OK, so I’m being deliberately flippant in order to create a provocative and intriguing headline. Now you’re here though, let’s just go with it…
It’s not just their burgers, Americans do marketing bigger and better than the rest of the world too. Take a look at the websites above and below and see which one you think is the most compelling.
Of course it’s an unfair comparison because McDonalds has a multi million dollar marketing budget and has branches on pretty much every high street. The obesity foundation will never be able to compete with that. They each have one website though, it’s just that McDonalds tell a better story.
NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff put it a bit more eloquently:
“Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups”
Too right. Have you seen how much bullshit they put into toothpaste these days? When it comes to healthcare and beauty products the marketing industry excels itself at inventing problems and then offering a solution for them. ‘Optic whitening’ anyone?
Why charities aren’t great marketers
Yet for most charities the problems are often urgent and sometimes life-threatening ones. Actual real life problems facing real people (and animals, and planets). They make up the kind of marketing brief that the peddlers of toothpaste and boob deodorant (yes, really!) would only dream about getting.
So why aren’t their stories and products everywhere?
Here’s what I think the issues are:
Charities tend to be pretty bad at branding/storytelling. ‘Marketing’ is often a dirty word among charity staff.
Many find it hard to see the wood for the trees – they rarely put themselves in their ‘customers’ shoes to see what they think, and they talk to them using the same language that they use with colleagues within the sector. This is particularly an issue in fields like International Development – which are full of jargon and acronyms.
As Nicholas Kristoff implies elsewhere in that article, charities can be prone to exaggerating the problems in order to aid their fundraising. This has lead to them seemingly ‘cry wolf’ too many times, or the sense that they’re not making any impact on solving the problem.
They don’t have massive marketing budgets or creative agencies at their beck and call
That last point has traditionally been the show-stopper. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the amount of eyeballs you got on your brand/product was directly proportional to the size of your wallet. These days though it’s not so straightforward.
Marketing has become more meritocratic. Whilst the big brands and still dominate the media space, and Facebook and Twitter increasingly pander to them, there is room for little brands to make a big online splash.
‘Story telling’ has become one of the biggest trends within marketing in recent years. Seth Godin’s book ‘All Marketers are Liars’ does a great job of summing it up. In the social media age people are much more sceptical/cynical about old-fashioned advertising. Buying/donating is more of a social activity these days. We’re more likely to buy something that’s been recommended by a friend than by a TV advert. Similarly, we’re more likely to want to be seen buying a product (or donating to a charity) that confers some kind of status to us among our peer group. Something that makes us seem clever, trendsetting, compassionate, cool etc.
The really successful brands aren’t the ones whose products we buy, but whose stories we ‘buy into’. Apple became arguably the biggest and best brand on the planet not because of its products but because of the way people identified themselves with the brand. They weren’t Microsoft people, but cooler more tech-savvy ones. These days of course, pretty much everyone owns an iPod or an iPhone. That’s a result of how successful and compelling their story was in the Nineties and Naughties.
So what do we mean when we say ‘story-telling’ and what does it mean for charities?
It’s obviously easier if your founder is Steve Jobs or Ben & Jerry because the story of your brand is intertwined with the charismatic individuals who set out to be different right from the start. But your story isn’t necessarily about how/why you were founded, who by, and what you’ve done since. For a lot of us that story would be pretty boring, and very similar to everyone else’s.
Your story could be about what you do. Or it could just as easily be about what you ‘believe’. It could be about where you came from, or about where you’re going. The really compelling ones can be summed up in a single sentence.
Amnesty for example has a very strong ‘what we believe’ brand story. We know they do campaigning and letter writing but their brand revolves around their belief in human rights. You could tie it all together in one line: ‘Human rights violations don’t happen when the eyes of the world are upon you’. That’s Amnesty’s belief and its work in a nutshell.
Save The Children have switched in recent years to a more ‘belief-led’ approach to their brand story. ‘No child born to die’ is the strapline they adopted as the umbrella for all of their ‘what we do’ content.
Charity:Water on the other hand are brilliant exponents of the ‘What We Do’ approach. Their commitment to outstanding graphic design and to visually showing the impact of their work – through compelling stories/videos and Google Earth tagging – has made them arguably the best nonprofit storytellers in the last decade – and also one of the most successful fundraising charities.
Winning the Story Wars
If you’re interested in all this stuff then I heartily recommend Jonah Sach’s book ‘Winning the Story Wars’. It’s a great explanation and exploration of the art of storytelling and has a practical toolkit to help you craft your own. Whilst not specifically about charities, it uses them as a lot of its examples (including the Amnesty one mentioned earlier).
It’s got loads of great advice and I won’t regurgitate it all here. One piece that I particularly liked was the idea that you shouldn’t be the hero in your own story. From Odysseus to the Bible to the Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter to Star Wars to Lord of the Rings – lots of classical stories follow broadly the same format that is often called the ‘Hero’s journey’. It’s really interesting stuff.
The point is though that you shouldn’t be that hero. Your charity isn’t the Luke Skywalker of your story, it’s the Yoda. You’re not Frodo, you’re Gandalf.
Your supporters are the heroes. It’s your job to inspire them and to advise them where needed, but it’s them who do all the hard work and who should bask in the glory. Hand on heart, can you say that’s true for your charity at the moment?
Charity:Water do a great job of this ‘delegate and cheerlead’ model of fundraising. Raise some money for them and they make you feel like a superstar, and that your money has made a tangible difference. No wonder they’re so popular.
They have a really simple and compelling cause (clean drinking water) but I think they really understand that people give to people, not just causes. When your friends run the marathon, you sponsor them almost regardless of who they’re fundraising for. Sometimes the stories of those people become more compelling than the stories of the charities themselves. ‘Stephen’s Story’ this week has been a perfect example of that. My point here is simply that people are inspired and moved by other people, not by impact statements and Annual reports and infographics.
Whether those people are your supporters or your ‘beneficiaries’, they’re one of your most valuable storytelling assets. The idea that case studies and individual stories work well for charity marketing is hardly new, but this idea of how they fit into the bigger picture, and who the stars of your brand’s story should be – is an interesting one that I don’t think a lot of charities have really explored.
Made it this far? Then go on you must.
True to the advice of Winning the Story Wars, I’m putting myself in the role of Yoda. That means you’ll have to do all the hard work yourself!
So how do you do it?
The good news is that all this stuff doesn’t require a lot of money. In fact this story-telling is a great leveller and you can create one that’s more coherent and compelling than those of your competitors who are ten times the size. Look no further than Charity:Water to see the rewards you can reap when you get it right.
Guilt-tripping and poverty porn
A word about emotion: If your story or your communications are built around creating a feeling of pity or guilt in your supporters, then I’d advise a rethink. Emotions should be a powerful element of your story, but guilt and pity aren’t very shareable. And in this day and age, sharing is caring. Hope or humorous photos, stories and videos for example, are much more likely to be spread between Facebook networks than pictures of starving kids or abused animals. ‘Poverty porn’ works OK for the huge charities and their big Direct Marketing budgets, but I honestly don’t think it’s the right approach for small charities who rely a lot more on social media to spread their message.
So all this leads us right back to where we started: Your charity’s website. Is it telling a story as compelling as McDonald’s one? Are you selling something that people want to buy into, not just buy?
Judging by most charity websites that I’ve seen, I’d say not. Most of us are losing the story wars to bigger brands who are creating stories that sell more toothpaste or cars or Tennessee whiskey.
Crafting and telling a good story costs more time than money, but it’s time very well spent in the long run. In the next few months we’ll explore some practical ways that you can tell your story in a compelling way online, and make your supporters the heroes of the hour.
We’ll start by making sure our content is written for them. Not something that’s copied and pasted from a funding application. So let’s borrow that candle from Amnesty, and light a bonfire to burn those buzzwords…