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Brand Awareness and Your Nonprofit

December 19, 2019

BRAND-AWARENESSIn 2018, Smithsonian Magazine called March for Our Lives, a student-led mass demonstration against gun violence that took place In Washington, D.C., "the most powerful American youth movement in decades." In 2019, March for Our Lives and the movement it catalyzed could not be found among the top five movements of interest to young Americans in a nationally representative sample of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds (Influencing Young America to Act 2019).

The lesson? Never assume others know about your cause or the work you are trying to promote.

Why is awareness important?

As I often tell organizations, the challenge for cause and movement leaders is not to get constituents to regurgitate a brand statement that reinforces work they're already engaged in; it's to connect a cause to the "zeitgeist" in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

Put another way, the fundamental challenge for any cause leader is to help people understand why it's critical they pay attention to your issue — and to keep them paying attention.

The importance of awareness

It's often the case that our messaging doesn't bring new people to our organization or cause but instead builds loyalty among those who already support it. To bring new supporters to the cause, on the other hand, awareness of the issue is imperative.

Needless to say, the fact that the people with whom we work or who support our cause tend to be passionate about our issue can give us a false sense of its importance to the public. In addition, most of us live in filter bubbles that limit our information consumption to items we completely (or mostly) agree with and/or that are relevant to our work. Which is why we're often surprised when others don’t exhibit the same level of awareness of our issue as we think they should.

It makes sense, therefore, that awareness campaigns are at the top of most organizations' communications wish lists — and why so many organizations get "false positives" when they attempt to measure awareness of their issue or cause.

Simple awareness isn't enough

Iowa Writers Workshop founder and mass communications scholar Wilbur Schramm popularized the idea that a message has no meaning beyond that given it by the sender and receiver. In other words, each person makes it personal to him or herself. The sender’s experience, biases, language, etc. influence the outgoing message, while the same happens on the receiving end. And without feedback from the recipient, the sender cannot be certain the message was received as intended.

The research we conducted for Influencing Young America to Act 2019 confirms that the most successful journey from awareness to action involves the personal. When a cause resonates with an individual in a way that is truly personal, he or she is more likely to take action.

Issue campaigns can (and frequently do) miss the mark, however. Organizations often push out information about their issue in terms that are broad and general: "Overdoses involving opioids killed more than 47,000 people in 2017, and 36 percent of those deaths involved prescription opioids."[1] While interesting from an industry or public-health perspective, this kind of approach tends not to be that effective because it doesn't give the person on the receiving end a reason to take action. To truly be effective, the message should echo the kind of bold messaging deployed by the Truth Initiative in its recent opioid campaign: "You can become addicted to opioids after just three days." The statement makes a direct connection to the receiver's personal behavior with a meaningful, informative fact-based claim: opioid overdoses may happen to other people, but you could become addicted to opioids before you know what hit you.

Informing vs. inspiring

Is there a difference between inspiring and informing donors? You bet.

You inform supporters when you:

  • Connect a message or fact to a personal choice they can make (e.g., changing one's own behavior).
  • Explain how their support (activism, personal behavior, giving, volunteerism) matters to those that are being affected and/or served.

You inspire/empower supporters when you:

  • Persuade them to put themselves in the shoes of a member of the target population and, in so doing, give them a reason to act.
  • Reinforce the "power" the individual has to act and affect change personally, for and with others.

When you first share a message, story, or campaign with the general public, be sure to convey the "relatability" of your issue. Over time, your job will be to move individuals who are interested in your issue along a continuum from familiarity with the issue, to familiarity with your organization, to deeper awareness of your cause and the actions they can take on a regular basis to support it. I'm not saying it will be easy, but the extra work required will pay off in the long run.

From all of us at Cause & Social Influence, we wish you Happy Holidays and a safe and peace-filled New Year!

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_2015Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.

_______

Notes

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/index.html

 

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