Sell the Culture, Not the Cause


Today, Geoff brings some interesting comparisons to branding and summer tans.

In consumer marketing there’s a term called “selling the category.” For example, if your company sells spray-tan and you run an ad that says “look like George Hamilton all year,” you would be selling the category – you’re only convincing consumers of their need to buy spray-tan in general, but not your particular brand. Unless you’re the market-share leader, selling the category is not a good practice because it benefits the competition as much (or more) as it benefits you.

I’m adapting the term for the nonprofit world: selling the cause. A lot of nonprofits do this. They convince people of the general importance of a cause, but say nothing specific about their organization to position it as the solution. However noble it may be, this doesn’t help your organization build “market share” or brand equity.

It’s becoming increasingly important to avoid just selling the cause. There are more organizations than ever – 60% of nonprofits are less than 30 years old. In every single cause category the competition is getting steeper for increasingly fewer available dollars. Chances are, your nonprofit is not the biggest in the category, in which case you have to make a case for yourself not your cause.

That’s where brand comes in.

Just as consumers buy brands for the culture not just the product, people join social movements for the culture not just the cause. Whether it’s the hipster movement of the 60’s or today’s straight-edge movement, they all have a distinct culture in addition to a specific social or political agenda, because it’s that which magnetically attracts followers. The cause provides all of the tangible reasons to join a movement, but the culture provides the ultimate emotional impetus to act.

The same goes for nonprofits. They’re all based on fighting for a cause, but the ones with the most culture have the strongest brands, which is manifested in more donations, volunteers, and more loyal employees.

NPR has done a great job of building a magnetic culture. They’ve built a steady, unapologetic culture of highly educated people who value long-style, in-depth reporting and they’ve sold this culture through social media. They stopped asking for money “because public radio is important” and started defining a movement of young, thought-leaders who are growing up to discover that they’re dissatisfied with the state of journalism today.

With social media as pervasive as it is today, communications is now actually the easy part. The hard part is defining a culture that’s unique and making a dedication to selling it rather than the cause.

For help defining your culture, call BRANDEMiX.

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