Nonprofits are borrowing tactics from consumer marketers.
In today's crowded market of social causes, competition is stiffening among nonprofit organizations that constantly seek government and private funds to serve the public good. Nonprofits also must vie for a limited share of public mind as they seek to mobilize awareness of their missions.
Survival in the nonprofit sector has necessitated the adoption of marketing and branding techniques that resemble the high-profile campaigns their counterparts in the corporate world have used for generations to sell products. "It looks as though if nonprofits don't become more sophisticated in their marketing approaches, they could be left behind," says Sarah Evans, VP of communications for the Prostate Cancer Foundation and a longtime PR and marketing executive.
While splashy events and fashionable symbols can reap great benefits for an organization, a nonprofit still needs to focus on traditional communications strategies that are tested with a target audience and proven to have promise.
Evans explains that nonprofits should become more entrepreneurial instead of trying to steal a page directly from someone else's book. "We should all be so lucky to have a brilliant, simple idea," she says. "But in lieu of that, constant contact with your audiences through a number of different channels will accomplish the same goals."
The perfect centerpiece
In the past 15 years, nonprofits in search of a brand identity have adopted everything from yellow wristbands to red dresses to ribbons in every hue. They also have searched for hooks they can use to stage annual events to raise awareness of their missions.
Jennifer Wayman, SVP and group director of Ogilvy PR's social marketing practice, says she does not believe nonprofits absolutely need to develop the perfect symbol or event. "I would not suggest that everybody has to go out and come up with their own symbol because if everybody does that, it's going to start to get old."
Wayman, one of the team leaders at Ogilvy that created the "Heart Truth Red Dress" campaign for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, says high-profile events that are a logical outgrowth of a well-planned communications strategy obviously help in raising awareness. "You really do have to have some centerpiece that gives you a reason to get partners involved."
The Heart Truth campaign, launched in September 2002 to draw attention to the fact that heart disease is the number one killer of women, made a big splash with its Red Dress campaign in February 2003 at New York Fashion Week. Since its introduction, it has generated a tremendous level of media attention and interest from companies that want to partner on the campaign.
Heart Truth's corporate partners have used communications channels to advance awareness of women's heart disease side by side with messages about their products. "That's been incredibly helpful to use because it gives us an entr?e into the places where our target audience shops and works," Wayman says. "So we can effect greater change by infiltrating society as people go about their daily lives and see our messages as they are doing that."
But for the charities that don't have such a high-profile campaign, it can be hard to get heard. Evans appreciates how nonprofits that focus on women's health issues, such as heart disease and breast cancer, have effectively marketed their message. She notes that breast cancer generates significantly more attention than prostate cancer, even though one in six men will get prostate cancer while one in eight women will get breast cancer.
"It shows how well women have done in coordinating their efforts to raise money for breast cancer," she says. "For my organization in particular, it's time for men to start looking at their health issues in the same manner."
Pattie Yu, a founding partner of GYMR, a PR firm in Washington, DC, with many clients in the nonprofit arena, says the marketing environment for nonprofits has definitely changed in recent years. "It has become more high stakes and high profile," she says.
But Yu, who had heart surgery and was featured in the Red Dress campaign poster, explains that her agency sometimes counsels its nonprofit clients that they do not necessarily need to spend their limited budgets on a costly event if their objective is to get the phone to ring, get people to visit the website, or coalesce more partners.
"I can think of people who had a cause but didn't have the money or funding to do a big splash event that have turned their cause into a crusade with their commitment, dedication, and passion by using some of the other tactics in the PR arsenal," she says.
Nonetheless, given the dramatic rise in the number of charitable organizations over the past several years, nonprofits are realizing they must become more proactive and clever in their marketing techniques. Recent studies have shown that there are about 1.2 million nonprofits in the US. Employment in these organizations has doubled in the past 25 years, now totaling 12.5 million workers. By 2010, the total should reach approximately 15 million, with growth forecast specifically in the areas of health services and social/human services.
Some nonprofits prefer reaching out to their constituents directly, rather than through symbols or branded events. Brendan Hurley, SVP of marketing and communications for Goodwill of Greater Washington, maintains that the market is oversaturated with these types of items.
"I think with the exception of breast cancer with the pink ribbon and Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong wristbands, the branding value of something like that is dubious at best," Hurley says. "We feel we'll get more bang for our buck by being more direct in our branding efforts. We don't want people to have to guess what our mission is."
Perhaps more important than symbols is whether a nonprofit organization can successfully forge corporate partnerships. Corporate cause-related marketing entered the lexicon in the 1980s but didn't explode on the scene until the early 1990s.
"It's a huge bonus for nonprofits to align themselves with like-minded companies to raise money for their end goal," Evans explains. "You look at Avon and breast cancer and the two are pretty much synonymous, and that's a great example of creating large-scale awareness while raising large dollars."
The corporate-nonprofit partnership making the biggest headlines today is Nike's involvement with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the cancer research and educational organization the shoe and clothing manufacturer has supported since it was established in 1997. In 1996, Nike decided not to abandon Armstrong after the cyclist learned he had testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. While other sponsors were pulling the plug on deals, Nike agreed to continue backing Armstrong, even though he had little chance of living, much less competing again.
Nike's gesture of support might have seemed out of character for a company that had reputation problems over social issues, particularly related to its perceived indifference to conditions at its overseas factories. Nevertheless, the end result of Nike's decision has been a lasting bond with Armstrong, who staged an amazing recovery from cancer and later broke the record for most wins at the Tour de France.
And now the Nike-Armstrong partnership is producing dividends that extend far beyond the company's profit margins and the cyclist's bank account. Most recently, Nike has been the driving force behind the "WearYellow LiveStrong" campaign, which has evolved into one of the greatest success stories in nonprofit fundraising history. Nike approached the Lance Armstrong Foundation with the wristband idea as a way to raise money for cancer research and more closely align its brand with Armstrong. Since the campaign launched in May 2004, the foundation has sold more than 50 million yellow wristbands.
"Companies need to get excited about their projects with nonprofits or it's not going to work," Evans says. "If it's supported just by one person in marketing, it's not going to be nearly as powerful as if the whole company gets behind it as a mantra."
The bigger marketing ideas, whether AIDS walks or LiveStrong wristbands, have created models that have accelerated the sophistication of how nonprofits should use their brands to further their missions, she explains. Each organization has its own unique brand and purpose that can be used to connect with audiences.
"For corporations, it's market share. For nonprofits, you want to increase share of mind," Evans says. "One of the best ways to do that is to connect with them emotionally - just like a corporate brand would."
Campaigns and symbols
Organization: Farm Aid
Year of launch: 1986
PR firm: Vanguard Communications
Cause: Family farms
Money raised: $27 million
Description: Concert venue changes each year; 2005 event to be held near Chicago
Organization: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Year of launch: 2002
Symbol: Red dress
PR firm: Ogilvy PR
Cause: Women and heart disease
Money raised: Millions in corporate in-kind donations
Description: Partners with New York Fashion Week
Race for the Cure
Organization: Susan G. Komen Foundation
Year of launch: 1983
Symbol: Pink ribbon
PR firm: Weber Shandwick
Cause: Breast cancer
Money raised: $740 million
Description: Races occur in more than 100 cities in the spring and fall
Avon Breast Cancer Crusade
Organization: Avon Foundation
Year of launch: 1992
Symbol: Pink ribbon
PR firm: Young 'N' Savvy Media
Cause: Breast cancer
Money raised: $350 million
Description: Sponsored walks in various cities from April to October
Go Red for Women
Organization: American Heart Association
Year of launch: 2004
Symbol: Red clothes
PR firm: Cone
Cause: Women and heart disease
Money raised: $40 million
Description: National Wear Red Day in February
Organization: Lance Armstrong Foundation
Year of launch: 2004
Symbol: Yellow wristband
PR firm: SS&K
Money raised: $50 million
Description: Nike-developed campaign