Medtronic Foots Bill(boards)

August 26, 2008

(Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly MinnPost column, reprinted with permission. To view the original, go to


People in Switzerland are talking about a billboard in Fridley.

OK, they’re all people from Medtronic Inc., and the billboard stands on Medtronic headquarters property along Interstate 694. But that single billboard is being touted across the Atlantic as an example of simple yet innovative community-service marketing.

In the summer of 2006, Medtronic, through its corporate foundation, began offering a month’s free display on the board to community groups. It’s a prime piece of advertising real estate on one of the state’s busiest highways, with about 125,000 vehicles passing by the sign each day.

At market rates, it would cost about $30,000 to produce and place an ad on the double-sided billboard for a month– a sum that would be a good chunk of the annual budget for many local nonprofits.

Medtronic, whose foundation gives more than $10 million a year to 170 Minnesota nonprofits, decided that a marketing boost could be as useful as a check.

“What’s the best way to communicate your support?” said Rich Fischer, a Medtronic public relations manager who coordinates the program. “Do you make a grant and send out a press release, or can you find a way to really raise the visibility of the groups you’re involved with?

“We can spotlight a hidden gem that you might not have heard of, but that deserves to be known.”

In July, the billboard featured Camp Odayin, a Stillwater-based group that runs three summer camps for kids with heart disease and their families. Sara Meslow, the camp’s executive director, runs the organization with two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $310,000. She also wears a Medtronic defibrillator.

Getting the billboard was “incredible,” Meslow said. “We would never have that kind of money. We want every dollar we raise to go to our kids and our programs. So this is a wonderful opportunity, and we’re very grateful.”

Medtronic provides all design and creative services for the boards, as well as covering the production and installation costs. The billboard program also includes a sponsored segment for the featured nonprofit on KARE-TV’s “Showcase Minnesota” program, a morning show that includes both paid and non-paid information. In addition, participants get regular sponsor taglines on MPR programming during their month in the sun.

Meslow said she got a call from a potential supporter “within two seconds from the time the KARE segment went off the air.”

Second billboard
Before you start calling Medtronic to get your group on the board, take note: It’s not that simple. Medtronic chooses the featured groups, and the company favors those with which it has a longstanding relationship, typically three years or more. The foundation’s primary focus is on chronic illness and science education.

Medtronic recently added a second billboard– actually, one side of a double board– on U.S. Highway 10 at its Mounds View campus. And as you read this, Fischer will just have returned from a trip to Switzerland, where he was invited to discuss the billboard program at an international company gathering.

“We see it as a really unique and innovative way to let people know about the groups we’re supporting,” Fischer said. “It also lets our employees know who we support, and many of our employees have gotten involved with organizations after seeing them on the billboard.

“We’re looking for how we can bring this to life elsewhere.”