People often think about marketing as kind of a dirty word. For many, marketing is simply a Machiavellian means to an end. How many pairs of jeans can I sell? How many people can I sucker out of an extra $8 for that coffee mug? I used to share those sentiments. Over the years, however, I have come to think about marketing in a completely different sense. And, I have had the privilege of working with others who share my opinion on the matter.
When I finished my undergrad, all I wanted to do was make a difference. I had no idea that marketing, of all things, would be the way I would make that difference.
Marketing was not only a dirty word to me, it was the dirty word, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Once I began working with the wonderful people at Art House Dallas and the Lone Star Film Society, however, I began to see that marketing is one of the most important ways by which those with a heart for the world can help change it for the better.
Marketing is not just about selling jeans and over-priced coffee mugs; marketing is about value-formation. Sure, value-formation is just as much about selling jeans as anything else, but that just goes to show how powerful marketing truly is. People conceptualize marketing as the a-moral branch of most businesses—pitting the customer against company profit margins—precisely because marketing is such a powerful tool by which companies generate value in our culture. For better or worse, we buy the jeans we buy because we find value in those jeans. They make us feel confident. ‘So-and-so’ wears them and so should we. We become a part of our own culture when we buy these jeans instead of those.
Those of us in the nonprofit world don’t need to sell jeans; we need to sell ideas.
When I became Marketing and Membership Director at the Lone Star Film Society, my job was to make the idea of filmmakers like Luis Buñuel somehow palatable to a large enough audience that we could program a festival around those filmmakers. We didn’t need to program a Luis Buñuel festival. Nobody asked us to program a Luis Buñuel festival. We wanted to do it because, as a film society, our mission was to spread the love of and access to quality cinema throughout our community. Luis Buñuel helped us fulfill that mission. We knew that we could help make our community a better place if we could share our passion for L’Age d’Or and Belle de Jour.
Luis Buñuel is not an easy sell. If you have ever seen his films, you know what I mean. The ticket (no pun intended) to fulfilling our mission was to help people see value where they perhaps did not already. We needed a heavy dose of value-formation. By using the same tools marketers use to sell this pair of jeans over those, or this coffee mug over that coffee mug, we sold the idea behind Luis Buñuel to our audience. By engaging our audience with an eye towards our mission as a film society, towards helping provide access to something they perhaps had never considered of interest before, we began to build value around a brand that, while it could never compete with The Avengers: Age of Ultron, would help add to the cinematic texture of Fort Worth.
The same principle that we applied to Luis Buñuel applies to other things that are far more important. Helping potential funders see value in providing for an underprivileged community they may not be aware of calls for the same principles of value-formation as selling jeans or movie tickets to obscure French cinema. Important tasks like helping clothe and shelter the homeless, providing a safe place for children who don’t have anywhere to go after school, or building an infrastructure that helps rescue refugees instead of turning a blind eye to them all require a steady dose of value-formation. People won’t always understand the value of such things unless they become aware of the need, unless they are asked to look for value where they perhaps don’t normally look. Just like our Luis Buñuel festival, that’s where marketing comes in. That’s where marketing can help those with a heart for the world improve the lives of those they serve.