Advocacy programs can transform an advisory practice.
Rob Densen, former senior vice president and director of corporate affairs at New York-based OppenheimerFunds Inc., stretches his legs in the glass-walled conference room of his office in Manhattan's Flatiron district. Densen is awfully relaxed for a man credited with some of the most legendary PR jujitsu on Wall Street. One campaign he helped create, Oppenheimer's Women & Investing program, for example, put that firm on the map.
At 51, Densen, who is perhaps most respected among insiders for helping pull Oppenheimer from the rubble of September 11 (the firm had offices in the World Trade Center), has earned his composure-and his idealism.
Now he's a man on a mission. "Companies can make the world a better place and make money doing it," he insists. Last year, Densen left his lucrative job on Wall Street and opened Tiller LLC, a consulting firm devoted to helping companies do just that. Densen uses the phrase "Cause Commerce" to describe the intersection of love and money that he believes exists in every business including his clients, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Merrill Lynch Investment Managers and American Century.
"Every company has something socially useful in what it does. Our job is to identify it, build on it and express it in a way that builds their reputation and gets people to self-identify with their goods and services," he says.
The catch: You have to mean it. "Consumers will reward you with their business, but you have to be a warrior, a true advocate." And unlike feel-good "affinity marketing," where a company allies itself with some cause in hopes of gaining reflected glory, Densen measures his success in actual business metrics, whether sales, market share or assets under management.
Densen believes Cause Commerce applies equally to large corporations and to financial advisors, who, he says, are in a unique position to restore the faith and financial wholeness to investors bruised by the corporate and Wall Street scandals of the past three years.
Granted, such programs may make sense for powerhouses like Sears, which generates $41 billion in annual revenues, but what about Densen's assertion that financial advisors can profit from advocacy programs, too?
Some lessons learned at Sears could apply to advisors, Densen says. He was brought on board to evaluate an existing advocacy program, The Sears American Dream Campaign. With minority home ownership 18% lower than the national average and foreclosure rates through the roof, Sears announced in 2002 a five year, $100 million commitment aimed at helping minority homeowners stay in and improve the value of their homes.
The program itself was simple. In certain targeted, underserved markets, volunteers and retired Sears repair technicians inspected homes, evaluated appliances and counseled homeowners on keeping their property in good repair-all free, of course. Densen advised the company on how to educate the broader public through outreach programs, non-profits, the Internet, in-store promotions and public and media relations.
One key to understanding advocacy marketing, he says, is that the people who directly benefit from the campaign (say, minority homeowners) may not be the same people who drive purchases, at least initially. But the long-term business implications of doing the right thing are enormous: It burnishes the Sears brand, generates goodwill among the broader public, and calls attention to a key slice of Sears' business-its product repair arm, which serves full-service customers and do-it-yourselfers alike. And it taps a market of minority homeowners that Sears would eventually like to own.