Corporate Support for National Parks: America's Best Idea

 Photo via mkfeeney on Flickr. Changes with permission. 

 Photo via mkfeeney on Flickr. Changes with permission. 

Last April my family checked a big destination off our bucket list: the Grand Canyon. Looking out over its colorful, steep slopes we were hushed into silence. I was the first to speak: "No Starbucks as far as the eye can see."

An elbow poked my ribs. My wife had responded. It might as well have been the whole world. No one wants a corporate logo to despoil the Grand Canyon - or any other national park.

But that's just what park lovers are afraid of. Steve Casimiro, writing in Adventure Journal, is downright angry: "What a sad day, when America's best idea has to whore itself for a few dollars here and there."

Before Steve and other park lovers throw themselves off the North Rim, let's be clear on what companies want and what the National Parks Service (NPS) would be losing by not prioritizing corporate support. Finally, I'll share three ideas on how corporate support doesn't mean replacing Lincoln's face on Mount Rushmore with a McDonald's sign.

Logos and Naming Rights Have Little Value for Companies

Do you really think corporate america wants its logos in the bathrooms of America's national parks? This knowing that half the people will miss it and the other half will hate them for it? Think again. If naming rights is the best idea that the National Park Service has there will be fewer buyers in line than customers for a hot dog cart in a downpour.

Companies want access and engagement with park visitors, not billboard impressions.

The NPS and potential corporate partners could learn a thing or two from Columbia Sportswear.

Park rangers have a saying about the people they meet in the national parks: They're newlyweds or nearly deads. Sightings of young people in national parks are rarer than Bigfoot. You also won't find much diversity in those multi-colored tents. A vacationing reporter was so stunned to find a group of Latino bloggers camping he wrote an article on it for the New York Times.

But those bloggers weren't there by chance. They were sent by Columbia Sportswear. In a partnership with REI and the National Park Foundation (NPF) a group of top Latino bloggers were immersed in a week-long trip to national parks. The bloggers' reports on their experience generated over 60 million impressions for Columbia and NPF in 2013.

"We've only begun to track the impact of Find Your Park for the Columbia brand," explained Scott Welch, Global Corporate Relations Manager at Columbia Sportswear Company. "But we do know that Millennials and National Parks are critical to our business and to our country. This program addresses both."

Fast-forward to today, and the partnership now includes Subaru, Aramark andSouthwest Airlines. The Find Your Park outing is now the grand prize of a popular contest for diverse millennial influencers that includes bloggers, YouTube phenoms, business owners and TV personalities.

The NPS doesn't need to open the parks to signs and logos. They need to open them to brand adventures that inspire consumers and raise money.

Now is the Perfect Time for the NPS to Focus on Companies

More than any other point in history, businesses are motivated to support causes.

The reason is Millennials.

Millennials may be the most socially conscious generation in American history. They expect companies to meet their high standards with responsible and impactful programs. And since they are the largest generation in America, companies can't live without them.

To woo them, companies will have to act outside the corporate foundation, which has been running on empty for a generation. Companies donate less than .80 percent of pre-tax profits to charity. The opportunity for companies and causes is to tap the asset that businesses have unequaled access to: consumers and employees.

As Charles Best, founder of Donorschoose.org, has said: "The key to cause marketing [i.e. win-win partnerships] is the brand enabling the consumer to be a philanthropist." The money needed to address social problems isn't in the company. It's in the consumers and employees businesses have direct access to.

Take the example of the home improvement chain Lowe's, which has 2,000+ stores, 245,000 employees and 15 million customer interactions every week. Together, Lowe's and the Muscular Dystrophy Association have raised $50 million with checkout programs that engage customers and employees.

With 30 million companies in the United States, causes are losing out on billions because they shrink in the face of corporate shamers. Sadly, the cost to society will be much higher if we don't attune ourselves to the opportunity companies offer to feast on the largest slice of the philanthropic pie: individuals.

The NPS Should Start with Corporate Partnerships Outside the Parks

Again, companies are looking for engagement with park lovers, not impressions. Thanks to smartphones, social media and even newer technologies like virtual reality and the Internet of Things, this can happen as much outside the park as in them.

Here are three quick ideas:

  1. The National Park Service can work with brands on point-of-sale campaigns that raise money for the parks service at the register instead of on park property. The idea of America's national parks is stronger than any single park and will resonate with consumers in-store. However, NPS's work has just begun. Although loved by Americans, the park service needs to strengthen its brand so that it's a magnet for corporate and individual support.
  2. The NPS should focus on marketing efforts that build a dedicated audience of supporters around the larger objectives of national parks, which is preserve wildness and beauty in America. The Monterey Sea Aquarium has created Seafood Watch, an app that helps consumers buy seafood responsibly. Over time, this audience could be shared with a corporate partner that supports the aquarium's mission and values its targeted audience. No corporate logos on the fins of aquarium sharks would be necessary.
  3. Speaking of apps, the NPS should work with companies to develop virtual reality experiences on the parks. Viewed through a VR headset, users can do everything from "liking" what they're watching to signing a petition to making a donation - all without ever having to remove the headset.

While the NPS needs companies to survive, I have my own reservations about companies supporting national parks. Companies should only be invited inside the parks after they've demonstrated their commitment and generosity to the parks on the outside.

However companies work with the the NPS, we need to be clear on what companies expect. They don't want their logo on Old Faithful. They want new and faithful customers. Like the famous geyser, the NPS has to deliver.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.