The marketing we do, in any organization, shapes public discourse around the subject being marketed. When that subject is a product, the marketing can be fairly straightforward. The story marketing tells the world informs the prospective consumer’s understanding of the value of that product, its benefits, and the positive impact that it will have on their life. When the subject being marketed is a cause that directly affects a person or other living creature, the story we tell becomes a lot more complicated because, now, shaping public discourse through marketing storytelling can have far reaching ramifications for the people or creatures whose stories we tell.
See, as marketers, we are tThe curators of the stories of the people we serve. Often times those people may not be equipped or have the resources to tell their own story to the world, so that responsibility falls to us and is expressed through the content we create — content frequently designed to solicit support for a very good cause from our community. But our responsibility goes beyond the ethical use of our population’s story to drive support for our population; we also have a duty of care to share these stories in a way that holistically supports and benefits the lives of the people we serve.
Often, nonprofit organizations will use tragic, traumatic imagery in their marketing storytelling to tap into feelings of sadness, pity, or guilt in order to solicit support for a campaign (a trend that seems to, thankfully, be in decline). The problem here is that while using such imagery may increase support in the short term, it has the collateral damage of painting an often-times inaccurate and harmful picture of a group of people, a community, or even an entire nation. The easiest example of this is, of course, the (horribly) clichéd imagery of impoverished and starving children in Africa.
The ‘starving children in Africa’ narrative perpetuates a classically incorrect understanding of Africa as a single third world “country” rather than the diverse continent of 54 countries that it is; it can also potentially disincentivize foreign investment in African businesses based on this homogenized and two-dimensional viewpoint of “Africans” as a people all facing the same issues. Poverty is certainly a reality in many parts of the world, but through the consistent use of tragic imagery in marketing, those images can become the defining characteristics of a place and a people. To be clear, this applies beyond the “Africa” question to any group of people all facing the same or a similar set of challenges, from people all suffering a certain illness to children with disabilities. Cherry-picking the most tragic parts of a people’s story in order to solicit support makes the tragic parts of their story the only story, at least in the eyes of the people who see it (and, if we do our marketing well, that could be a lot of people).
In marketing, we have a responsibility to be ambassadors for our population. We are the caretakers of their stories, and so it is our responsibility to tell those stories in a way that will serve our population best in the long term. While this is in no way saying that we should deny or hide the tragedy that exists in many of their stories; through the good work that your organization does, those stories often contain hope as well. That hope, especially the piece of it that is generated through the good work your nonprofit does, should be the focal point of your marketing. Highlight the outcomes you help create, not the problems the people you serve face.
Many, if not all of us, have heard someone say “I just don’t want to be seen as a ________”, whatever that word may be. This, in a way, is a simple litmus test. When we tell the story of our population our duty of care demands that we balance the need to solicit support with the need to preserve their dignity as their voice to the world. When we tell their story, think of the story they would like told.
Mo Waja is a professional speaker and marketer, the author of presentIMPACT: The Speaker’s Guide, the Host of the Toronto Story Archive Podcast, the Host of the Let’s Talk Speaking podcast, and currently works in social media and digital marketing at a Toronto nonprofit.
You can see Mo, and many other Hilborn authors, at AFP Congress in Toronto November 19-21.