Corporate-Style Marketing for a Cause

By: Mark Athitakis

Taking a page from the corporate branding playbook, Lisa Stockmon of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has made the organization's mission clear and memorable. That's led to more revenue to fulfill it. [Titled "A Cause With Personality" in the print edition.]

Gail is a middle-aged RN. Alex is a 6-year-old boy. Victoria is a teenage athlete. All three are survivors of blood cancers, and their faces—and many others'—are featured throughout the website for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). The abundance of stories is meant to send a clear message to the visitor that the disease is conquerable. Indeed, the survival rates have increased markedly over the years, up to 91 percent for childhood leukemia and 92 percent for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

LLS summarizes that success with the tagline "Someday Is Today," which anchors a revamped website that was launched last February. A host of videos, images, and articles all serve to drive home the point that we are this close to curing these diseases. Billboard and bus ads deliver the "Someday Is Today" message too, and TV ads imagine people going slack-jawed on the day that a cure for cancer is found.

In the past 12 years about half of FDA-approved cancer drugs were LLS-funded.

Someday Is Today is a fundraising initiative. But as Lisa Stockmon, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at LLS, says, it is also a thorough reconception of how the association as a whole presented itself to the public.

"We needed a master brand strategy for LLS," she says. People had been giving to specific LLS campaigns, but "people were just not attributing that to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society."

LLS's transformation, accomplished in a few short months, is a study in how an association's mission can better connect with its brand identity and how fundraising interlocks with the overall activities of an organization. Everything at LLS runs on the same track now, to make the same point: We're almost where we need to be. Can you help?

A Unified Voice

Stockmon joined LLS in March 2012 with a strong track record in marketing in the corporate world. At her previous job, at Time Inc. Content Solutions, she helped international companies such as AT&T, Ford, and Unilever expand into publications and websites that gave them the look and feel of lifestyle brands, not giant corporations. That experience was a good fit for the mandate that had come from LLS's board and its CEO, John Walter. The goal wasn't a small one: Walter's direction, Stockmon says, was "to make sure everyone in the United States is aware of what we do."

Time to Try a Corporate Partner?

Associations that need to raise funds but lack the marketing budget of organizations such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society have considered cause marketing—partnering with a corporation to support an initiative. Author and cause-marketing expert Joe Waters recommends five points to consider before jumping in.

Look nearby. Instead of seeing if Facebook or Target can assist, look at the niche companies you already have relationships with. "In a lot of instances, nonprofits already have sponsorships with companies that could be converted into cause-marketing partners."

Think creatively about what you bring to the table. "Look at what you have that companies might want. Do you have a great event that attracts a lot of people? Does it have a desirable demographic? Do you have a large workforce?"

Split up the work beforehand. The corporate partner is "going to expect you do everything. A lot of time it falls on a membership director, a marketing director, or an events person to coordinate things."

Set an end date. "If you do a point-of-sale campaign, where somebody is asking at the register if you want to donate a dollar, generally those campaigns are two to six weeks long. There really is a time limit on most of these things, because at heart it's another form of promotion."

Be sincere. "What works in cause marketing is when there's a lot of sincerity and authenticity in the program—a clear connection between the cause and the business. And there's a real commitment on behalf of the business to make a change."

LLS segregates its fundraising activities in a variety of avenues. Its Light the Night Walk is like other pledge-driven events by organizations focused on AIDS or breast cancer; Team in Training is a similar program for marathoners and other more dedicated athletes; its School and Youth Programs encourage kids to collect spare change for the cause. All of those efforts are effective and remain in place today. But they operated under separate banners; what LLS needed was a "unifying rallying cry," as Stockmon put it.

Acting on that vision, LLS hired the marketing firm Interplanetary in the fall of 2012 to conduct an audit of LLS's marketing at the time and propose structure for the rebranding. In doing so, Interplanetary Strategic Planning Director Andy Semons began to focus on "proof points"—statistics and individual cases that showed the success that LLS-supported research was having in fighting not just blood cancers, but cancer in general. (One factoid it promotes is that in the past 12 years about half of FDA-approved cancer drugs were LLS-funded.) "People want to back a winner," Semons says. "It is a much more positive, hopeful message."

"It was a message of solutions, hopeful," Stockmon says. "It wasn't maudlin: 'People are dying.'"

"Back a winner" is a tricky message in charitable giving, though. If you suggest you've got the problem pretty much licked, what's persuading people to open their wallets? "That was actually part of what we tested, because we did have a few different strategic directions," Semons says. The campaign's solution was to emphasize transparency—clear statements about how LLS was a change agent in blood-cancer research, from videos to information sheets to data interspersed throughout the site.

But what the visitor mostly sees at the site are stories of individual survivors. According to Steve Drake, president of SCD Group, an association communications consultancy, storytelling is too often lacking in association fundraising campaigns, even though it's often the most effective and affordable way to deliver a message. "Storytelling works anywhere," he says. "People want to know what's going on with other people."

Discrete, sharable pieces of information are also important in charitable campaigns like this one, says Joe Waters, a nonprofit marketing expert and author of Cause Marketing for Dummies (see sidebar, "Time to Try a Corporate Partner?"). "We're all in the publishing business right now," he says. "What people are expecting is a steady stream of what can best be described as service journalism. News you can you use."

Drake stresses that word-of-mouth among members and chapters is equally important in spreading a national fundraising message. "If you get local papers and local TV stations, and add a social media component, you can create a national publicity campaign for your organization, and that awareness comes through your local members and local chapters," he says.

Chapters can often behave independently, but Stockmon says it was easier to get LLS chapters engaged in Someday Is Today because there was no earlier umbrella fundraising initiative to undo. "I wasn't coming in and changing things," she says. "I was creating things."

Campaign as Brand

The rebranding has struck a chord. Before the new site launched, donations to LLS were $4,662 per day. Within the first two months of the campaign, they jumped to $5,281 per day, and at press time were up to $6,534. That's good news for LLS, which hopes to raise $75 million from all its activities in the next three years.

But Someday Is Today is unlike a campaign in that there's not a clear finish line; the campaign is the brand and the brand is fairly permanent. "I tell people in the chapters that it's like the Nike swoosh," Stockmon says. "We'd like to use it for as long as it works."

And you don't have to be Nike to create a message that's simple and recognizable. Stockmon believes the structure of Someday Is Today can scale to organizations with smaller budgets.

"Understand your positioning," she says. "Who's your audience? More important, how do you speak to that audience in a consistent fashion? There's a rigor to a rebranding process, and smaller organizations want to be mindful of that. You all have to be on the same page."

The urgency for associations to pursue this kind of branding is strong, Semons says. "This is a very competitive environment," he says. "Part of Lisa's charge is to market LLS the way Time Warner sold cable subscriptions or the way Unilever would sell packaged goods. We have to take a much more aggressive posture."

Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

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Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.