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Paper Icon Campaigns

Done Right, They're A License to Print Donations

Here in North America it’s common to use ‘paper icons’ as a major part of your cause-related marketing, particularly in campaigns with retailers.

And why not? When I left Children's Miracle Network in 1998 they were generating more than $25 million a year from their paper icon campaign.

(I’ve long disliked the expression ‘paper icon,’ so someone please suggest a better name.)

What are paper icons? They’re slips of paper emblematic of a cause typically placed next to a cash register and sold as impulse items.

They’re relatively cheap to produce, even in small print runs. In large runs they might be less than a penny a piece.

In North America the typical sales price is $1, although larger dollar amounts have been tried. After the icon is purchased, it’s common to write the name of the purchaser on the icon. During the promotional period the icons are displayed in the window, along a wall, strung above the cash registers, etc

Some best practices:

Paper icons are meant to be iconographic. So choose a symbol that captures your cause without words. Children’s Miracle Network borrows from their logo and uses a stylized hot air balloon. The American Heart Association has at least two: a heart and the red dress seem above. Muscular Dystrophy Association uses Shamrocks because the campaign comes out around St Patrick’s Day, which is March in the States. I’ve seen paper icons shaped like sneakers, children, ice cream cones, and hammers, among many others.

The paper icon illustrated goes a step beyond by offering coupons to people to purchasers. The sales pitch for the Red Dress icon above becomes “donate $1, get $4.50 in savings.” There are countless possible variations. Coupon paper icon campaigns can be designed such that the vendors cover the campaign’s entire expense.

Few paper icons sell themselves. Instead you must induce the clerk at the register and his or her boss to ask customers if they would like to buy them. Create contests. Offer small (but meaningful) prizes to top individual sellers: t-shirts, CDs, etc. Top stores might get plaques, thank you letters from celebrities or even personal visits from celebrities. Pit store managers against others in their area and offer nicer prizes to the best performers (all donated, of course) like portable DVD players, iPods, cell phones, or the like.

The kit that goes to individual retail outlets should be self-contained and might include brochures, promotional posters intended for customers, motivational campaign tracking posters for the employee break room, instructions, and directions on how to get more.

It probably doesn’t make sense to run a paper icon campaign for much longer than a month. Even month-long campaigns can lead retailers and their staff to contract “icon fatigue.”

You’ll need to make accounting arrangements in advance. If your campaign is going into a large retailer, you’ll need to obtain a UPC code.

If your cause is not well known you might print a paragraph of background information on the back of the paper icon that the clerk or the customer can refer to.

Paper icon campaigns work best with well-known charities with well established brands.

But with patient and supportive retailers, you might be able to build a brand and raise some money by including a paper icon in your cause-related marketing mix.


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