Why marketing feels icky

To be honest, I would never have guessed that I’d end up with the word ‘Marketing’ in my job title. It reeks of big business.

Chances are, I’m not the only one who feels this way. See how many of the following statements you agree with:

Marketing is persuading you to buy things you don’t need.

Marketing is about getting you to open your purse strings.

Marketing is about generating hype out of nothing.

Marketing is about pretty packaging, style over substance.

Marketing is about stupid algorithms.

Marketing is annoying emails in your inbox that you never signed up for.

In short, marketing is a dirty word.

Yet as life would have it, here I am: a marketing professional.

Photo credit: Justin Lim.

Let me nuance this by saying I’m in the marketing department of a nonprofit dedicated to ending modern-day slavery. But I often feel like the things I’ve said about marketing above can be true of nonprofit marketing, no matter the worthiness of the cause.

I still have some reservations about the whole notion of marketing – to the point where, when I moved into my current role, I asked that ‘Communications’ be added to my job title so that I’m now ‘Marketing & Communications Coordinator’. I sleep a little better. I feel a little truer to myself.

Sadly, nonprofit marketing can be as unpleasant as for-profit marketing. These statements might resonate with you:

Nonprofit marketing is sad, starving kids on TV that guilt-trip you into parting with your funds.

Nonprofit marketing is charity contractors who accost you on your way to work and try to get you to sign up as a monthly supporter.

Nonprofit marketing is streams of emails (and postal mail!) from that organisation you made a small donation to months ago.

Photo credit: Kat Yukawa.

Put this way, there is something very, very broken about the way we do not just business, but causes. While the Oxford Dictionary defines marketing as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising,” what we hate about it can be distilled into two words: manipulation and money.

There is a general sense that marketing manipulates you into parting with your money.

That doesn’t sit well with me at all. But is there another way?

Marketing and money

Money in and of itself is not evil, though the pursuit of it does lead to much ugliness in individual lives and in society as a whole. I often feel that corporations as entities exist solely to make money, notwithstanding that the owners or shareholders are the ones who reap the benefit of the money to improve their lives, improve society, or conversely to spend it on fast cars and oversized mansions.

Bolivia graduation
In Bolivia, when you graduate, well-wishing family and friends pin cash onto your tux. Random but awesome, right?

Granted, not all marketing involves monetary transactions. The local council, for example, might promote a new park they’ve built, encouraging residents to use the space at no charge. (I guess the money has already changed hands at this point, via council rates paid by residents, so no manipulation is necessary here). Or, I might promote my blog because I want people to read my stuff, not so they can click through to my (non-existent) sponsors’ products.

For some reason, we don’t begrudge the sort of promotion that has no monetary agenda.

But in the world as it is, marketing for the most part relates to the exchange of funds. We need money to make things happen. It’s not wrong for a charity to ask for your money – because it’s your money that will feed the starving children, that will end poverty, that will bring rescue and freedom.

What we can and should change is how we ask for the money and the spirit in which we do it. Although it’s undeniable that the money funds the world-changing, I think it’s particularly important for causes to be about more than the money, to see money as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Marketing and manipulation

Which leaves the charge of manipulation. This is a hard one because marketing, advertising, promotion etc is all about influencing behaviour, and influencing behaviour can so, so easily slip into manipulation.

But if you think about it, no-one ever calls it manipulation when you rave about a great coffee shop or pair of jeans that you’ve discovered. No-one ever calls it manipulation when you run a fundraiser because a loved one is sick with cancer. No-one ever calls it manipulation when you defend a friend to someone who thinks they’re a jerk.

Photo credit: Diggity Marketing.

So I reckon it’s possible to get over this hurdle.

What if marketing showed you what you need and gave you options for meeting that need? (And didn’t just invent a need to sell you a product). In the case of nonprofit marketing, this could mean helping you see the joy that comes from being generous and the real impact that your giving creates.

What if marketing wasn’t about opening your purse strings at any cost, but inviting you to explore options and helping you make wise purchases? This could mean being clear and open about organisational values so that potential supporters connect with the cause and the charity and can feel like they’re truly partnering with like-minded people to effect change.

What if marketing told it like it is? This could look like letting the facts around slavery, poverty, climate change tell the story – without melodrama and emotional blackmail. It could look like sharing client stories with dignity and respect.

What if marketing focused on the product, not the packaging? This could be done by prioritising methodology and impact, not gimmicky social media posts or empty feelgood rhetoric.

What if marketing was data driven without compromising your privacy? This could be as simple as not resorting to acquisition lists.

What if marketing didn’t send you so many emails? This could mean making it easier for followers and supporters to choose what sort of correspondence they receive.

Photo credit: Kyle Glenn.

What does marketing with integrity look like?

Imagine if marketing was done with the utmost integrity. That sort of marketing wouldn’t just be clean – it would be inspiring.

Here’s my dream. I want marketing to show you the (often ugly) reality of the world we live in. I want it to be about sharing stories of hope, so that in the midst of all that is dark and broken, you can be encouraged by the good stuff happening. I want marketing to demonstrate that change is possible – and you can be that change, be empowered to get involved in the good stuff. I want to create a market – a space, an audience, a demand – to imagine a better world. A market for world-changing.

That’s my ideal. But I’m human and I won’t reach that every time. I’m sorry about that letter you’re going to get from us in the mail – and I’m sorry that I’m only a bit sorry about it. I’m sorry if you’ve ever felt like any of our social media posts were more style than substance or seemed designed to mess with your emotions.

So as we head into the end of financial year and the marketing frenzy in both the for-profit (sales!) and nonprofit (appeals!) sectors, I invite you to consider what you love and hate about marketing. I invite you to consider – and discuss – how we could do this better.

Header image: Saketh Garuda. Headings updated June 2022.

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  1. Reblogged this on Dave's Journal and commented:
    How does a Christian mission manage the challenge of marketing? Is it possible for Christian non-for-profits to avoid the pitfalls of presenting just another marketing ploy?

    @Suansita shows great realism and sensitivity: we all need to present the need well and pray that generous people will respond, but we can bring some needed transformation to how we do that.

    Read on…

      1. It’s a helpful post Suansita – so good for us to reflect on things often embraced without much thought. Thank you.

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