“You are selling the experience people could have,” says Peter Mitchell of the social marketing firm, Marketing for Change. “Typically you are asking people to give money or time; you have to communicate what they get in return. The biggest mistake is focusing on the problem, but this is not the product you are trying to sell. The product is the action of the audience.”
Marc van Gurp, a long time observer and blogger on social campaigns, points to some essential elements for successful humanitarian campaigns. “You must be transparent about your goals towards the 'consumer,' communicate only one issue, question, or problem and be honest about the results and how the money was spent.” In other words, just as with any consumer brand, if you are in it for the long run then you need to build up trust and loyalty.
The Make Poverty History (MPH) brand managed to do this in just a few months—and make branding history, too. Conceived by a coalition of 13 UK charities, the brand became the identity for a big drive in 2005 to push poverty and trade justice up the political agenda. “Make Poverty History was unusual because there was a sense of scale, ambition, and shared tactics by everyone involved,” says Glen Tarman, who was then part of the MPH Steering Group. “We had enough lead time for a carefully planned campaign. With Make Poverty History we showed that you can build a compelling brand around issues of global economic architecture. We built on what had gone before and realized that in 2005 there was an opportunity to invest in a grand project.”
MPH appealed to a broad spectrum of people, not just the usual hardcore debt and poverty campaigners. “We realized that to get more people on board there needed to be a high level of report back,” says Tarman. “On global, political issues like this it is very difficult to say to people that because they took action, something changed. Committed supporters don't need that sort of encouragement, but the people we were targeting would need some tangible encouragement.” The MPH website sent out regular campaign emails and a well crafted PR campaign kept it in the press.
Offering something physical to purchase helps people to part with their money, too. Alternative gift catalogues let you buy a goat for a family in Peru, for example, instead of a pair of socks for your father-in-law. You may never see the goat, but you know that you have bought something tangible, your money has not gone into a black hole, a mysterious general fund with no accountability, or into a suspicious bureaucracy shrouded by obfuscation.
Organizations such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation offered yellow "Live Strong" wristbands that united millions in an effort to raise money, inspire patients, promote awareness, and educate the public. For MPH it was a white wristband, for which sales soared far beyond expectations. The wristband connected people and made a statement about them. People felt proud to be part of the MPH movement.
You don't necessarily have to offer anything physical, though, says Marc van Gurp. “Nowadays in the online culture, entertainment, and engagement are very important. Think of online games, free downloads, the Live Earth concerts, etc.” Philip Spencer says that World Vision offers its supporters a service, rather than a product. Donors who sponsor children give their money and in return World Vision keeps them updated on the child's progress. Donors can see how well their money has been invested.
Successful humanitarian campaigns, just like successful product brands, make things personal. They inform people on how they benefit and grow by making an investment. In many situations, however, the needs of others seems so far from those in a position to give that the distance creates a sense of disconnectedness. Spencer says you have to make even the most removed situations be relevant to people everywhere by compelling people to think, “How would I feel if that was me?”
“You have to look at parallels, create connections between our world and the developing world,” he continues. “People, relationships, dreams—these are the kind of things we all have in common and these should be at the heart of any campaign marketing.”