Marketing for People Who Hate Marketing

by Diane Hill (March 3, 2020)

This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the InfluenceTerry O’Reilly, Vintage Canada Paperback, Dec 31, 2019, 304 pp., $12.49

The other day I was shopping online for couches. When I went on social media a few minutes later, my screen was peppered with furniture ads. “Oh no,” I groaned to myself. Unwanted end tables are going to haunt me for weeks. 

Advertising has a bad reputation for good reasons. Most ads are inane, insulting, intrusive and insidious. They infiltrate every nook and cranny of our lives. They reinforce negative stereotypes. They’re designed to manipulate us into feeling bad, so we’ll buy things we don’t need, leading to out-of-control consumerism and environmental destruction. 

People who work in non-profits can be especially grumpy about advertising. In our sector, we tend to believe marketing our services means oversimplifying urgent social needs, compromising our organization’s values, or exploiting our clients. Most of us chose non-profit careers because we wanted to help people, not behave like callous capitalists. 

If anyone can change your mind about marketing, it’s Terry O’Reilly. 

O’Reilly is a veteran adman who’s won hundreds of advertising awards and has hosted CBC Radio shows since 2005; his latest is Under the Influence.

If you’re a fan of his radio show, you’ll probably hear his voice in your head as you flip the pages of This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence, his second book.  

Although it’s written for a business audience, non-profit professionals will also discover many things to love. It’s easy to read, full of juicy nuggets of wisdom gleaned from his many years of experience, told as fascinating stories. It’s a master class taught by a likeable fellow who loves his topic and knows his stuff.

O’Reilly starts by showing us how excellent marketing begins with excellent business practices. You need a clear and simple mission. You need to know your market inside-out. You need to offer great customer service. 

Then he dives deep into the nuts and bolts of marketing. He explains the elements of a marketing strategy, branding basics, how to write an elevator pitch, the role of storytelling, the art of persuasion, and the critical roles of creativity, intuition, and timing. Each topic is given its own chapter, with plenty of room to provide both context and details. 

Like any good communicator, he uses lots of examples and simple metaphors that help us to visualize the information. 

He explains the differences between advertising (think of a billboard) and marketing (the strategy behind the billboard). Branding is “your organization’s personality,” and should determine the look and feel of the ad on the billboard. He warns against cramming too many messages into one ad or campaign, saying it’s like “stuffing ten pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag.” 

If you’re an experienced non-profit marketer, O’Reilly will keep you entertained while reminding you of the finer points of your craft. But even if you hate marketing—especially if you hate marketing—his book is required reading. 

Here’s why: Unless all your organization’s revenue comes from government grants or a major endowment, you need to raise money from donations. (Non-profits also need marketing to conduct outreach or raise public awareness.)  

In that respect, non-profit marketing has the same ruthless goal as business marketing: To solicit an emotional response powerful enough to make people open their wallets. 

This is much tougher than you’d think. 

In fact, O’Reilly says most marketing campaigns “go tragically wrong.” The two most obvious reasons include the failure to stick to a simple message (see five-pound bag, above) and competition.

When it comes to simplicity, O’Reilly strongly believes less is more. His goal is always “a single-minded advertisement, founded on a compelling strategy and expressed creatively…” In typical O’Reilly fashion, he offers a visual image to make his point: 

“If I have five apples in my hands and I throw them at you, chances are you’ll drop them all. But if I lob one, chances are good you’ll catch it.” 

And if you’re a fundraiser, you know all about competition. There are 85,000 registered charities in Canada, all jostling for a finite number of donor dollars. 

But according to O’Reilly, the biggest reason for weak marketing is an inability to answer this deceptively simple question: What business are you really in?

“A truism of business is that what you sell and what people buy are almost always two different things,” he says, then reminds us of a fascinating insight behind all marketing: No one wants a half-inch drill bit, they want a half-inch hole. 

Good marketing talks about the finished hole, not the drill bit. 

To drive home the lesson, O’Reilly asks us to imagine a typical Molson’s advertisement: Attractive people are standing in pleasant surroundings, talking to other attractive people, listening to music, and laughing. The ad doesn’t discuss the flavour of the beer, its cost, or the brewery process. That’s because the marketing strategy behind these ads is: We’re not in the beer business, we’re in the party business. This strategic decision informs the message, look, feel, and tone of their ads, along with where they advertise and every other marketing choice they make. 

O’Reilly reminds us that for many years, the tag line for Michelin tires was: “Because so much is riding on your tires.” They aren’t really in the tire business, they’re in the safety business.

Coke doesn’t sell sugared water, he says. It sells happiness.

At some unconscious level, Molson drinkers choose that brand because they don’t only want a beer, they want to have a good time. That is Molson’s ½ inch hole. If you need tires and your biggest priority is to keep your family safe, chances are you’ll buy Michelin. The emotional lift some people get from drinking Coke doesn’t come only from the caffeine and sugar, but also decades of ads that link the brand to happiness.

This insight is especially important for non-profits, since donors typically don’t receive a tangible benefit from donating. If your programs and services are the ½ drill bit, what is your ½ hole? What is your organizational WHY?

According to O’Reilly, if enough people aren’t opening their wallets, chances are good the problem doesn’t start with marketing but the failure to clearly articulate your real business. Ideally, WHY should be crystal clear from your mission statement. But this clarity requires “ruthless objectivity” and the ability to “think like a customer.” Most of us are “too indoctrinated” into our organizational cultures to see them clearly. We have drunk the Kool-Aid.

The solution, he says, is to remember why your organization was created in the first place. What did your founder say as they pounded their first on their desk, determined to create change? This is “the original spark” and when we lose touch with it, our mission gets mushy. To make matters worse for non-profits, the whims of donors and funders can turn mission creep into a full-fledged gallop. 

Here’s another tough O’Reilly question that might keep you up at night: What makes you different from your competitors?

Why would people notice you in the crowd of other charitable organizations with similar missions? Ninety-nine percent of the time, he says, your only distinction will be “in the intangibles.” 

“What do you stand for?” O’Reilly asks. “If you have trouble answering that question quickly, you have a branding problem. If the answer to that question is self-serving, you have a big branding problem. If you have to pull the answer out of a drawer to remember, you have a massive branding problem.”

He recommends defining both what your organization stands for and what it stands against but points out the latter is more emotionally resonant. There’s a difference between “We stand for safe city streets” and “We stand up against crime.” 

“Standing against something brings the fight out in a brand, it adds grit to its personality, it rallies people,” he says. “A fully dimensional brand with a clearly articulated for-and-against mission plants itself not only in customers’ minds, but also in their hearts.” 

It’s easy to tell if an organization is foggy on its WHY, he says: Their marketing tag lines are lifeless.  “Dozens of companies claim to stand for “automotive excellence.’ Standing for ‘creative radio’ is a tired declaration. Standing for ‘smart banking’ is laughable.” 

According to O’Reilly, language like this indicates both a lack of imagination and a lack of courage. Strong marketing is “audacious.” It’s not for the faint of heart. 

“If you stand for something, you’re going to have people for you and against you,” says O’Reilly. “If you stand for nothing, you will have no one for you and no one against you.” 

Taking a bold position can be especially hard for non-profit organizations, which can be minefields of political sensitivities. Add in a culture of “decision by committee” (lethal to creativity) and tiny to nonexistent marketing budgets, and a difficult job becomes almost impossible. 

Given these additional challenges for non-profits, I wish O’Reilly had included at least two or three marketing examples from our sector. While non-profit marketers may use the same tools as business marketers, we have a responsibility to filter the process through additional layers such as ethical storytelling. Some tips here would be helpful. And if major corporations with deep pockets struggle to describe the benefits of their actual physical products—like beer or tires—imagine how hard it is to convince people to give money for no tangible benefit. Welcome to our world, Terry.

Terry O’Reilly
Photo: Sidney O’Reilly

O’Reilly concludes with a friendly list that recaps each of his key idea in a few short paragraphs: 

“Don’t whisper a dozen things, say one thing loudly.” 

“Small brands need a big personality.” 

“Do not assign a creative task to a committee.” 

If you’re a current or aspiring non-profit manager or leader, understanding how marketing works will help you to promote your cause, raise more money, and become a better communicator. 

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even learn to love marketing.

(Diane Hill is the Director of Communication for the Gender Equality Network Canada, a national network convened and facilitated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.)

Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment