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Friday, January 19, 2018

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An Alternative Paradigm for Nonprofits, Pt. II “Be Interesting or Be Absent.”
Steve Barnhill

March, 2009

If your email box is like mine, then a lot of junk collects there. And a fair amount comes from nonprofits to which I have contributed money, volunteered time or otherwise showed support. I read it all, but then that’s my business.

            Most working people are unlike me. They delete more than they read. They go the way of incentives to order Xanax, Cialis and Levitra– no prescription needed.           

People Read What Interests Them.  Howard Gossage (1916-1969), an advertising industry legend often called the "Socrates of San Francisco," was known for his pungent wit, creative mind, delicious sense of humor, and respect for mankind.

            Many of Gossage’s headlines are historic. Consider, “Be The First One on Your Block to Win a Kangaroo,” and its follow-up “New York Child Wins Kangaroo, Her First.” 

            Who could resist reading on?

            The soul of this industry pioneer’s creativity (and the source of his magical success in attracting and influencing the public) was revealed in the most famous of all “Gossagisms”: People don’t read advertising. They read what interests them.    This maxim has particular value to all of us, nonprofit communicators.

            For whatever reasons, we sometimes think that because our causes are worthy, our messages are therefore compelling. Don’t for a minute believe that.

            We compete for attention with advertisers that spend many thousands of dollars to know their audiences, millions to create strong messages that speak to what their audiences want and need, and millions more to select and employ the most efficient and effective delivery systems, both new media and old. In addition, many of these advertisers are ready and willing to take creative risks to assure that they seize people’s attention in unforgettable ways.

            Undoubtedly Gossage always faced critics who claimed,  “People won’t read that much copy.” He proved them wrong, because he made sure his copy was interesting.

As nonprofits, we compete for attention with advertisers that spend more money and take greater creative risks to grab people’s attention.

Can you imagine being the guy who, 84 years ago, suggested to Goodyear that the company adopt a blimp as its corporate PR symbol? I’m guessing he alarmed every skeptic in the company. Today, three graceful Goodyear giants annually travel more than 100,000 miles across the U.S. as Goodyear's "Aerial Ambassadors." Heck, I bet if you ask 100 people to complete the phrase, “Goodyear ______________,” most will respond with blimp rather than tires.

            More recently, consider the risks a 60-year-old auto insurance company called Geico took when it broke all the rules by simultaneously running distinct ad campaigns to speak to different audience segments. The cave men spoke to some. The gecko to others. Celebrity spokespeople to others. Last year the company added “Kash” – a bundle of money with eyes -- to its advertising arsenal, in a TV campaign emphasizing the car insurer's money-saving message. Consequentially, Geico, by thinking big and spending even bigger, is the industry leader in new-customer acquisition.
            Pick any of a hundred other examples – 3-dimentional bovines painting original outdoor boards, a tag line (Just do it) that once had no apparent connection to its parent brand, frogs promoting beer, a pink bunny literally beating the drum for an alkaline battery, an aspiring writer from the Midwest, transplanted to Alaska, where he became a radio personality and then used his bullfrog voice and unbridled imagination to ad lib the line that made 26-year-old Motel 6 instantly famous and inviting.

            That’s right, the line was ad libbed.

            Before I go, I want you to know that unforgettable promotions are not limited to for-profit businesses.

            Exhibit A is Houston’s KSBJ-FM, now one of the nation’s leading contemporary Christian music stations. KSBJ broke out of the pack when, more than a decade ago, management decided to use outdoor advertising to connect with prospective listeners, which happen also to be prospective donors to their nonprofit station. Using outdoor media was not new for radio advertising; many stations do it. The breakthrough was KSBJ’s simple, bold message, God listens – a promotional move that signaled a new progressive and prosperous era in KSBJ’s operations.

St. Jude needs donations of $1.34 million a day. It has the courage and fundraising programs to get it, too. People there think big.

While on the subject of faith-based enterprises…I was persuaded to look more closely at nonprofit marketing by an ad series I saw in the 1980s. It was produced by an agency in Minneapolis. The client was the local Episcopal diocese. The ad featured a large rendering of Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross. The headline read, “If you think it’s hard being a Christian today, you should have been here 2,000 years ago.”

            That got my attention. That single ad helped shape my career – and life. The same potential is present for you, today, and it’s accessed by your willingness to stand out. 

            A more prominent example of thinking big and being different is provided by St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Opened in 1962 with the mission that "no child should die in the dawn of life," St. Jude and its fundraising organization, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), in less than fifty years have transformed how children with cancer are treated.

            On the fundraising side, they have employed aggressive techniques in print and broadcast media, such special programs as catalog merchandising and a Dream Home Giveaway, in tandem with a bevy of fundraising partnerships to produce enough money that the hospital treats children without regard to parents’ ability to pay. As if that were not enough, St. Jude also assists patients’ families with transportation, lodging and meals.

When you weigh your decision whether to stand out or blend in, remember that avoiding risk probably means you won’t get noticed.

What does this require in dollars? Well, the hospital reportedly incurs more than $1.5 million in operating costs each day. Around $1.34 million of this amount is funded by charitable donations. Raising that kind of money takes huge investments – more than $90 million, according to ALSAC’s 2006 Form 990 – in fund-development activities. But it pays off, big time, and not only in revenues. Gauged by a more important measure, ALSAC and its friends at St. Jude succeed in the biggest game of all: As a matter of routine, they save precious lives.

            When you weigh your decision  - to be different and think big or to blend in and play small –  remember that avoiding risk probably means you won’t get noticed. Can any organization afford that? And if you’re marketing an important message, like children and families desperately need my help, courage, not fearfulness, is called for.

            To win big, you have to play large. And what’s the point of playing anyway. You might just win a kangaroo. Want to know how?

Next week, Part III of “An Alternative Paradigm”: Actions Follow Feelings.

Steve Barnhill is a principal in Edge Creative Strategies, a marketing communications firm specializing in services to nonprofits.


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