President Franklin Roosevelt established the March of Dimes in 1938 to save America's youth from polio. Within 17 years, the Salk vaccine had been developed, and it virtually cured the disease. With incidences of polio now rare, the March of Dimes has had to reinvent itself as an organization that improves the health of infants in other ways. Top management relied on marketing to help identify and focus that new direction and communication. I recently talked to Doug Staples, the top marketing executive, to learn about how he makes marketing matter in the nonprofit organization.

Young: You say you “evangelize” for marketing inside your organization. What does that mean?

Staples: It means helping people understand what marketing is and how it can be helpful to them. There's a certain amount of entrenchment where people are happy doing things the way they've been doing it, but that's where the need for evangelizing comes in.

Young: How do you do it?

Staples: One, it's important to have some leadership from the top saying that this is an important function. Two, I try to bring in the other functions to become more marketing oriented in order to have an endorsement at a high level. And then creating some simple tools can be effective. We've developed an eight-step guide to make a marketing plan, to help take leaders through the thought process. We've got a lot of different people in the organization working on a lot of different things, and, with just two of us, we can't do a marketing plan for everything and everybody who might decide that they want one. So we've tried to give people tools to think like marketers on their own.

Young: How were you able to sell marketing up on top of the organization? What did you do?

Staples: Our president had the sense that there was something that wasn't quite right about our positioning or the way we were trying to sell ourselves. So when we went to her in the mid-90s and said we want to do a market positioning study, she was very receptive to that. She helped us champion the idea that we really need to look at this and invest in it, and then it took on a life of its own after that.

Young: How did it take on a life of its own?

Staples: That gave us the platform to sell ideas into the organization and introduce new ways of looking at things. Our market positioning study led to a new logo, which is always a controversial process in organizations. Through that process, people began to see that consumer information can be a powerful tool for shaping messages and for getting consistency of message through the organization. Having the example of the logo or the brand for the whole organization, people were then more receptive to seeing how their particular event or how their particular educational product might benefit from that approach.

Young: How successful have you been?

Staples: It's hard for people to get marketing in the abstract. It's also hard for people to integrate an abstract. The thing that has really propelled us in the last two years is we decided to focus on a new initiative: premature birth. That is, our new purpose is exploring why the rate of premature birth is going up and investing in research to solve it. We decided from a marketing perspective to make that a real focal point, even though that wasn't the only thing we were doing. Giving different parts of the organization a focus that they could integrate made the marketing practical. We were able to bring a lot of people into a more strategic and more integrated approach.

Young: In “cause” marketing, is it more powerful to focus on emotional appeals or rational appeals?

Staples: When we did our consumer focus group research on this premature birth issue, we really saw people breaking down into two categories. There were the people who wanted the emotional side of the issue, the human drama that you're talking about. But there was also about half the people who really wanted facts. They wanted to know the rate of increase, etc. There are more women in the emotional side and more men in the fact side. We found the most effective messages were those that combined both. So, if you gave a fact like “450,000 babies are born prematurely each year,” it was stronger if you then added something like “their lives may hang in the balance” or something that painted a little bit of a picture or brought a real person or a real baby into it. So, combining fact and emotion, I think, is a key strategy in nonprofit marketing. I think you need both of those things.

Young: How does that play out internally?

Staples: It works internally the way it works externally. If you can figure out how to blend the two, then you can capture everybody. And that's important particularly in nonprofits. They tend to be a lot more consensus driven than for-profit businesses, wanting everybody to be comfortable with the message.

Young: How do you earn respect within your organization?

Staples: In our organization there's a certain amount of respect that comes from having a top-level initiative or helping to drive that initiative. Doing the March [of Dimes] positioning and logo, as well as leading this premature [-birth] campaign, earns respect. Leading an initiative that affects everybody and being trusted with that by the leadership earns respect.

Young: What measures of effectiveness do you use?

Staples: In the marketing communications area, we do an annual Gallup survey, measuring our name recognition, measuring awareness of our mission and what we're doing. Now that we've embarked on this premature-births issue, we're measuring public perceptions of how serious an issue they think this is. Those are the marketing issues that I get evaluated on. There's a lot of day-to-day work in support of fundraising, and, to a certain extent, the whole organization gets evaluated on whether we make those budgets or we don't.

Young: How do you know what specific tactics are working or not working? What would cause you to make some changes, adjustments, or develop entirely new strategies?

Staples: I have a gut feel for moving public opinion numbers, which is that you have be successful at TV advertising placement to reach people on a big enough scale to affect numbers that are going to show up in a Gallup Poll. You could do a lot of print placements or Web placements or [those] that are nice to have, but you probably can't move huge-scale numbers, you know, without mass media vehicles. I have put a lot of focus on how we can increase our television placements. If we are able to get those numbers up and it doesn't change poll numbers, I might then conclude that my hypothesis about television is misplaced, although I'm not sure I'd know what to turn to as Plan B.

Young: Do you test new initiatives and new tactics on an ongoing basis?

Staples: I don't test new tactics often, but we do refresh creative at least annually, and sometimes more often than that, because a TV station or a magazine will run your ads for a certain amount of time, and then they're moving on to somebody else's ad. That's another annoying area for nonprofits. When a for-profit marketer who is buying time has a huge advertising hit, he could stick with that for years, whereas the nonprofit, at least every year, has to have a fresh ad just to get back on the air again.

Young: How do the people in development—fundraisers—look at marketing?

Staples: Maybe if you went back five or 10 years, they viewed us as a creative agency producing materials. In the last five years or maybe more, I think they've looked to us to think more strategically in terms of who the target audience is and what we know about them, developing and testing messages, and things like that.

Young: And how has that change worked out?

Staples: It's moved us from being the place where you go order your brochures to really a strategic partner that is leading the thinking around the fundraising materials strategy. It's good because you don't want your fundraisers thinking about what the materials should look like. You want them thinking about how should the sales effort be organized, what kind of volunteer committees do we need to have in local communities, how are we going to organize those, how do we manage national corporations across a lot of geography. If you have a strong and trusted marketing group of people that's backing up the fundraising, that frees your fundraisers to go do other things.

Young: What is your greatest challenge now?

Staples: We have a unique marketing challenge in that helping babies and helping pregnant women is not in our name the way Heart or Cancer have their [cause] in the name of the organization. We always need to tell people what we do. While we have high name recognition—there's a lot of trust, and there's a lot of positive feeling—there's also a stereotype of an old organization, and people don't know exactly what they do. People don't view us as current as AIDS or breast cancer, and we need to overcome that stereotype.

Young: If you were to leave tomorrow, what you would say to someone who would follow in your footsteps?

Staples: Keep the fire burning and believing that people can make a difference. An organization like this runs on a belief in the ability of the organization and the people in general to make a difference in the world. Stoke the fire fairly regularly in the organization. Bring people with you—you can't go out and do it on your own. There are not enough resources to do everything, so you have to be able to bring focus to the organization, around an issue, or around a project, or around a strategy.

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Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.