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Should Nonprofits Follow the Same Laws of Marketing as Commercial Ventures?

Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012

By Rob Whittle, President & CEO

There’s a famous business-to-business ad from one of the great copywriters back in the 1950s. The visual is of a dour old man in suit and bow tie staring challengingly into the camera.

The text goes like this:

I don’t know who you are
I don’t know your company
I don’t know your company’s product
I don’t know what your company stands for
I don’t know your company’s customers
I don’t know your company’s record
I don’t know your company’s reputation

Now…what was it you wanted to sell me?

That’s your donor prospect.

We are often asked by nonprofits if there is a correlation between PSAs and fund raising. The answer is, “Of course”. But the better question is, “Is there a correlation between awareness of your brand and fund raising”? Most people would agree that they would not want to approach the fellow described above for a donation under similar circumstances. So, the answer to the correlation question is doubly yes.

Many large nonprofits already enjoy a high level of awareness. So why should many of them continue to spend precious funds promoting their brands?

The marketplace is fickle. Just because you have high awareness scores does not mean that people are emotionally engaged with your brand. That takes a strategic, mission-compelling, storytelling message and multiple exposures over time. It also does not mean that your brand is top of mind. What I will call (borrowing from the commercial world) the conquest donor may forget about you within weeks of writing a check if another, more engaging option intersects their path. So, there’s general awareness, there’s emotional engagement and then there’s top-of-mind awareness.

Another question we get a lot is, “If you can’t have a direct ask in a PSA, then how do you know it is effective as a fund raiser?” Good question, but it’s the wrong question. There are a few better ones. Such as, can the correlation between a PSA and a donation be linked to a PSA? (Answer: yes). If a potential donor is aware and engaged with my brand and it is top of mind, do I stand a better chance of capturing someone as a donor? (Answer: yes).

Some direct mail people will take full credit for every donation that is received from their solicitations. But what if their solicitation went to our skeptic described above? What would the success rate be with him?

An analogy I often use comes from the commercial world. Chrysler, along with Ford, GM and other auto manufacturers, spends millions of dollars a year on “image” advertising, eg, “Made in Detroit”, “Halftime in America” by Clint Eastwood, etc. In these ads, there’s not a single reference to a sale event or even a plea to “visit your Chrysler dealer today”. Are they wasting their money? A Chrysler dealer down the street might very well say yes. Where’s the traffic generator in that ad? Where’s the 0% financing special? What about sales this coming Saturday? But Chrysler’s research tells them that this investment will pay off long term. Why? Because of awareness, engagement and top-of-mind awareness.

Some things never change. What that copywriter in the 50s expressed so powerfully remains true today. If they don’t know who you are, they aren’t going to buy what you’re selling.