How CNN Heroes Has Inspired Brand Partners Like Subaru

'We could donate a car, but what good will that do?'

CNN Heroes has been inspiring folks and making everyone cry for the past 10 years. The special highlights people doing their best in their communities to help those in need. This year, the program includes a look back, a "where are they now" retrospective from CNN's branded content studio, Courageous, which partnered with Subaru to produce clips focusing on previous Heroes.

Subaru, which has been a major brand sponsor of the program for the past nine years, matches donations made to the top 10 CNN Heroes for 2016 dollar for dollar up to $500,000. And getting cars on the screen isn't the point of the partnership. It goes way deeper than that.

"What organizations need is money in order to do good work," said Tom Doll, president and COO of Subaru of America. "We could donate a car, but what good will that do?"

To Doll, Subaru's partnership with CNN Heroes is about more than seeing its logo on screen every few minutes. He says it's about "getting the message out about who we are as a company and as people."

"We're a car company," Doll said. "We're hoping people assume we have the same features and benefits as other car companies. We don't need to pound people over the head with numbers. People come to us because of who we are."

Michal Shapira, svp of news content partnerships at Turner Ignite, said, "I love that it's not overt and that they're not giving cars to folks."

"They understand it's about the message behind the platform," she continued. "It's about doing social good."

The partnership has worked so well over so many years in part because Subaru understands the need for brands to take a step back, especially if the spotlight is on people trying to make their communities better.

As national advertising manager for Subaru Brian Cavallucci pointed out, you hardly notice Subaru in the three documentary-style clips centered on CNN Heroes honorees. Below is a clip focused on the Time for Change Foundation.

"We share an editorial responsibility," Cavallucci said. "It's intentional that you don't notice us in those videos."

Subaru's own "Share the Love" campaign highlights people trying to help others on a local and national level with Meals on Wheels, the ASPCA, the National Park Service, Adopt-A-Classroom, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and many others.

Over the past 20 years, Subaru has donated more than $50 million and logged over 28,000 volunteer hours with those causes. Something Doll is rather touched by is how the campaign inspired retailers to donate money and time to local charities or foundations.

"Time is the most precious resource you have," Doll said. "People want to make an impact somehow. It taps into a passion for them as opposed to just writing a check."

Shapira called CNN Heroes "one of the most impactful and truly meaningful platforms we have for advertisers to get behind."

"It's entertaining, and it's more than that—it's important," she said.

This year's CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute special airs live on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. ET and will be co-hosted by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa.

Returning brand partners include Geico and Humana and Astellas Pharma. Many of these partners will appear in on-air ads in addition to CNN's social platforms.