Marketing Causes Harder Than Products

Homeless Image by Raileen Viorel

Marketers love telling nonprofits how to market their social solutions. They get miffed when they see a perceived slow road to change, an underfunded website written by someone in their 20s, and a general failure to resolve society’s ills. Of course, the answer must be the crappy marketing. Having worked with both types of organizations closely, it’s easy to definitively say social change marketing is much harder than marketing a product or service.

Quora Response

Look, whatever your experience is — Procter & Gamble, Old Spice, Cisco, start-up sold — great! Yes, selling domain names and marketing organic strawberries is hard. But the difference between marketing and activism will always revolve around this truth — People want stuff, but they don’t want to change. Getting people to want to change themselves is much, much harder.

Think about it. Do you want to change? Do you want to buy a more expensive electric car (kudos to Ford for announcing the world’s third major electric car at CES)? Yeah, most Americans get sustainability — it’s one of the most over-marketed words out there. But when push comes to shove, people don’t want to change, otherwise green legislation (forget electric cars) would be a top priority in the United States.


How about cigarette smoking? In spite of every marketing trick in the book including severely negative product packaging deployed by the best minds in the business via the Ad Council, in spite of every piece of cancer causing knowledge out there, 20.6% of U.S. adults still smoke.

Beyond that core communications difference, causes are not businesses. They do different things than shilling burgers or IT services. Causes and people fight to affect social change. They have to make every donor dollar count. They don’t have the resources, staff or the wherewithal that a business does.

Quora Responses

There are too many causes because every entrepreneur who made a little scratch goes off and starts yet another Foundation or cause to do it “their way.” And for every fat well-known cause out there like Komen, there are dozens fighting an avalanche of apathy, scrapping to make ends meet.

Yet business people think they suck because they don’t market right. Maybe the marketers are that good, but there’s only one way to find out… By doing some actual field work. Please report back the research!

What do you think? Is it easier to communicate for causes or for-profit endeavors?

Thanks to Florian Engel, Jennifer Rosenberg, Stacey Monk, Kevin Vine, and Joe Waters for their answers on Quora.


  • Interesting discussion, Geoff! I think part of the
    measurement is in the goals. Are you marketing awareness,
    acceptance, purchase, etc? For instance, I get stopped on the
    street two or three times a week by someone from Greenpeace. I tell
    them I’ve driven a hybrid since 2004 (true) and that I don’t have
    time to talk to them (generally not true). I have bought into their
    CAUSE, but not their organization. I’ve also worked on marketing
    non-profits, MEGA-profits and trying-to-make-a-profits. Each
    presents unique challenges. Non-profits generally have a
    heart-string to tug on. Granted, not everyone may have sympathy for
    their cause, but they have a leg-up when selling themselves.
    Corporations, on the other hand, have to start with less but
    probably have more potential upside from a marketing perspective.
    Can I call it a push?

    • Mike: Great response and certainly a worthy conversation. I guess the heart sting thing is the core of the debate, making marketers think that’s why it’s easier. I would say giving a cause a like or a $25 donation on a social network, while useful is not necessarily a major impactful moment. Yet many people online feel this is.

      So, nonprofits have to work harder to build their file, and create outcomes, and get written off because someone has done something. The ladder of engagement as they call it isn’t always met because the “sympathy tweet” was already given.

      As to push, there is no right or wrong with this one. So debate away! Thanks for coming by!


  • Geoff–Interesting debate. Do you have the link to the Quora conversation? I’d like to check it out as well. Thanks!

  • Fantastic post Geoff.

    I cant say that i believe one is easier to market than the other. Actually i feel they are almost too fundamentally different “products” to compare.

    That said, I think marketers on both sides have a lot to learn from each other, especially when it comes to techniques and tactics. Some of my greatest lessons and successes have come when I look outside of the market in which i am working.

  • Depends on the cause and the product! Just as some products fail and some succeed so, too, with causes. The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Kiva … the list is endless … have done very well. So, too, have social enterprises, such as Method, which markets both products and a cause.

    In some of the examples you give, such as smoking, there was a token effort at selling the “cause” of stopping smoking but a much larger effort was being made by cigarette companies to keep selling to young people and overseas. A better example is Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. MADD sold the “cause” of designated driver very well. And changed laws throughout the country.

    Causes sell. You just need to make a solid marketing plan.

    • Thanks for coming by, Geri. I guess it’s easy to cite the winners. I also think MADD had a no-brainer cause, and was looking at change that was easy to accept.

      So if causes sell, please explain to me why homelessness doesn’t get resolved. Given the incredible amount of money put behind the green movement, sustainability as a national movement has yet to take hold. Why have they failed? It isn’t for lack of a solid marketing plan. Or maybe the opposition has as strong marketing with more $.

      So I’d argue that there are some causes that have it easier than the other 90%. Thanks for coming by, Geri.

  • Big topic, isn’t the answer always “it depends on perspective?” Couple of observations from marketing both:
    – Marketing a cause is more like marketing a brand: build awareness + emotional connection. Marketing a product is more like marketing an action: conversion matters. People may connect to a brand or a cause, but may or may not want to pay for the brand’s product or the cause’s actions.
    – Purchase decisions for products are often driven by a specific personal need: once identified, easier to pinpoint + satisfy (solve). Individual donor decisions are often driven by personal values about a greater social need: not easily pinpointed or solved (satisfied) by a single donation.
    At the end of the day, there is such opportunity for cross-sector testing and learning – there are effective and cra__y campaigns for both products and causes – it’s important to recognize that each has unique ease and challenge.

    • This is probably the most interesting answer I have seen yet. It like the crossroads of the two, cause marketing, which is extremely challenging. Truly there is a lot of context there, and Joe Waters (cited above) is a leading voice on that topic.

  • Thanks for a great post, Geoff. I think it is a no brainer that cause marketing is harder than product marketing. Getting people to change their ideas or behaviors is infinitely harder than getting them to buy something (or at least something that is not extremely pricey or life changing). There is little risk involved, for example, in purchasing Dannon yogurt versus Yoplait. Buying either one is easy to do, and your family and friends have little if no interest in your decision. Marketing is really just a matter of getting your four Ps right.

    To get people to use condoms, start fundraising for a cause, appoint a designated driver at the beginning of a night on the town, etc., it’s a lot harder. Your marketing/outreach also has to find a way to get them to:

    — See the issue as important
    — Believe the risks out weight the rewards
    — Feel a sense of self-efficacy to exercise personal control
    — Feel they have their community’s support and/their actions are consistent with their family, social, and cultural contexts

    In other words, your marketing/outreach has to go way beyond the four Ps, which is much more costly. Non-profits with meager resources often don’t have that kind of money. But if they cut corners on things like research to save money, their cause marketing endeavors are likely to not be too successful. Their people still deserve a ton of respect for trying to do way more with much less!

    • Finally, someone agrees with me. Sniff. I was so alone!

      I love the use of the Four Ps in your analysis. Good usage of current and timeless theory. Thanks for coming by and adding this additional discussion to the thread!

  • I think it all comes to down to whom you talk with; if
    you’re talking with someone you already know, it’s not necessarily
    easier (as you still have to carefully and precisely communicate
    the idea to motivate or ignite “YES” answers) but it gets a higher
    chance of positive responses. Asking friends to watch a movie at
    the local mall with you is 5x times easier than asking complete
    strangers or someone you just meet. So I won’t compare non profit
    VS business causes, products or ideas — but whom do you approach,
    how and why. Always, approaching friends is easier to deal with and
    mark a favorable response than strangers or people you just

    • Thanks for coming by, Codrut. A different look at things via friends and strangers. Very interesting.

  • Pingback:Marketing Causes Harder Than Products « e1evation, llc

    […] January 10, 2011 by Todd Lohenry Leave a Comment via […]

Comments are closed