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February 14, 2023

Mission Multiplier: Nonprofit Marketing is a Four Letter Word: Part 1

Jane Pfeiffer

Hello, I’m Jane Pfeiffer, founder and president of Fieldtrip. Fieldtrip is a marketing and branding firm dedicated to helping purpose driven organizations like yours close the gap between the people that you serve and support and those that you need to support you. When we close that gap, we have a Mission Multiplier.

Marketing, it’s what I do, but it’s often a four letter word to most nonprofits. To some, you might think of a cuss word when it comes to mind. A lot of nonprofits believe there’s no place for marketing in a mission driven organization. More often than not, the four letters that I’m thinking of are words like “zero” as in zero marketing budget or want. It’s something that an executive director wants but maybe knows they’ll never get, or the fight is going to be difficult. Marketing is a need no matter where you’re at- our favorite four-letter marketing word is “hero” as in your marketing should demonstrate your heroism.

We’re going to break down the word marketing because it gets thrown around a lot and people use it differently. I’m sure there’s a wrong definition, but let’s break down the differences in branding, advertising, communications and marketing- or at least my definition of those terms.

Branding- The foundation of it all

Let’s start with branding. It’s the foundation. It’s the gut reaction when somebody hears your organization’s name or they see your logo or they think of you. It’s an emotional relationship. It’s your logo. Sure, it’s your essence. You might remember the three magic words when I talked about a brand essence a few weeks ago. It’s how you show up in the word branding and that’s why people want to have a relationship with you. They believe that by being associated with your brand, they become a better version of themselves. That’s a really important relationship and one we should aspire to develop. We’re going to walk through these four different things branding, advertising, communications and marketing. We’re going to use one of my favorite brands, Target as an example. I figure everybody reading has experienced Target in some format, whether in-store or online.

Many people love Target and they do a great job in branding and they throw a lot of money. It’s a priority for them, not an afterthought. Target’s brand is composed of its logo and what we would call its visual identity. That’s every single touchpoint: the colors, the font, the styles of the photos, the styles of the products in their price and product advertising. It’s everything. Branding is everything that touches you, whether you’re inside the store, on their website or outside in the world. Branding helps build your most valuable asset and that’s advocates (for example-“I’m an advocate for Target”). These people believe so strongly in you that they feel tied to your mission as part of their identity. It’s inspirational. It’s the why in what you do, not the what. This is where strategy lives and this is where you build advocates for your organization. That’s branding in a nutshell.

Advertising- The outreach

Very quickly, let’s touch on advertising. Advertising is the outreach, and it’s a request for others to take an action. Advertising promotes the utilization of your services. It also supports engagement, donations, and fundraising. It has a lot more purposes than just the capital campaign or those more commercial aspects you think of when you think of advertising. It isn’t a substitute for fundraising or development. It increases awareness, which in turn lifts the success of those efforts. It’s not a replacement. Advertising simply functions as your introduction to new people and asking those who know you a little bit or are new to you to take a step closer. It’s an invitation for you to lean in or for them to lean in and learn more about you. You’re asking for their help. You’re asking for them to apply for a job, to donate, or recognize that this social issue needs to be change. Chances are you’ve seen Target’s advertising. The brand is so strong that its advertising can really take a lot of creative directions and not be extremely literal. Even when they don’t use their brand colors or their typical style, you just have to know that’s from Target. That’s the power of branding played through advertising. Advertising is your request. It is transactional. It tells you when now is the right time to lean in, to buy, to learn, to listen. It’s composed of tactics and it builds clients, both beneficiaries and benefactors. Think about that word and clients. Again, it’s both the beneficiaries and the benefactors of your organization.

Communications – The reports of what you do

Communications is our third example and you’re likely far more familiar. For many nonprofits, communications is the extent of their marketing. That’s not a bad thing, but it is one leg of marketing-not the entire thing. Communication includes email, social media, newsletters, PR, your staff and board content. It’s reporting what’s happened in the past, what’s happening now, and what might happen in the very near future. If advertising is an invitation and branding is your identity and your inspiration, communications is your reporting. It’s about the current state and it offers a rationale for those more emotional connections like branding to make sense. It’s rationalized as why I want to do business or conduct or continue to engage with this organization. Communications reaches those who already know you. The purpose is to advance that relationship. Target’s communications, you might be less familiar with these, but one of the greatest examples I found is their electronic newsletter. It’s a portion of a website called a Bull’s Eye view. Bull’s eye coming from the meaning in their logo. You could also say it’s from their mascot, the dog spot that they used to use. It’s a robust example of how to keep employees, investors, the media, funders, prospective employees and many more informed. This example is very easy to digest and navigate. Communications is your knowledge and includes all the details. It’s informational, it supports how you deliver the mission. It’s the how, it’s the words and the tone and the personality of the message and it builds stories. We have both a logical and rational use of communications, and the stories leans towards the more emotional side of those communications.

Marketing- The umbrella that covers it all

Finally and only now do we get to marketing. Marketing again, like I’ve stated many times, is not used consistently. Some people think marketing is the brand, some people think it’s advertising. When simply marketing is the umbrella that covers everything that you do- advertising, communications and branding. Those all fall under that marketing umbrella. It can’t occur without the foundation of a brand. It isn’t known without advertising and communications, so they all have to work together. I’m giving you an example of marketing for Target because it’s the totality of everything that they do. I want to read you this quote from the target’s EVP of Marketing, Rick Gomes, who describes the role of marketing in their organization and just listen for how different their relationship is than with most nonprofits.

“Marketing is responsible for driving business results. We would say impact or mission results. So we measure everything we do and can adjust accordingly in real time. But we have to balance the math and the magic, because when Target at its best, we’re sparking something deeper in our guests.”

Now, you could and should put your organization name in the place of Target and instead of business results, you can say mission results. Everything else applies to you. It can be a leader in your organization, and it shouldn’t be an operational expense that is occasionally allowed by a grant, a board of directors, or when you fight for it hard enough. Marketing is the culmination of your goals. Yes, related to marketing, but also your organizational goals. It’s motivational. It answers the what and the so what? It’s an investment and it builds connections at every level. We’re going to continue this conversation to break into marketing and why it’s so hard for nonprofits to do it and to do it with support and to do it in a way that is sustaining and lifting impact.


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