A Wristed Development

July 15, 2005       Craig Causer      

The outcome of attempting to match the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s $50 million-plus sales of its LIVESTRONG wristband is about as attainable as wresting the yellow jersey from Armstrong himself in the Pyrenees. The Austin, Texas-based foundation’s yellow band is everywhere you look, but during the past six months nonprofits have been adding more color to the wristband rainbow.

What has been considered by many to be the current youth fad has fueled fundraising and awareness campaigns for numerous charities.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) in Bethesda, Md. moved ahead with its wristband after children with the disease asked the organization to produce the item. What began as an awareness item has resulted in 300,000 units sold and approximately $500,000 in funds raised.

“We represent a patient population of just 30,000 people and our goal had been to sell 30,000. So, we’re very happy with the numbers,” explained Ann Palmer, vice president of field management at CFF. “But we didn’t start in with big cause-related marketing. It was mostly internal. Our children with CF wanted us to do it, so we did it and it has performed beyond our expectations. They’re happy and I’m happy to also be able to generate that kind of revenue from something we thought would really just be an awareness campaign.”

The organization’s demographics are comprised primarily of family members who have a connection to the disease. More than 90 percent of its wristbands have been distributed to mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who order them, Palmer said.

CFF managers are contemplating producing a different version of the wristband with design suggestions supplied by children. Whether or not the plan goes forward, Palmer said that one of the keys for success in the wristband market is to stay focused on your target audience. “We’ve done it to make our constituents happy and that has succeeded,” Palmer said. “Do I think that we’ve made any kind of impact like Lance Armstrong? No.”

Much like the Tour de France, having Armstrong lead the pack helped to increase interest as a whole. For the March of Dimes (MoD), that interest arrived in the form of innumerable emails asking, “Are you going to have a band like the yellow Lance Armstrong one?” The catch was to individualize the band, according to Kathy Farrey, director of national promotions at MoD in White Plains, N.Y. That mission was accomplished with the release of the pink and blue tie-dye design that exclusively identifies MoD.

“There is the craze for them out there but we weren’t really sure,” Farrey explained. “In the beginning we were thinking maybe 50,000 would sell in the first month and that amount was gone in two weeks. And we were on the fence with a ‘should we or shouldn’t we do this’ kind of discussion.”

MoD did “do this” and has sold more than 400,000 bands while raising $200,000 since the item went on sale in February. The nonprofit produces the bands in both youth and adult sizes, and a “significant amount” of youth-sized bands have been being ordered.

Farrey is looking forward to November, which is Prematurity Awareness Month, when she believes there will be another surge in sales for all things pink and blue tie-dye. MoD will keep its wristbands on the market as long as the demand exists and that should be at least through the end of 2005, she added.

Thus far, demand for the LIVESTRONG wristbands have reached across the globe. The Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) has sold wristbands in every state in the United States, in 60 countries and on every continent, according to LAF Spokesperson Jennifer Halpin. The organization sells 100,000 bands per day from its Web site, www.livestrong.org. Nike and Discovery Channel stores are stocked with authentic bands as well.

“We never anticipated that the wristband campaign would take off the way that it has,” Halpin said. “The LIVESTRONG wristband campaign actually originated with Nike. It was their idea. They came to us and put tremendous resources behind it. The original goal was to sell 5 million at $1 each and then Nike would donate an additional $1 million. That would total $6 million that would coincide with Lance’s attempt to win his sixth straight Tour de France.”

The LIVESTRONG band was launched in May 2004 and the original goal of 5 million sold was reached before the end of July. An internal survey of wristband purchasers on LAF’s Web site revealed that approximately 83 percent of people buying and wearing wristbands are doing so either to show support for someone living with cancer or because they want to support the LAF, according to Halpin.

LAF “doesn’t focus on the other wristbands out there,” but other nonprofits are considering LAF before adding wristbands to the rapidly expanding market, Halpin said.

“For the past six months or so, we had consumers calling us and asking if we would consider selling them,” said Judith O’Toole, managing editor at the Epilepsy Foundation in Landover, Md. “We kind of hesitated not knowing if it would last for long with the whole LIVESTRONG craze out there. But there was such a demand in our community for them that we decided to start selling them.”

Since May 1, 2005, the Epilepsy Foundation has sold 100,000 of its bands, resulting in $100,000.

When it began its wristband program in February, the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) only knew of Armstrong’s wristband. The BIAA saw it as a fad and thought, why not jump on the bandwagon, admitted Catherine Sebold, communications specialist at the McLean, Va.-headquartered nonprofit.

Sebold would not disclose the organization’s sales figures but said sales were “very good.” It has counted rehabilitation facilities and health professionals who work with people with brain injuries as its loyal customers. Family members who want to raise funds to cover medical costs have also purchased the bands and sold them at a profit, Sebold added.

The only roadblocks have been the wristband size and receiving the bands from the manufacturer. The BIAA ordered one size, the standard size for women and children. Due to a healthy number of orders placed for adult males, a larger size for adults was needed. One BIAA employee even said the original size band was so tight it pulled the hair out of his wrists, recounted Sebold.

“They’re only made in China so you have to wait forever for them to get here,” Sebold said. “The first order, it took several weeks, but they moved off the shelf really quickly. So we had to order more but there was a backlog where people were waiting. I think took like six weeks for them to arrive.”

The BIAA consistently holds discussions regarding future orders since it is unsure when the craze might die out. “Are we going to be stuck with an order because people stop buying them? We just don’t know,” Sebold said.

Jefferson, Mo.-based Missouri Right to Life is taking a wait-and-see approach to its wristband program, which began in May. The organization took over the project from the Diocese of St. Louis and instituted a different distribution process, shipping the bands to those of its 45 chapters that were interested. Thus far, sales seem to be “OK,” according to Patricia Skain, executive director, although how many of the chapters that will get on board remains to be seen.

Stretching out

The GOT GUTS double entendre has proven a str ong enough slogan to drum up nearly $400,000 in wristband sales for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) in New York City. Its expectations were to sell 20,000 to 30,000 units, but the plan was scuttled after the first week when 100,000 wristbands were ordered. It took the organization five months to catch up with the demand, said Roger Koman, vice president of new business development at CCFA.

A second revelation came as CCFA prepared to sell its GOT GUTS wristbands to primarily kids. Koman estimated that sales to kids would outnumber adults 2 to 1 but when the bands started moving, the organization was surprised to find that adults were outselling kids at a 3-to-1 clip.

In addition, 70 percent of people who bought wristbands were not CCFA members. The wristband marketplace has provided thousands of names for which the organization plans to contact and attempt to build a bridge to a stronger relationship, Koman said.

The nonprofit utilized a multiple approach to moving its product. A portion of the stock was allocated for consumers, another segment was sold through local chapters at events, and others have been shipped to related organizations such as the United Ostomy Association. The initial success has led Koman and CCFA to the next stage.

“We are moving to a second phase where we are personalizing the bracelets,” Koman explained. “We’ve begun building relationships with organizations that want to support us because they have a relationship with the disease. For example, there is a music label in Tennessee that represents some big country music artists. Some of those artists have a relationship with the disease. So there are these big, outdoor country fairs and the label, MuzikMafia, has sold 25,000 bracelets in a different color, black, that says, ‘MuzikMafia GOT GUTS.’ We’re working with three or four other organizations, some of them in the sports field, where someone with a relationship to the disease in a show of support would agree to do a joint promotion.”

A more personalized touch was a goal of the M.I.S.S. Foundation when it designed two wristbands for public purchase. The first, a black band inscribed with the words, “In Mourning,” is intended for people who have children who recently passed away. The second band, the white “One Who Soars,” signifies hope and healing following a death experience.

The Peoria, Ariz.-based foundation began selling the bands in May and has seen orders from funeral homes, individuals and other nonprofit organizations. It hopes that the bands become symbols that affect a more compassionate response in people.

“ We see this as something that will survive the trendiness of the wristband,” said Joanne Cacciatore-Garard, founder of the M.I.S.S. Foundation. “We really don’t have a way of saying, ‘I’m in mourning.’ This will hopefully catch on with the general public and the general public will soon be able to recognize these bands and know that someone has just lost a child. Hopefully they would then be a little gentler with the way that they treat them. In everything we do we need to be more gentle with people who are grieving.”

If a person is sporting a wristband, chances are good it represents either a physical or mental health-related nonprofit. But health organizations are not the only charities benefiting from the band. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) produced an environment-friendly, evergreen-colored band that is decorated with imprints of a bear, wolf, buffalo and songbird. Keeping the band in line with its mission was a bit trickier than producing the run-of-the-mill silicon bands.

“We decided to go with a wristband that is made from a natural silico, which is not a silicon-based product,” explained Greg Griffith, director of cause marketing at the Reston, Va.-based NWF. “We tried to find a recycled silico but it kept breaking. It took us a little longer to get to market because of that. We may have missed the top of the market, but it’s more environmentally friendly than most of the other wristbands out there and it has been a positive for us.”

The NWF has raised $10,000 through sales but has also distributed bands, free of charge, to employees, volunteers, AmeriCorps members and to the public during events. The practice has been cost-effective since NWF’s corporate partners agreed to make the bands and have NWF pay for them on a consignment basis.

As the publisher of youth magazines including Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard , it has come as no surprise to Griffith that approximately 75 percent of the wristbands have been going to kids. Griffith pegged the main demographic as “Ranger Rick-age,” which is 7 and up.

At least one nonprofit has proven that trade shows can corral a demographic as well as a targeted publication. Encinitas, Calif.-headquartered SurfAid International wanted to raise additional funds for its tsunami relief fund when the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association and Action Sports Retailer trade show approached it with the idea of selling wristbands. After $100,000 in sales, the bands have evolved into a general fundraiser for the organization.

Because the bands appeal to and in volve the less wealthy, it was a hook for SurfAid, which also counted the potential benefits of attracting younger demographics. The wristband program only takes $5 to get involved where being a member of many organizations can cost a minimum of $25-$30, said Chris Lacy, special projects manager at SurfAid.

“The fact that there was already a prominent organization doing it was a two-edged sword and we saw the pros and cons,” said Lacy. “The pros are that it was already a proven formula where people were participating. The downside was that there was already a very successful model and maybe people have hooked up with that one and don’t want to support others. We just chose to look at the bright side and ignore the potential negative.”

Fad or fiction?

Is the wristband destined to join the fad graveyard, buried alongside the Garbage Pail Kids, pet rocks, Rubik’s Cube and M.C. Hammer? Many seem to think the item’s headstone will be carved in the near future.

People have purchased National Autism Association bands for wedding favors and for handing out at birthdays and other events, according to Jo Pike, president of the Marion, S.C.-based nonprofit. Despite raising $120,000 thus far, Pike sees the bands as a phase and the organization’s sales are “already going down,” she said.

The National Wildlife Federation’s Greg Griffith also believes the wristband is in its dying phase but added that the organization will continue to examine trends and if it makes sense, create environment-safe products that would benefit the mission of NWF.

“I personally think that this is a trend,” said Judith O’Toole of the Epilepsy Foundation. “Kids seem to be driving the whole wristband thing. As with most fads, I think it would go out of style. But hopefully it won’t.”

Peter Cleary, national director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International in New York City, is more optimistic. Its national office has shipped 750,000 wristbands to more than 80 chapters across the country and interest continues to be strong. Cleary said he would be surprised if the item was not in demand “a year from now.”

Lacy of SurfAid International would only go as far to “suspect” that the wristband is a passing trend. According to Lacy, in a discussion with another charity official, the life span of bracelets was discussed. “He said, ‘Are bumper stickers short-term? Are buttons a short-term item? Why, just because this is new, do we have to think it is short-term?’ It’s a reasonable marketing medium. Why does it have to be just a flash in the pan or the latest fad of young people?”