Blog Archives

Marketing myth exposed: sexy is nothing!

Icon for Post #4434

Note: The original post was published in May 2015. We added a significant update at the bottom of this post in May 2016. Enjoy and please share.

One of the greatest myths in the nonprofit world was trotted out in response to Carrie Bickmore’s 2015 plea for greater funding for brain cancer research. It was delivered by the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s head of engagement. When asked why her cause gets such a small slice of National Health and Medical Research Council funding she explained it thus:

marketing advice for nonprofits

Sexy? No. Interesting? Undeniably.

“We don’t have the awareness we need. It’s not a ‘sexy’ cancer.”

That quote may be taken out of context or it may have just been a passing thought but the attitude is endemic. It’s convenient thinking, defeatist, demonstrably wrong and we want to tackle it to the ground right here.

Nonprofit marketing is a fiercely competitive playing field – like every other kind of marketing. Every cause, every disease and every charity is fighting for hearts, minds and wallets. Nonprofit marketing is in no way a meritocracy. It’s showbiz – which is the opposite of science.



marketing myths

Prostate cancer and depression anybody?

Agreed, there’s nothing sexy about brain cancer but there’s little that’s ‘sexy’ about bowel cancer, lung cancer, domestic violence, drink driving, depression, asylum seekers, Indigenous reconciliation or live animal export. Yet all these causes currently outperform brain cancer in terms of media coverage, public support and funding. Good for them. It’s not by accident.

It’s true that every cause starts with natural advantages and disadvantages. In terms of impact, HIV – a new, fatal, sexually-transmitted disease – was pretty hard to beat for a while. The sight of puppies in squalid puppy farms is gut churning. Kids with just about any diagnosis tug at the heart strings. Anything with the prefix “trans” (-gender, -fats, -Pacific Partnerships) sparks curiosity. Yet we follow and support many causes to which we have little connection.

fundraising advice

Child sponsorship has been made standard operating procedure.

One of the great feats of social marketing is child sponsorship in which global charities convince Australians to donate on a monthly basis, to kids they’ve never met, in countries they’ll never visit. The kids often come from countries and cultures with which we feel little affinity yet we give millions a month, often while actively avoiding any contact with the beneficiaries. Remarkable.

Similarly there are plenty of causes that we ‘should’ care about more deeply, which aren’t being effectively marketed:

• we’re all gettting older yet there’s no effective grey lobby in Australia;
• 100% of people are going to die yet dying with dignity commands no army of active supporters;
• twice as many students attend state schools than non-government options yet state-schooling parents hardly form a pro-state-education voting block.

We heard a brain cancer researcher justify her cause’s poor public profile by saying that as brain cancer mortality is so high, there are few survivors to spread the story and stoke the fires of the cause. She should stick to the lab.

• Road fatalities are pretty damn fatal yet attitudes to drink driving have turned on a dime.

• Battery hens live in misery and many of us have sworn off cage eggs; yet few of us speak chicken.

Despite everything you’ve heard, your cause or brand doesn’t have to be ‘sexy’ to get the media coverage, political sway and public support you seek. There are many factors behind any campaigning success; so if you ain’t sexy; fear not. Here’s what you need to be to cut through:


You need to be emotional.

Live export eMarketing campaign

Tough to look at. Tough to ignore?

There’s nothing rational about emotions. Corporations make us feel passionate about their products and services.

Queues form for the latest iPhone, football teams inspire violent support from superfans, people pay extra to wear the logos of the favoured tax-minimising global megabrands.

Make people feel something. Animals Australia, PETA and the folks behind Anzac Day are masterful at this.




You need to be interesting.

Can you put a human face to your cause? Will you challenge government or public policy? Being seen as an advocate works nicely for Greenpeace. When was the last time you really stood up for your stakeholders?

Will you create media friendly events that we can join and cover? Head-shaving, moustache-growing and boss-incarcerating are all winners. Who knew?

Paul Keating described it as “flicking the switch to Vaudeville” and he was right. If you want to engage the masses, you better be willing to play by their rules. They like fun events, blunt spokespeople, sympathetic ‘victims’, simple slogans, hope, celebrity endorsements, very little science and even less guilt.

Attention spans are limited and their favour is fickle but some campaigns do cut through and maintain a place in their hearts. In terms of events Australia’s Morning Tea is cutesy, low-tech and highly successful. In 2014 it raised $11 million! No lab coats required.


You need to be entrepreneurial..

It’s about trying something, failing, changing and moving on to something that works. That’s how tech start-ups work and you should too (with less hipsterism please). Cliches such as ‘minimal viable product’ and ‘iterate’ and ‘ready, fire aim’ may come in handy. Does your organisation hustle or haggle?


You need to be passionate

Sadly we often see more passion from app developers, real estate agents and the paleo crowd than from non-profit folk. Passion for any cause goes a looong way. It is zero coincidence that many campaigns run by passionate volunteers and amateurs outperform those run by full-time paid professionals. Eg: Oscar’s Law which is about to change state legislation.

You need to have PR skills.

Do you have people who know how to conceive and package a media story idea? Can they then pitch to media? Don’t expect the part-time graphic designer-come-PR-person to have media sense. Get some training!


media training

Makes SCIENCE sexy by being interesting, passionate and available. Bless him.

You need to have talent

Do you have spokespeople who can deliver an interesting interview or killer presentation? We’ve heard too many boring spokespeople recently, wasting precious opportunities. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki makes science sound sexy on a daily basis. Dr Tim Costello is one of Australia’s most-interviewed citizens. He’s authentic and outspoken. What’s that worth to World Vision? A. Whole. Lot. Get some training!


You need to possess expertise.

What do you know that others don’t? What special experiences, knowledge or perspectives do you bring? What cats are you willing to bell that others are not? (Consult your Brewers.)

Media runs on expertise. Want proof? The weather bureau! Show me one other (cardigan-clad) body that gets more media time on an hourly daily basis. Nobody. Weather is not sexy – but expertise is. But don’t expect the media to recognise your expertise – shout it from the rooftops.


marketing advice for nonprofits

What a simple thing to get behind. Not sexy. Simple.

You need to be simple.

People abhor complication. Fred Hollows Foundation restores sight for $25! Pretty simple ain’t it? (It probably ain’t quite that simple but who cares?) What a great value proposition. What’s yours?


You need to be persistent and consistent.

We’ve met clients who put their faith in a TV commercial campaign, a mail out or a single event. That’s not how brands are built or movements made. You need to find the resources to be in front of people on an ongoing basis and that includes the 51 weeks that aren’t your awareness week.

carrie bickmore

Who says brain cancer ain’t sexy? Not us.

Now make yourself irresistibly sexy by donating to Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.

Still unconvinced? A: go to hell B. Read our interview with Lucy Perry who is one of the best speakers you’ll ever hear on matters NFP, marketing and the like. Until recently she headed Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia in Australia.

marketing advice

Listen to Lucy

Lucy is a rule breaker, ideas maker and communicator. She now uses her powers for speaking and writing about leadership, creative thinking and changing the world. Visit

So Lucy, where does fistula in Africa rate on the sexy scale? Thanks to celebrities like Oprah and Natalie Imbruglia, obstetric fistula has received a lot of awareness in the last 10 years. But it really doesn’t matter which way you look at it, smashed up vaginas and incontinent women on the other side of the world is a tough story to tell. I would give it 2 out of 10 for broad appeal.

Did the inherent unsexiness of your cause inhibit you? Did it change the way you campaigned? I have always attacked communication messages head on with the truth. It is the only way to be heard, understood, trusted, believed. I saw the challenge of explaining the horrors of obstetric fistula as the best part of the success story. When people hear a strong message about women’s health, women can empathise, men are protective. There is no point dancing around the truth and softening the reality. You will never find me saying “birth canal” instead of “vagina” and you will never find me pretending shit ain’t real.

Were there times with prospective partners / donors / staff etc that they expressed some trepidation about becoming involved with fistula as an issue?
There were times when major corporates were not interested in supporting a charity in Ethiopia. It was not so much the fistula injury that bothered them as much as their financial support going to the other side of the globe. But that was not across the board. I developed relationships with whopping great corporates like CommBank who were happy to give financial support to a vagina charity on the other side of the world. Go CommBank!

How important is it for campaigns to balance making people feel angry with giving them hope?
One of the top 10 shared emotions on social media is outrage so that is an important part of gaining traction for any cause. People have to feel uncomfortable with the reality of the issue. Then they have to feel like their contribution is needed and they can actually help. Then you have to make people feel good about their contribution after the fact. So, the emotional trifecta for successful fundraising communication is outrage, hope, satisfaction. Take your donors on a loop of those feelings and you’ll have them for life!

Is it possible for any charity fighting any cause to be positive, interesting and hopeful? How?
Absolutely. In fact it is essential. Add to that list: funny and entertaining. People have very short attention spans and they also have a limited capacity for horror stories. So any charity fighting any cause needs to be positive, interesting, hopeful and humorous so that when they do slam their supporters with the heartbreaking truth of their cause, the audience hasn’t already suffered a mild case of cause fatigue. Your comms have been so entertaining, funny, positive and uplifting that your story lands on ears ready to listen and hearts ready to donate.

Were there times when you wished you were representing puppies or fighting to save a much-loved landmark?
Never. I have always preferred to fight for the underdog and fistula sufferers are some of the most marginalised women in the world. Puppies and landmarks don’t float my boat like womens’ health does. I need to be working on something I am truly passionate about so that it shines through in my communication. Love for the cause, love for the patients, love for the underdog – it all fuels my reason for being, my purpose as a communicator.

Update: can we talk vaginal prolapse?

media coverage for unsexy stories

Sexy is nothing. Prolapse is everything. For the moment anyhow.

We had the honour of Shauna Hurley’s company at our most recent Media Savvy workshop. Shauna handles media among other things for medical research reviewers nonprofit Cochrane Australia and recently scored some media on what may be the least sexy topic we’ve encountered in a while – vaginal prolapse. (Google it if you dare or ask 50% of mothers.)

Anyhow Shauna did not presume that the topic was taboo, unsexy or of little interest and her pitch – based on the fact that the common surgical intervention may be more harmful than helpful – scored a lovely big hit in The Conversation which lead to a follow-on hit on ABC RN’s The Health Report with fabled presenter Dr Norman Swan.

Prolapse unsexy? Vaginas unsuitable for primetime? Bollocks. Money can’t buy these hits and Google analytics won’t track how many women may well avoid unwelcome complications surgery. Kudos Shauna.  Go ask for a raise.

Now – how many media hits are you counting yourself out of?

Tagged , , , ,

Movie review: Pink Ribbons

Icon for Post #3064

Brett recently caught Canadian documentary Pink Ribbons at the Melbourne International Film Festival.The doco takes a look at the phenomenally successful pink ribbon movement in the US which, as here, raises funds for breast cancer research. Though flawed, it’s a must see for anyone in social marketing, health promotion, PR, cancer research or philanthropy.

pink washing

Pink washing is sometimes hard to stomach.

This documentary has a clear agenda – debunk the work of those in the pink ribbon movement, in particular the Susan G Komen Foundation which has raised about US$1.9 billion since its inception in 1982. That’s billion with a B. If you associate pink or pink ribbons with breast cancer you have this global cancer megacharity to thank.

When a charity raises that much money, it gains enormous power into how a disease is perceived, marketed and researched. As you’d expect, Komen Foundation has some detractors, many of whom we meet during the documentary.

There’s little time given to defenders of the Foundation or the movement more broadly. Much time is given to a number of women in the final stages of breast cancer who feel that associating the disease they have with pink and positive imagery is demeaning. They don’t like the terms “fight” “battle” or “survivor” which are used constantly by fundraisers.

pink washing

Showing great spirit but shown little respect by the film makers.

There are numerous long segments showing tens of thousands of people, mainly women, participating in feel good walk-a-thons and survivor rallies. They embrace pink and have no trouble with terms such as “survivor” but they are presented as chumps, full of good intentions, high-fives and pink merchandise being sucked in to an evangelistic movement.

No pink-ribbon-funded scientists are interviewed.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book Nickled and Dimed in America is a must-read, reveals a distinct lack of marketing nous as she complains that while undergoing treatment for breast cancer she found advertisements for pink fundraising teddy bears insulting. Well Barbara, the bears aren’t for you. They are bought by other people to raise money to research better drugs for women just like you. Glad to have cleared that up. Like others, she resents all the polished positivity.

pink washing

What says CSR more eloquently than a pink handgun?

Critics claim that corporations are “pink washing” their harmful products under the guise of being good corporate citizens. The filmmakers are on firm ground when they assert that the Komen Foundation seems willing to deal with anyone. Pink handgun? Sure thing. Pink buckets of KFC? Sure. Pink yoghurt and cosmetics laced with chemicals associated with cancer? No problemo. Just pay Komen its share. FYI The McGrath Foundation had a similar deal with KFC here.

While those deals with devils may make the stomach churn the film makers seem to find any corporate involvement unacceptable. One interviewee wonders why corporates are required at all and refers to the civil rights movement as achieving a lot with no support from business. We guess she forgot that civil rights progress required a change of conscience and legislation – not high priced global science. And we guess that the director forgot to mention this to her.

It’s been a tough year for Susan G Komen Foundation – it was broadly lambasted for defunding breast cancer-related programs at Planned Parenthood clinics across the US.

Unbalanced, under-challenging and overlong it may be but for an insight into what can happen when charities become too powerful, it’s worth your time. If you don’t believe me, read what the New York Times said.

Tagged , , , ,