One of my favorite days of the year is Super Bowl Sunday. The big game is not the only reason the day is interesting – the commercials are always a highlight. In my college courses, my students and I analyze Super Bowl commercials to find both good and bad examples of marketing and CSR. We all love companies that tie their brands directly to social good. We also talk about commercials that are so good the brand gets lost. You’ve seen these before too – you walk away loving a clever commercial without knowing who or what it was for. Worst of all for the advertiser, the viewer is not motivated to buy the product the ad was intended to promote. My favorite recent example was a Squarespace “5 to 9” commercial with Dolly Parton – I love her and the song, but I had to look up who was behind the actual commercial. We call this “cart before the horse” marketing. It happens with Fortune 500 companies that spend millions on marketing and advertising, and, unfortunately, it also happens with nonprofits, where marketing dollars are a luxury. To help sort out the issues, we have identified some common mistakes and offer some solutions:

Strategy should lead, and tactics should follow. 

It is so easy to fall in love with shiny new tactics – a new logo or name, social media account or app – but in the social sector we have to be clear that our bottom line is impact – in this case ROI on our marketing dollars. Our strategy should always center on maximizing impact by meeting customer needs and delivering best-in-class results. While we have multiple customers (e.g., donors, volunteers, clients) and may need to tailor our tactics for each group, we need to be clear on our value proposition, our core message(s) and how each customer wants to receive information. We also need to ensure that our tactics align with our brand promise. Our first task is to develop a strategy that incorporates these critical elements. Then we must ask ourselves which tactics best support our strategy and measure their effectiveness. When I explain this to my students, I describe it as a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka). The outer doll is our overall strategy, while the tactics are the progressively smaller dolls inside. For example, Target’s strategy is to be a high-end, big box retailer, so their marketing strategy is to find and keep customers looking to be chic for cheap who have a household income of $67,000. To achieve this strategic goal, their tactics are: 1) hiring well-known designers and 2) producing trendy, off-beat commercials.

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Sell your impact, not your organization. 

Donors are shifting their preferences. They are less loyal to nonprofit organizations and more vigilant about looking for the best solution, regardless of where it comes from. Think about how many people booked rentals through Airbnb when Russia invaded Ukraine to lend financial support to Ukraine residents. They want to “invest” in any organization that makes a difference on issues they care about. Use tools like storytelling and prospectuses to generate positive word of mouth, and donors will find you.

Choose loyalty over glamour. 

Nationally, for every 100 donors nonprofits gained, they lost 102 through attrition. Too many of us believe that marketing is about attracting new customers through advertising or promotions. However, sometimes a better idea is to invest in stewardship strategies, so donors stay engaged and are happy to renew or increase their support. The cheapest customer to get is the one you already have.

Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. 

We often choose strategies or tactics because they appeal to us, but we neglect to ask our customers what appeals to them. Once you are with an organization for a while, it’s easy to develop an inherent bias or make assumptions based on your own preferences. We often hear that research (e.g., focus groups, surveys) before the launch of a new strategic plan, logo or website is expensive. While this may be true, failure of a tactic or strategy can be even more expensive and lead to market confusion.

We wholeheartedly agree with Peter Drucker: “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service (or impact) fits him and sells itself.” Marketing is both art and science, and it should never be driven by tactics. To help you with this task, we have developed the 5C’s of Nonprofit Marketing (below).

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Within the social sector, marketing strategy is even more complex as we strive to meet the preferences of multiple customers. The key is to find your value to the community and tell your story in a way that compels people to become ambassadors for the cause and helps you make your organization’s vision a reality. We invite you to share how you stay vigilant about your long-term marketing strategy as a social sector organization.


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