purpose-led partnership is for a brand.”

Subway, another long-time partner, has taken a different approach. In 2019, after working with Public Inc. to better understand how its mission aligned with food security in Canada, the QSR became the national fresh food sponsor for Food Banks’ After the Bell program, which focuses on addressing child hunger and building nutrition literacy. This year, the charity hopes to deliver 150,000 healthy food packs to Canadian children through the program.

Subway’s contribution to After the Bell came through its “Never Miss Lunch” CSR program, and over the last year, it has continued to activate on its partnership, creating national campaign materials that “were much more about [Food Banks’] story and our brand and the message we were looking to convey to the public,” says Little.

Like Kraft Heinz, Subway’s success has come from bringing a degree of clarity and consistency to its storytelling. “It’s not just a one hit wonder – it’s an ongoing piece,” she says. “So I think there are lessons for brands to learn [from both partners] around how you build credibility with your stakeholders around an issue, how you show up and what that level of commitment looks like.”

It’s not only brands that have stepped up in the fight against food insecurity – many Canadians have, too.

Prior to the pandemic, individual donations were not a large focus for Food Banks, Little says. But it now counts roughly 125,000 individual supporters. “There’s something there from a strategic lens around the visibility of our campaign, around the clarity of the message, that brought people to the cause for the first time and created ongoing relationships.”

For both brands and individual donors, there was a clear and “pragmatic” reason to support Food Banks during the pandemic, which threw the issue of food insecurity back into the spotlight, Little says.

And there’s reason to believe the fight is far from over. Whereas in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, food bank use spiked sharply and never came down, the current crisis has landed differently. The federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit helped mitigate the immediate impact, Little says. Now, Food Banks anticipates demand will peak in the fall, or whenever benefits are phased out.

Over the last year, the charity has benefited from unmatched levels of visibility in the media and in brands’ own marketing efforts, helping boost its brand awareness and penetration in the charitable space and delivering “a real clarity of understanding” around its mission.

Between April 1, 2020 and March 31 of this year, Food Banks achieved 8,300 media mentions – an increase of 727% over the year before. And that doesn’t account for the initial media buzz surrounding its campaign launch in March 2020.

Brand campaigns have also helped shed light on its mission. Between April and Sept. 2020, there were roughly 15 paid commercial spots created by various brands that mentioned Food Banks, each containing their own unique messaging.