Social cause marketing is Made to Stick. But can we also Make it Not Suck?

Imagine you’re a typical American. You have a job and maybe a family. You’re comfortable by global standards, but you don’t feel rich. You worry about the household’s bills, your father’s health, and whether your kid will be able to go to a good college. You follow the news and you vote, but that’s about the extent of your civic engagement.

In other words: imagine you’re not the kind of person who reads blogs about international development.

One day, you’re asked to do something to help someone you’ve never met, in a country you can’t find on a map. Maybe you’re asked to donate money, or to buy a specific product, or to call your representative. How you respond to the request might depend on the kind of person you are, what you’re asked to do, and how you’re feeling that day.

But how you respond also depends on how you’re asked. Every fundraiser and communications staffer knows this. Whether the pitch comes from an NGO raising money for development work, a social enterprise selling a product to consumers, or a microfinance organization raising capital, their intended audience is usually occupied with other concerns. Getting their attention is hard. A good pitch motivates action. A poor one may as well fall on deaf ears. There are some basic principles for how a pitch can motivate action. NGOs, social enterprises, and advocacy organizations master these. They constantly test new methods to add a few percentage points to the response rate.

Yet these proven tactics are a source of controversy. Many insiders to the aid and development world take issue with the messages that are targeted at the general public. I’ll come back to the controversies in a moment. Let’s start with why they work.

Made to Stick

I recently finished reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is structured around six principles for making ideas stick:

  • Simple: Find the core element of an idea, stripped of unnecessary information. Convey it in a compact way.
  • Unexpected: Communicate something surprising to get people’s attention, and stoke their curiosity.
  • Concrete: Keep the idea concrete in order to make it understandable and memorable.
  • Credible: Use external authorities, make statistics accessible, and invite people to see for themselves.
  • Emotional: Make people care. Appeal to self-interest and also identity.
  • Story: Tell people how to act. Inspire them to follow through.

The principles make a neat little acronym (of course): SUCCESs. If you want a fuller description of them, I would highly recommend the book.

Even with the short bullets above, it should be obvious how social cause marketing fits into this framework. An NGO raises money with the name and photo of a specific child in need (concrete, emotional, simple, story) instead of statistics on poverty or a complicated description of community development. A social enterprises promises to donate a pair of shoes for every pair customers buy (simple, unexpected, concrete) instead of simply selling shoes and donating part of the proceeds. An advocacy group recruits a celebrity spokesperson to describe how mineral trafficking will promote peace in the eastern Congo (simple, concrete, credible, story) instead of delving into the morass of other issues involved in the conflict.

The examples could go on. Keep these principles in mind and I’m sure you’ll see them pop up. Social cause marketing that follows these principles certainly works — as long as you’re only considering short-term impacts.

So why the controversy?

Because such marketing can have longer-term and cumulative effects that are much more negative. In a recent post, Alanna Shaikh took on typical NGO ads with three charges, summarized below:

1. These ads make donors stupid by convincing them that development problems have quick and easy answers. They also portray development itself as a rapid, simple process.

2. NGO marketing demeans the individuals who benefit from aid efforts. It makes them look like passive victims instead of humans who are partners in making things better.

3. Oversimplified stories about aid and its impact distort government policy on international development, leading to a focus on aid, and a neglect of other policy choices that support development, like fairer trade policy or allowing more immigration.

I would extend these critiques to include most social enterprises and advocacy organizations, in addition to traditional NGOs. Hence, my use of the broad term “social cause marketing” — i.e. any communications that aim to motivate the general public to take an action for a social issue.

The main culprit is the first principle of the Heath framework: simplicity. Social cause messages shape the general public’s views. If organizations present an oversimplified or distorted picture of what’s needed and how change happens, this will widen the gap between what the general public expects and what social cause organizations actually do.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if organizations could just do the complicated work while selling the simple stories. However, program activities can’t be completely divorced from the public messages that raise support. If only for legal reasons, a social cause organization must conduct its program in a manner similar to how it’s portrayed in the marketing.

Following basic market principles: if the opportunity for resources exists, there will be an organization that pursues it and creates the program to match. Fundraising opportunities pull NGOs into activities (and even whole countries) they wouldn’t be in otherwise. A willing market of rich world consumers makes the entire business model of buy-one-give-one possible, even if it’s terrible aid. Social cause organizations will keep chasing public support, and earn that support with simple messages that push the public’s views further from reality. They perpetuate the problems caused by an ill-informed public.

What’s the solution?

You can’t expect any one organization to just stop doing it. As Shaikh pointed out, as I’ve argued, and as the Heath brothers illustrated: this kind of marketing works. If one organization decided to stop, then other organizations would simply swoop in.

We’ve got a collective action problem. The industry as a whole would benefit from smarter marketing that educated the public, but there’s no incentive for any given NGO or social enterprise to conduct that marketing.

Overcoming a collective action problem is hard. Government regulation works in some cases, but I don’t think that’s a good option here. Cooperative agreements among the parties involved could work. However I’m not optimistic that all of the relevant organizations would join or that they could agree to any form of enforcement mechanism. Independent watchdogs like blogs tackle this a bit already, but our reach is limited to a few egregious examples (mostly involving t-shirts).

I see only one viable solution: independent actors need to shift the terrain. Social cause marketing responds to the general public’s understanding of the world. As described above, the marketing promotes a simple view of the world.

What we need is a countervailing force that doesn’t rely on fundraising or sales for revenue. We need a Soros or a Gates who can fund public education about issues impacting developing countries. We need journalists who paint a nuanced picture of the world (i.e. not Whites in Shining Armor). We need TV shows that use fiction to convey the complexity of how change happens (i.e. not Off the Map). We need study abroad programs that send undergraduates to places that will challenge them, economics courses that read More Than Good Intentions and Poor Economics, and high school government classes that go beyond North America and Europe (mine didn’t).

This is a big undertaking I’m suggesting. Maybe one foundation won’t be able to fund it all, but they could help promote the idea and encourage others to invest in the effort. Professors and student groups have major roles to play as well. With a better educated public we’d see better social cause messages that are simple without being oversimplified or distorted. We’d get better public policy, better NGO programs, and better social enterprises. That seems like an outcome worth funding.

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