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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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An Alternative Paradigm for Nonprofits, Pt. III - Actions Follow Emotions
Steve Barnhill

March, 2009

For my generation, Old Yeller set the standard. Or maybe it was Bambi. In either case, Walt Disney hit us right between the eyes – red and tearing ones – and we’re never fully recovered. Such is the power (and the staying power) of emotion in the movies.

            I never viewed my little dachshund the same after Tommy Kirk shot his beloved black mouth cur. And I never felt the same admiration for deer hunters once I felt Bambi’s pain as he wandered the forest calling for his mother.

            Indeed, nothing quite connects us to others like shared emotions. And emotions connect us to organizations, products and services, just as powerfully as they do to people. In other words, if you want an average Joe like me to relate to you and your cause, you’re smart to hit me where I live, and that’s not in my pocketbook. It’s in my heart.

            Hey, I’ve always liked Coke, but never more than when I saw a downcast “Mean Joe” Green, the most feared of all Pittsburgh Steelers, limping down the tunnel in 1979, timidly being hailed by a boy who offers him a king-size Coca-Cola. The gesture prompts the towering defensive tackle to break into a broad smile and, after a famous “Hey, kid,” to toss the boy his size XXXL football jersey. Just the memory makes me thirsty!  


If you want me to relate to you and your cause, then hit me where I live, and that’s  in my heart.


Nonprofits have played this poignant tune as well as the giants of commercial media. Remember Iron Eyes Cody? His real name might have been  Espera de Corti, and he might even have been a Louisianan of Sicilian ancestry. (Sorry to bring you that news.) But he lives in all our memories as the heartbreaking Native American chief who became the symbol of Keep America Beautiful in the early 1970s. Who could litter after seeing that tear?

            As an experienced connoisseur of commercials – Aren’t we all? -- let me add that angst is only one avenue to effectiveness. Who’s forgotten laughing at the Bud-wei-ser frogs, howling at the cowpokes herding cats for EDS, or the fervor felt when a young, über-blonde Farrah Fawcett sensuously applied shaving cream to an “I’m excited” Joe Namath’s chin?

            In these and a thousand other instances, played out in every communication medium, print as well as broadcast, people’s stories move us by appealing to our psychological, social and emotional needs. They arouse fear, love, greed, anger, desire and laughter, or they otherwise create some form of psychological tension that can best be resolved by our taking a particular action, or not.

            Fear rabies. Have a Coke. Don’t litter. Buy Noxzema. Please help! Get into action!


The process consumers go through in deciding what brands to buy has a heavy emotion-based dimension to it.       


The writers and art directors of the aforementioned stories remind us that emotions can powerfully move us -- and even stick around to shape our thinking for years.  

            You can find plenty of solid research to support the power of emotional stories in elevating any message’s recall. It significantly outperforms rational arguments. As a person who frequently works in “branding,” I can assure you of these two things: First, a key to branding is the triggering of a meaningful emotional response, which is often, and perhaps always, the major benefit of using a particular product. Second, the process that consumers go through in deciding what brands to buy has a heavy emotion-based dimension to it.

            Remember this when you craft your nonprofits’ web site, newsletters, ads, solicitations, proposals and annual reports. Facts may inform, but evocative stories are what move people.

            Sometimes your stories can take shape as animated images. Indeed, some nonprofits have created personalities that, like the crying chief, have taken a place among the icons of our American culture. Consider Rosie the Riveter, for example. Hers ranks as the most successful campaign in advertising history. Or how about the Smokey the Bear, who delivered an unforgettable message about personal responsibility -- “Only you can prevent forest fires” -- and thus starred in the longest running ad campaign in U.S. history.


If you’re not charging your organization’s stories with emotion, it’s never too late to start.


Words count, too. You know a dozen nonprofits’ slogans as well as your own name. Consider the United Negro College Fund’s “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Or the lovable McGruff’s plea, “Grrrr, take a bite out of crime.” More recently, you first heard, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” And how about the Peace Corps’ timeless tag line, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”

            All of these examples point to the power of emotional marketing to move us to action. If you’re not charging your organization’s stories with emotion, constructing them on the foundation of a memorable slogan, and then shouting them to the world, it’s never too late to start. People act on their emotions.

            The surest way to grab people’s attention and win their loyalty is to win their hearts.     


Next, Part IV of “An Alternative Paradigm”: Change Attracts Attention.


Be sure to read Steve’s previous articles. You may find them at


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


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