Our Perspective

Core Principles for Marketing Social Purpose

Chances are, if you are a social purpose brand you have a long, complicated, and mostly difficult relationship with marketing. Marketing is that thing that would be great to get to if you just had the time. It’s the thing that seems to work sometimes, but not always, and you’re not really sure why. There’s much spaghetti throwing and not much spaghetti sticking to the wall. It’s hard to measure, difficult to place a value on, and tough to justify carving out a budget for it when you’re concerned about your overhead percentage.

Then there’s the nagging question: should social purpose brands really be marketed anyway?

This is an unhealthy, limiting, and dated relationship with marketing. It’s preventing you from achieving the very mission your organization exists to serve. And worst of all, this attitude is contagious. If people in your organization start spreading this mindset, it can infect your entire team very quickly. And it can be hard to break the habit once it’s been learned.

Going through a belief-shift from marketing as irresponsible spending to marketing as a core strategy for furthering your mission isn’t easy. But when you make the shift, it can reshape an overworked staff into a unified, motivated, and organized team. It can elevate your grassroots organization into a nationally recognized and respected brand. And it can transform your social mission from being a far-away vision into an attainable milestone.

But for that to happen, you need to start thinking and acting more like a corporation and less like a charity when it comes to marketing. And yes, you can do this without sacrificing your values, ethics, and culture.

There are a select few top-tier organizations like Patagonia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and charity: water setting a high bar. Let’s examine what has led those brands to be best in class and allowed them to make a significant impact on their social missions:

  1. They have a clear brand, vision, and mission backed by short and long-term plans to help them achieve their goals.
  2. Everything they do reinforces their brand, vision, and mission with visual and written consistency.
  3. They are constantly marketing, advertising, and connecting with their audience with metrics-backed data to measure the effectiveness of their efforts.
  4. Their donor engagement, income, investing, and social impact grow year over year.
  5. They invest in their team by paying competitive wages, enabling them to compete for best-in-class talent and prevent staff burnout.

If your brand is consistently hitting these 5 criteria, then pat yourself on the back. You’re part of a few select brands in the social purpose space not struggling with any of the above. If you’re still reading, you’re probably falling short on at least 2 or 3 of them.

These brands have developed a healthy relationship with marketing. They invest in a solid marketing strategy that’s prioritized and valued just as much as their overarching strategic goals. They have built a team dedicated to marketing and communications as their main priority, or partner with outside teams to help them manage it.

They are rewarded with greater brand awareness, better connections to their communities, increased engagement with donors or customers, and ultimately more donations or income to fund their social mission.

These brands have all of the same challenges that you do, but at a larger scale. The difference is that they’ve buckled down and done the work to invest properly into their marketing and integrate it into their larger strategic plan. They were not able to do this because they are big and successful. They are big and successful, in part, because they did this.

Our Path to Purpose

Based in Santa Cruz, we’re a short 30-minute drive through a redwood forest to Silicon Valley, the birthplace of innovation and modern technology. We’ve worked with many profit-driven corporations, from scrappy startups to Fortune 500 brands. We’ve learned the methods, ideologies, and best practices of effective branding, design, storytelling, and marketing that successful brands leverage to compete in their marketplace, drive growth, and make a profit.

Amongst our work with traditional businesses, we’ve also worked with a number of nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises. We found that there was a stark difference in the mindset between traditional businesses and our social purpose clients, specifically in the areas of branding, design, and marketing.

As we began to apply some of the ideas, processes, and tactics from our corporate clients to our social purpose clients, we found that we were fundamentally transforming these brands, both internally and externally. Watching them transform their core thought process to the benefit of their mission was extremely fulfilling. Even more fulfilling was the sense of purpose that our staff started to find in helping these organizations.

We decided this niche was our calling and shifted our focus at Cosmic to specialize solely in creative marketing for social purpose brands. Ever since, we’ve been on a mission to help brands with a social purpose play at the same level as their profit-driven competitors.

Over time, we developed the following core principles for branding, marketing, and storytelling specifically for brands in the social purpose space. These principles are the big-picture concepts you should consider as you plan the next leg of the journey toward fulfilling your social mission. It’s our hope that they challenge some long-standing beliefs, force you to rethink your organization's relationship with marketing and communications, and ultimately inspire you to make your work more impactful than you ever imagined it could be.

Core Principles for Social Purpose Marketing

Principle 1: Social purpose needs to be marketed too

Even if your brand does not sell a traditional “product” it doesn’t mean you don’t need to market.

Marketing is how you connect with your community. Marketing is how you attract new volunteers, partners, donors, investors, and employees. Marketing is how you communicate your mission and your impact to society at large.

Think about your investment in marketing as an impact multiplier, not a percentage of your overhead.

Principle 2: Think more like a corporation

When it comes to marketing and communications, you need to start thinking and acting more like a corporation and less like a charity. And yes, you can do this without sacrificing your values, ethics, and culture.

When you think about your investment in marketing, think of a brand you are inspired by in your space, and ask “what would brand x do?” You should be aiming to become someone else’s “brand x.”

Principle 3: Invest the proper resources

Social purpose brands are generally not investing nearly enough thought, time, and money into marketing their cause. Many have a zero-dollar marketing budget. Unless you are willing to think more like a corporation, you are likely undervaluing and underinvesting in marketing, and you’re falling short in ways you can’t even imagine because of it.

Don’t think, “I can’t afford this,” but instead think: “I can’t afford not to do this.”

Principle 4: Know your audience

Any effective marketing effort requires a clear understanding and definition of your target audience and developing personas. What types of people are you trying to communicate with? What are their age ranges? What do they read, watch, and listen to? Where do they live, and what digital channels do they engage with? What are they passionate about?

Know your audience, and make sure your audience knows you.

Principle 5: Share your social impact stories

Think about how you can frame your proof of impact though a human-centered lens. Tell stories of individual successes and employ narrative formats in addition to statistics-based ones. Dig into the story and the emotional hook. Show people how your work is helping your community, how your efforts have improved people’s lives, and ultimately why your cause matters.

People connect to stories. Stories secure donations, investment, and support for your mission. Stories are what makes your marketing human.

Principle 6: Give before you ask

Too much social purpose marketing is focused on asking, and too little is focused on giving. We believe a healthy rule of thumb is 3:1 giving to asking. For every communication that is an ask, there should be at least 3 that are sharing stories of success, providing proof of impact (which doesn’t have to be focused on numbers), or sharing a point of view or belief that is compelling or thought-provoking.

Give before you ask, and each ask will carry far more weight.

Principle 7: Embrace digital marketing & technology

Our culture is moving more and more into the digital realm, and people are connecting with brands that excel there. Many times, the first impression of your brand happens online—through your social media channels or your website. Ask yourself, are you proud of your first impression? Would you want to connect more deeply with your brand, based on your digital presence? Is your digital marketing working for you, or are you working for it?

Understand and leverage the opportunities of technology, or be left behind by those who do.

Principle 8: Be bold and cut through the noise

The world is becoming increasingly noisy, and our culture’s collective attention span is shorter by the day. You might pride yourself on being a humble nonprofit doing good work under-the-radar, but when it comes to your marketing you need to adopt a mindset of being brave, fearless, and standing out. How are you ensuring that your message is being seen and heard? Most importantly, why should anyone care?

Bring your marketing back to your mission, educate the uninformed, and show people why your work matters.

Piecing it all together

We wish we could say that if you just follow the principles above, your marketing problems will be solved and you will see instant results. But as you probably know, that’s not how things work with marketing. Marketing is a long-term investment and requires consistent attention and iteration to facilitate fundamental change.

If you change one thing after reading this, make it your mindset. Stop thinking about marketing as an optional bonus, and start integrating it into your core strategic plan. Invest in it, measure it, and iterate on it—just like you do with your programs, your products, and your team.

When you change your approach to marketing from an unhealthy and piecemealed relationship to a respectful and committed one, then—and only then—will you start to see and reap the benefits.

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