With their popularity growing amid high gasoline prices, car sharing services are increasingly turning to sponsorship to promote their offerings and, in some cases, spotlight their eco-friendly positioning.

Market leader Zipcar, Inc. reports it is adding 10,000 new members per month, a rate triple the number of customers it was acquiring a year ago. According to Zipcar’s recent survey of new members, 40 percent cited the cost of fuel as their primary reason for using the service.

Overall, as of July 1, the U.S. had 19 car-sharing services–most of which have nonprofit status–offering 5,838 vehicles to 279,174 members, according to the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Car-sharing services target urbanites requiring vehicles for occasional short-term usage. Most services charge an annual membership fee ranging from $50 to $100 and then rent their vehicles for typically less than $10 an hour, often including gas and insurance in that rate.

Consumers pick up and drop off the vehicles at designated areas, such as retail and transit station parking lots or garages.

The rise in interest in short-term car rental has prompted a flurry of new sponsorship activity as providers look to educate and excite consumers about their services and prompt membership.

Zipcar–the for-profit category giant with more than 200,000 members and 5,000 cars following its November ’07 acquisition of Mobility, Inc.’s Flexcar–has sponsored this summer’s Fremont Outdoor Movies in Seattle, last month’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and other recent events.

The company also backed a team that competed in the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon across the Bay State earlier this month, selling Team Zipcar cycling jerseys and hosting a fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund, the race’s beneficiary.

Zipcar also promoted the team and event on 16 wrapped vehicles in Boston and three other Massachusetts cities.

Chicago’s I-Go Car Sharing Service this year added new partnerships with the local Avon Walk for Breast Cancer stop and several festivals in the Windy City to an existing portfolio, while Bay Area nonprofit City CarShare added San Francisco’s Alamo Square Flea Market and the Filmore Jazz Festival to its growing sponsorship line-up.

Madison, Wis.-based Community Car, Inc. this year signed first-time deals with Going Green Wisconsin and Madison Green Day, while Colorado’s Boulder CarShare nonprofit sponsored Denver’s Capitol Hill People’s Fair and the Boulder Creek Festival. Toronto’s AutoShare-Car Sharing Network Inc. was a first-time sponsor of last month’s The Scream Literary Festival.

I-Go Gives Green Light To Sponsorship
Six-year-old I-Go, which counts roughly 10,000 members in its Chicago market, allocates roughly 20 percent of its marketing budget to sponsorship, said Richard Kosmacher, the nonprofit’s business development manager. I-Go will sponsor roughly 15 neighborhood festivals this year.

“Sponsorship is effective for us because we are a neighborhood organization and there is no better way to get our name and product in front of people from the local communities in which we operate.”

Like other car sharing services, I-Go prefers to funds deals in trade. Slightly more than half of the company’s current partnerships are strictly in-kind, while the remainder include a cash payment, Kosmacher said.

I-Go typically swaps vehicles in exchange for on-site marketing rights, mention in event collateral materials and exposure in property outreach efforts.

On site I-Go sets up a tent where it talks up the benefits of car sharing and provides membership information. It also distributes coupons with promotional codes that offer membership discounts.

Kosmacher estimates the organization has signed up “hundreds” of members since it launched its event marketing program in ’04. In addition to direct access to prospective members, “sponsorship creates a lot of goodwill–it’s an intangible benefit, but we get a positive rub-off from helping events,” Kosmacher said.

Selling Sponsorship To Car-sharing Services
The category has some unique qualities that rightsholders should keep in mind when developing pitches.

Involve members as volunteers. Many car-sharing members are evangelists for the concept and most services view them as their best brand ambassadors, so they offer members the opportunity to staff on-site booths and interact with prospective members.

For example, I-Go offers members one hour in driving credit for every hour they volunteer, while Zipcar customers receive T-shirts, a $10 driving credit and other benefits for attending events on the company’s behalf.

Provide local focus. Car-sharing services only want to reach consumers living in the communities in which they operate, which are primarily urban environments. They are not interested in properties that draw a great number of attendees from other areas.

“It’s a complete waste for us to spend a penny on events geared for people who are from out of town,” Kosmacher said.

Offer access to college students. The college market is a key target for most car-sharing services, many of which have arrangements with universities to provide parking spaces for their cars. For example, Zipcar has more than 70 university partnerships with plans to greatly expand that number.

Services have sponsored events hosted by schools as well as others that attract college students. For example, Zipcar is sponsoring this week’s Caltopia college lifestyle festival at UC Berkeley.

Do not highlight exclusivity. Most car-sharing services do not seek exclusivity. For example, both Zipcar and City CarShare will have a presence at Caltopia, as well as at this weekend’s Comcast Art & Soul festival in Oakland, Calif.

“We want to get out the concept of car sharing; it’s fine if Zipcar is there,” said Gretchen Nachtwey, a marketing associate for City CarShare, which will sponsor roughly 35 events this year.

Properties can obtain a listing of car sharing services by market at www.carsharing.net.