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Ways to Market Social Responsibility

Chances are you have precious little money to spend on marketing if you operate a nonprofit. At the 2005 Conference on Social Enterprise, experts in low-cost marketing of social causes shared a few tricks of their trade.

Start a buzz. Broadcast telenovelas in bus stations. Team up with like-minded corporations. Find advocates—celebrity advocates if you are lucky—who love your mission. Those were just a few of the sure-fire marketing ideas that were discussed at the conference session on "Marketing Strategies for Social Enterprise." Though all speakers on the panel represented a wide variety of programs, they shared the belief that cheap marketing can be just as innovative and effective as the expensive kind.

"Being creative becomes essential in programs that are not well funded," said David J. Olson, director of public affairs for Population Services International (PSI), a nonprofit that uses private sector methods to improve health in developing countries.

The panel discussion was held on March 5th at Harvard Business School. Kash Rangan, Malcolm P. McNair Professor of Marketing at the Harvard Business School, moderated. In addition to Olson of PSI, panelists included Rob Densen, founder and CEO of Tiller LLC; Joseph M. Perello, chief marketing officer of the New York City Marketing Development Corporation; and Kristian H. Darigan, vice president of Cause Branding Cone, Inc.

Certainly, the marketing of heart disease prevention—to take just one example—is different from marketing toothpaste, toasters, or tourism. But so-called cause marketing can use classical marketing techniques as a starting point and build from there by adding substantive and "stylish" elements to give the brand a human face, said Darigan. She is responsible for the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women" campaign, which educates women about heart disease.

I think the best PR is person-to-person contact as opposed to something in print.
— David J. Olson, PSI

When her agency was first approached by the AHA, it hadn't taken on a nonprofit in a major way before, she said. Its previous work for nonprofits was limited to basic communications and public relations. Similarly to her approach with the AHA, she suggested that marketers of social causes start with basic rules: Identify the client's brand objectives, its target audience, and the hook that makes its message a differentiator.

In addition, nonprofits then need a combination of the following elements to successfully market themselves, she said.

  • A "radical, audacious goal. A goal that is significant and also stands out; and an element that is more relevant to the target audience than what the brand's competitors have."
  • An ability to focus your limited resources on the things that will drive the mission.

Also look for nontraditional or traditional alliances, she continued. "With the AHA, for instance, we wanted to launch a movement so that women understood that heart disease is the number-one killer of women. We had to get buzz across the country. Fortunately, the AHA already has 22.5 million volunteers; but we also reached out to nonprofits that were concerned about women's health and wanted to share the message. These included the Girl Scouts, gynecological trade groups, and other organizations.

"If I have one answer for what you could do that is cheap, it would definitely be to do word of mouth. But you would need people who want to tell your story," she said.

Marketing (cheaply) one mission to two audiences
The marketing focus for Population Services International is twofold, and both aspects are very different, said Olson. PSI, which Rangan introduced as the leading social marketing agency in international development, has health programs devoted to safe water, malaria, nutrition, family planning, and HIV/AIDS. Its primary mission is to reach low-income people. On the one hand, PSI focuses overseas on improving health among the poor and vulnerable in developing countries. The organization devotes 90 percent of its efforts in this way, he said. On the other hand, the organization also markets its mission here in this country—not to the general public as it does abroad, but to donors, journalists, and members of Congress and their staffs.

"To be totally honest, I have to say we are one of several organizations that have been under attack by conservatives in the last few years, for a number of reasons. The main one is that we have the audacity to promote condoms in countries where the HIV prevalence is over 30 percent. We have been attacked relentlessly for that," he said. (PSI's work was described in a story in The Wall Street Journal on March 3, 2005.)

Both here and abroad, Olson said PSI has enjoyed the celebrity cachet and dedication of actress Ashley Judd, who is the "global ambassador" for the organization's YouthAIDS project. YouthAIDS aims to educate and protect children from HIV/AIDS. (Singer Winona Judd, her sister, has also become involved domestically, Olson said.) PSI originally saw YouthAIDS as a fundraising vehicle, but that has changed. "It does raise funds, but the figure is relatively small in relation to our overall budget. It's much more important in terms of opening doors that would otherwise be closed to us," he said. For instance, when Ashley Judd toured Southeast Asia on behalf of YouthAIDS, she visited a number of hospitals with HIV-positive patients. One of the photos of her embracing an HIV-positive patient was printed in newspapers throughout Asia. "I think that kind of thing does a lot to reduce stigma," Olson said.

But if you cannot enlist a famous person to help you, don't despair.

In Paraguay, where PSI was not well funded at all, it couldn't afford to use commercial television to discuss HIV and AIDS prevention. In any case, its target audience probably can't afford to own televisions. Olson learned that the inner city bus station in the capital, Asuncion, has closed-circuit television.

"They were hungry for material. So we took our television spots—which are telenovelas that have health messages in them—and for very little money we broadcast those in the bus terminal for thousands of people who sit every day waiting for their buses. These are low-income, rural people waiting for buses: a captive audience. Later, we also put these same videos on the buses themselves."

In its marketing effort in the U.S., Olson's organization has slowed its pipeline of promotional publications. He didn't recommend sending out press releases for mass distribution, either. Better to write your own press release and send it to a select audience of politicians and journalists, he said.

"I think the best PR is person-to-person contact as opposed to something in print. When we hear about a congressional trip going overseas to one of the countries where we operate, we try to get our program on the itinerary." That effort is difficult but worthwhile. And when PSI's individual country reps come to the U.S., Olson tries to arrange a briefing with a key member of Congress or his or her staff.

"That's much more effective than me, the PR guy, telling them how great we are," he added.