On Toothpaste, or Why Non-Profit Marketing can't rely on Goodness

12/02/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The other day two colleagues happened to be looking at two different sites at the same time.

Seeing them side by side made me think about toothpaste.

Every time I meet with a potential advocacy client who doesn't think that they need marketing help but really does, I usually start by asking about the toothpaste that each person in the room uses.

I ask them how much time they spend thinking about their toothpaste's branding. I ask them if they can remember the tube. I ask what about that product's positioning appealed to them.

Then I ask how much time and energy the people in the room have spent on those same things for their organization or on the new campaign they're considering.

The answers to those questions are actually pretty similar:

  • On toothpaste, everyone has a favorite brand but can't exactly say why they buy it.
  • On their organization, everyone can recite their mission but can't say exactly why they stand out.

And there in lies the marketing problem they're facing:

  • On toothpaste, they buy their brand anyway, week after week after week.
  • On their organization, they have trouble winning supporters and keeping them engaged.

The difference isn't hard to see. Just think about how much time the marketing teams at Colgate or Crest spend thinking about your toothpaste. Think about how many creative, smart, talented people are on those teams at each company, all committed to moving the needle in a positive direction in the toothpaste wars.

Colgate and Crest and thousands of other brands focus a dizzying amount of attention, time, energy and creative power on something that people inherently don't really pay attention to, all in an effort to make it natural to buy their product.

However, well-meaning organizations spend a fraction of time on these same questions focused on issues that people, generally speaking, SHOULD be receptive to, and then wonder why people don't buy their product.

Why? Because Non-profits and political campaigns are often are put into a trap because of their "goodness" of their message.

It doesn't really matter if your non-profit is doing good work or if your advocacy campaign has a strong point of view. That's not how corporate campaigns think, and it's not how non-profits should be thinking either.

What matters is:

  • Developing a real-- and researched-- competitive positioning strategy, supported by campaign-specific messaging and customized visual branding.
  • Making sure that all marketing verticals-- SEO, the website, online advertising, mobile web, social media, etc-- are addressed, integrated into one another, and optimized & focused on the specific campaign objective.
  • Having an engagement pipeline in place to build the relationship or move the new supporter down an engagement path to higher and higher levels of involvement.

These are all basic, fundamental planning details that corporate campaigns regularly put into thousands of products, services and campaigns that are launched every year.

These are also the details that most non-profits skip right over in favor of putting up a Facebook page, a button on the website, and a generic email blast pointing people to a contribution page.

This marketing gap is real and the lack of large advertising budgets actually makes it MORE critical that non-profits start following the same marketing approach that corporate campaigns do.

It's the holiday season, so maybe it's just wishful thinking, but in an increasing loud, increasingly crowded, increasingly over-communicated world, we need non-profits and advocacy campaigns to accept the fact that that everyone-- corporate, advocacy, political-- is playing by the same marketing rules.

I hope that 2011 will be the year that a few smart advocacy campaigns start to grab people's attention and push progressive issues and causes, instead of having to list to people shouting loudly and wearing silly outfits.

As we all think about our resolutions for next year and the things that we want to do differently, I hope that non-profits consider stopping acting like non-profits, and start embracing the evil, effective reality of corporate marketing.