BY TOM GRESHAM
When the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., needed new resources in the early 1990s to enhance its brown bear area, it sought out partners that could provide financial support. Brown Bear Car Wash, which today has 49 locations in the state of Washington, was an obvious local business to call — and Brown Bear was pleased to help, said Lance Odermat, Vice President and General Counsel for the company.
The company sponsored the zoo’s Northern Trail Exhibit that would serve as a home for the bears, as well as for two orphaned grizzly cubs moving into the zoo. Nearly three decades later, the partnership endures. Brown Bear has provided continuing support as the zoo has remodeled and redeveloped the exhibit and the bears’ home.
“It’s been a really good fit for both of us,” Odermat said.
Zoos offer a distinctive avenue for car washes looking to back local organizations that both serve the area and offer a prominent platform for promotion. Zoos have the advantage of being highly visible, family-focused organizations that are often well-established and beloved.
When El Car Wash, which operates a series of car washes in South Florida, opened a new location in a large development on an outparcel of the Zoo Miami, the company saw the zoo as a strong partnership to pursue.
El Car Wash considers the hyperlocal nature of car washes when deciding on a charitable partner for a new location, and Zoo Miami was not only nearly next door but also “a big institution in this area and a very known and well-loved brand in South Florida,” said Justin Landau, Co-founder of El Car Wash.
“We’re a local brand serving local people, so working with a popular local brand is important to us,” Landau said.
In addition, El Car Wash had a creature-based tie-in like Brown Bear’s. El Car Wash recently had introduced a flamingo mascot, and the flamingo exhibit is one of the most popular attractions at Zoo Miami, Landau said. So, El Car Wash made a donation to the zoo and became sponsors of the exhibit, which will be known as the El Car Wash Flamingo Exhibit.
Landau said El Car Wash introduced the flamingo mascot concept about a year ago, selecting a symbol that could visually represent the brand on its own.
“We wanted something that stood for us,” Landau said. “Flamingos are tied to the South Florida iconography, and they match our colors, too.”
When Mike’s Carwash partnered with the Cincinnati Zoo and the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana in 2020, zoos were facing particularly pressing needs due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The zoos had shut down, said Shannon Sellers, Assistant
Marketing Manager for Mike’s, but they still had their operating costs and their animals still needed attention, food, medicine and other resources. With no visitors to help cover those costs, Sellers said, “they were having a really, really hard time. That’s why we ended up partnering with them.”
Mike’s Carwash ultimately raised more than $12,000 for the two zoos during a fundraising weekend. Sellers said truly being part of a community means recognizing where the greatest needs are, having your ear to the ground of what is happening there.
“We were able to stay open during COVID, so we thought, what better way to try to help out our local zoos than doing an event for them at our wash and help them as much as we possibly could,” Sellers said. “We saw the need and we were glad to help out.”
In addition, Sellers said Mike’s seeks to partner with organizations that align with its mission, vision and values — and “fun is one of our focuses,” she said. Zoos are about families getting together and make memories, Sellers said. “That’s what we try to do at Mike’s, too.”
“There really is not a whole lot more fun than your local zoo,” Sellers said. “They’re all about families and forming connections and fun, and those are values that define our culture.”
Another positive association with zoos is sustainability, Odermat and Landau said. Both said zoos are good outlets as partnerships for businesses that prioritize environmental issues. Brown Bear, for instance, also supports green-themed organizations such as Puget Soundkeeper, Mountains to Sound Greenway Natural Heritage Area and Great Wild Salmon Area.
“It’s a natural fit for us not only because of the obvious connection to our name, but also because we’ve made a priority of the green aspect of washing since the 1990s, back before it was cool,” Odermat said. “We see a natural tie-in with the environmental pursuits of the zoo and the care they provide animals.”
Zoos can lead to unique symbiotic promotional possibilities, too. Brown Bear’s website includes a link to a “Bear Cam” that allows visitors to view the bears at the exhibit, and Zoo Miami brings its fleet of trucks to El Car Wash for washes, creating “a very striking, visible presence for both of us,” Landau said.
Landau said El Car Wash hopes to demonstrate to the community and its customers that “we’re not just a car wash business.” The zoo fits into partnerships that the car wash has explored with other organizations that don’t typically partner with car washes, Landau said, such as sports teams and restaurant groups.
“Zoo Miami is one of the leading institutions across Miami, and it’s exciting for us to partner with an organization that is a lot bigger than us,” Landau said. “We think a relationship like this one helps validate us to all Miami residents.”
Both Brown Bear and El Car Wash are featured on plaques at the zoo exhibits that they sponsor. Odermat said that sort of presence sticks with the members of the community who visit.
“Woodland Park Zoo has a great reputation, and it’s a somewhat unique form of advertising for us,” Odermat said. “It really gets us out there front and center.”
Odermat said the car wash’s sustained connection with the zoo has helped it become closely tied to the organization and to the bears. That has resonated with generations of customers.
“A lot of customers and their kids associate us with the bears now,” Odermat said. “That’s really expanded the awareness of us in the community.”