JUNE 16, 2001

Hunt for New Sponsor Shows Progress of AIDS Fund-Raiser

By NEDRA RHONE, from the Los Angeles Times



CHARITY:  As Tanqueray gin ends support for annual bicycle ride, organizers say several large firms are waiting in the wings.

Eight years ago, Daniel Pallotta, founder of the California bicycle AIDSRide, had no idea how he would fund his brainchild. Out of hundreds of sponsorship proposals, only one company emerged to help: Tanqueray, maker of distilled English gin.

Tanqueray recently announced that this will be the company's last year as a sponsor. But unlike years ago, when Pallotta struggled to find even one supporter, staffers say several corporations are interested in taking over the event.

Experts are not surprised. More and more, they say, corporations have stepped up to champion AIDS-related causes as public acceptance of the disease has grown.

Increased awareness has been accompanied by business' recognition of "cause marketing" as a powerful promotional tool, said William Chipps Sr., editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks corporate sponsorships.

The first California AIDSRide, from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1994, was a fund-raiser for a local provider of HIV/AIDS services. Eventually, it ballooned into a national event, in which five AIDSRides were held in various regions of the country. About 2,700 riders will participate in the California event, which began in San Francisco on Sunday and ends today at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"In the early days, a lot of companies not only wouldn't get involved with AIDS but didn't see the vision of the AIDS rides," said Stephen Bennett, president of Pallotta TeamWorks. "Now we are looking at that event and asking, 'Do we want one major sponsor, four major sponsors. . . . What is going to fit?' "

U.S. companies spend an estimated $800 million marketing their products through social causes. Besides Tanqueray, firms ranging from Charles Schwab to Levi Strauss have lent their efforts to AIDS fund-raisers.

Tanqueray's name appeared in the title of the California AIDSRide and all associated marketing. The sponsorship cost the company an average of $900,000 per year with an additional $2 million to $4 million in marketing, said Peggy Bernstein, spokeswoman for Tanqueray.

"We were trying to relaunch our brand to reach a younger audience. We were also trying to reach the gay and lesbian community," Bernstein said. "We wanted something that would really stand out completely."

To the company's surprise, the popularity of the ride grew beyond the gay and lesbian market, allowing Tanqueray to reach a broader market, Bernstein said.

Several companies will evaluate the AIDSRides and other Pallotta events this month for possible sponsorship, Bennett said.

Some marketing experts cautioned against being too optimistic. "I don't know that [AIDS] is going to be the cause celebre of some particular company," said Aimee Drolet, assistant marketing professor at UCLA. "I can see that there are certain companies that are trying to appear open-minded, liberal and forward-thinking."

Bennett said the rides have changed over the years as well, and companies may find a very different cause than the one first promoted by Tanqueray. "The AIDSRides," said Bennett, "are not just a gay and lesbian event anymore."