Marketing’s Changemakers: how State Farm has designed a network of volunteer opportunities

Welcome to Marketing’s Changemakers, a new series from The Drum that tells the stories of brands trying to change the world in ways both big and small. Here, State Farm’s director of brand content and development Patty Morris discusses the brand’s ‘Neighborhood of Good’ initiative.

It’s been nearly a year since State Farm launched its ‘Neighborhood of Good’ platform, an initiative that encourages people to “turn caring into doing” by volunteering in their local communities.

The effort kicked off in March last year with a haunting video set to a rendition of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ by The Chainsmokers. In the video, a rescue dog, veteran, high school dropout, cancer patient and polar bear - all of which symbolize causes that can be helped through volunteering - follow a man around as he goes about his daily life, causing him to become increasingly concerned about their well-being.

He's eventually spurred to do something to help out those less fortunate than him, which leads him to the doorstep of a Youth Outreach Community Mentoring Center. It’s only when he sets foot into the center that his followers disappear, the message being that those in need benefit most when others take tangible steps to help.

“You can lift the weight of caring by doing,” says a voiceover at the end of the short film before pointing viewers to NeighborhoodofGood.com, where visitors to the site can simply punch in their zip code to find volunteer opportunities in their area. State Farm partners with All For Good, an entity that aggregates volunteer opportunities from around the web, to keep the site up and running.

According to State Farm, the ‘Neighborhood of Good’ website saw 550,000 searches for volunteer openings in the first month of the film’s launch, which the insurance company says is 16 times the traffic of the US government’s own volunteering site. To date, State Farm says that 1.8 million people have visited NeighborhoodofGood.com, while 1.6 million have searched for volunteer opportunities on it.

“Obviously traffic to that site is very important to us,” says Morris. “Even more than that, the people that actually type in their zip code into the search bar, because that’s what connects them to the things in their local community. There’s also a lot of other content on the site that is really meant to inform and inspire people about different ways to give back, big and small.”

Morris says the launch of State Farm’s charitable push was a long time coming since the company and its 19,000 agents across the country “have a history of giving back” in the communities they live in. For example, State Farm has been providing funding for the acquisition and training of arson dog teams for police and fire departments across North America since 1993. The company also helps communities across the country through its Neighborhood Assist program, which has given 240 $25,000 grants to local causes since 2012.

According to Morris, ‘Neighborhood of Good’ represents the “consumer-facing” manifestation of values that the company has held for quite some time.

“It’s intrinsic to who we are as a company,” she says. “We haven’t talked about that a lot in the past, but our goal here isn’t to go out and talk about what we’re doing - it’s to extend that to consumers and make it easy for them to share those values and help other people. As a company whose mission is to ‘help life go right,’ this is really important to us.”

In the months since the effort officially kicked off, State Farm has spread the word about ‘Neighborhood of Good’ in a number of ways. On Good Neighbor Day last year, the brand had a presence at more than 40 events across the country, giving people the opportunity to put together boxes full of goods for those in need. To promote its Good Neighbor Day activations, State Farm enlisted the help of comedian and ‘Black-ish’ star Anthony Anderson.

At the star of the new year, State Farm rolled out a poignant spot starring Willis Earl Beal singing a somber rendition of the ‘80s hit ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me).’ The spot, created by DDB Chicago, serves to remind people that generosity and giving shouldn’t be reserved for the holiday season since people are in need all year round. In the spot, footage of a bustling, decorated homeless shelter full of volunteers at Christmas is contrasted with shots of the same shelter post-holiday, which has become bleak and empty in the new year.

“We understand that volunteering and giving in general both really spike during November and December. But after the holidays, the interest in that kind of drops off,” Morris says. “We wanted to take an opportunity to really remind people that the need doesn’t end and bring attention to that fact.”

Looking at the year ahead, Morris says State Farm plans to continue its partnerships with musicians like Beal, whose ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ cover was the #7 most Shazam’d song from a commercial for the week of Jan. 8-14, as it continues to evolve ‘Neighborhood of Good.’ The company will also once again activate around Good Neighbor Day, which takes place on Sept. 28 each year.

While the effort is still less than a year old, Gartner’s marketing practice leader Martha Mathers thinks State Farm has built up enough clout in the volunteering and giving space over its 95-year history to make this kind of thing work in the long term.

“Thinking about their historical tagline ‘Like a Good Neighbor,’ it’s certainly jiving nicely with how they are perceived in market and have been for a long time,” says Mathers. “I think they found a way to key into what has historically positioned them.”

She also believes that pitting the concept of caring against the act of doing, a theme that was prevalent in the campaign’s launch video, is something that State Farm should continue to leverage since it creates a bit of uneasiness around a topic that often relies on tugging at heartstrings to spur action.

“We find that the most successful brand initiatives tend to tap into a little bit of tension,” she explains. “They took a topic that is a bit warm and fuzzy and really keyed into the tension between caring and acting.”

Even so, Mathers says there's risk in trying to own the conversation around volunteering since it could prevent State Farm from having a significant footprint on any one cause or issue. To help keep the platform engaging, she says State Farm shouldn't be afraid to ignite conversations around topics that have proved to be divisive or even controversial in local communities, especially if the brand can illustrate how 'Neighborhood of Good' could potentially help.

"Certainly the platform itself has legs in terms of its longevity, [but] I would love to see them work a bit more on 'how do we spark conversations?' and 'how do we engage consumers?'" says Mathers.

While this sort of strategy could be in the cards for State Farm down the line, Morris says the insurance company is largely focused on its primary goal of making it easier for people to commit to a cause.

“As the world becomes a little bit more socially conscious, we certainly recognized an opportunity for us to extend something that we have believed in for 95 years and have demonstrated in our company culture," Morris says. "We felt like it was an opportunity and an obligation for us to really extend that mindset. That’s what we’re trying to do here: get people to feel something and then actually turn that caring into doing.”

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