Are you a Prius or a Civic?

Empathy is as much a core human emotion as is greed, so why is it that companies seem to have an easier time creating a loyal following for their products than NPO’s do for their causes? If people can “identify” with plastic clogs or “seven layer nachos” then they can identify with juvenile diabetes or scholarship funds…right? 

If a brand can start a social movement by uniting people around the inherent values of a sneaker, it should be easy to start a movement around something that’s actually important…like civil liberty. But it’s not the case, because people talk a lot more about Nike than they do the ACLU.

Materialism isn’t the issue. The problem is that it’s typically easier to express yourself through a brand than through a cause because you can wear a brand or drive a brand. So unless you sport that trendy Channel 13 bag, no one really knows just how good you are.

Consider the hybrid car market. The Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid are very similar cars: small, practical, in high demand given gas prices, and have similar price points. So why did the Prius grow to be a social icon and dominate the market while the Civic has been barely profitable?

The reason is because you can’t get credit for driving a hybrid if you buy a Civic. You can barely tell it is a hybrid because it looks exactly like the regular Civic model. The Prius however, looks like nothing we’ve seen before. It communicates very strongly that its driver has a different way of looking at things – a rebellious middle finger towards Hummer convention for all to see. Honda has recognized their folly as they now launch the Insight, which is more of a “statement car,” and coincidentally marketed on a very social movement-esque brand platform: “the car for the people.” 

So how do we make it easier for NPO’s to get donors the social credit they crave without having to start a fashion or accessory line (which by the way has proved to be a successful strategy — see Livestrong bracelets and breast cancer ribbons)?  Consider how social movements do it. They don’t offer participants products either (up for discussion), but they’re able to define generations. They do it through symbols, stories, and rhetoric, all of which allow you to express your beliefs without having to use products.

This is of course exactly how brands function. They create symbols (logos), tell stories that define their beliefs (TV spots), and spin the rhetoric just right to touch a chord (taglines).

Expression through stories and rhetoric is essentially word-of-mouth. And while not every NPO can afford TV spots like Nike can, web 2.0 has made word-of-mouth a free-for-all. This is where NPO’s can win because what we say will always define us more than what we drive. Therefore it’s critical we use all of these networking tools to involve people, tell our stories, speak our rhetoric, and most importantly to get people talking.

But while word-of-mouth will never be as contrived as TV spots are, getting people to talk takes focus and strategy. Your brand must warrant conversation, especially in the online world. Every component must refer to the same way of talking, the same ideal, the same voice, the same brand or else there will be no culture through which people can define or express themselves. How many NPO’s spend time training on the brand? How many have style guides, brand architectures, and brand books that teach employees “how to speak on-brand?” Every consumer brand I’ve worked for had them.

My next posting will pertain to creating this culture within an organization that promotes word-of-mouth organically. To learn how now, click here.

PS – Join the conversation. What other ideas are there for getting recognition for our non-material beliefs or causes? You’re seeing cause logos on our Facebook pages now, but what else can we do?

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