Four Things About Branding That B2Bs Can Learn From Nonprofits


In the past decade, the amount of nonprofits has increased by 25% to more than 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the US alone, but individual giving has remained steady as a percentage of income.

As a result, a larger amount of nonprofits are competing for the same share of donations.

To retain donations, many nonprofits have had to become increasingly competitive and think of unique ways to market their cause to potential donors. That produces actionable takeaways for companies outside the nonprofit sector.

A popular topic for B2B brands today is how they need to be thinking more like B2C brands. I would argue that to cultivate passionate and loyal customers who return to your brand, B2B companies should look to nonprofits as a model to emulate.

Nonprofits will always sit in their own, independent section within the branding world because people are understandably more likely to be passionate about a charitable cause that is close to their hearts than be passionate for a for-profit business. However, there are many lessons B2Bs can learn about marketing to their customers from looking at how nonprofits market to their donors.

Here are four lessons B2B companies can learn from nonprofits.

1. How to market to donors

In the nonprofit world, organizations are targeting donors, while in the B2B world we are targeting customers. But the basic rules of marketing apply to both.

To start, the old direct mail distribution model of isn’t sufficient anymore and should go the way of the dinosaurs. The audience that responds is too limited, and the economics are no longer favorable.

In recent years, nonprofits have had to think outside of the box to expand their audience and appeal to younger donors. Nonprofits are using social media to spread their message, helping it go viral to reach a mass audience, and taking advantage of crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter, to work towards a specific goal. We’ve seen companies like charity:water successfully use these new marketing channels to go from an unknown organization to household name in record time.

Though some B2B companies still haven’t cracked the social media code, we are slowly seeing some experiment with new marketing techniques to great success. For example, in 2012, Xerox rolled out its “Get Optimistic” campaign.

The campaign began with targeted emails to contacts at Xerox’s top accounts and a personalized website that provided thought leadership and insights on using optimism to solve business problems. The campaign culminated with a “Chief Optimist” online magazine, which was customized for different industries. Changing how clients interacted with the Xerox brand, “Get Optimistic” has generated new sales leads for the company and over $ 1B in revenue.


2. How to build and use advocates

A significant portion of donations are given to organizations about which the donor knows very little. That happens when the donation comes at the request of a friend or colleague. For example, my daughter has personally generated over $ 200,000 in donations to the March of Dimes through its March for Babies. This was all done with little or no cost to the March of Dimes. It was done by being there for a child—my grandson—who was born at one pound, five ounces, and he survived, in part, because of the efforts of the March of Dimes.

However, brand advocates provide a first-hand, trusted, and vocal support of an organization. Nonprofits have brand advocates in spades, but B2B companies can too, if you strategically connect with and mobilize them.

Caterpillar does a great job of growing a community of brand advocates, especially among a large group of consumers who will never purchase their equipment. Caterpillar has experienced success selling branded merchandise, such as clothing, toys, and home goods. The audience members purchasing those products likely do not own a Caterpillar Excavator, but they are still supporting a brand they believe in.

How has Caterpillar done that? One way is through creative campaigns like this spring’s “Built for It.”

Videos of Caterpillar’s machines playing a large-scale game of Jenga quickly went viral.

3. The importance of transparency and public perception

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and watchdogs, such as Charity Navigator, transparency has become critical to nonprofits. Those organizations have to operate openly and wisely in ways they never did before. And, because of this now-required level of transparency, nonprofits that do not use their funds wisely stand to lose significant donation opportunities.

Exacerbated by the financial crisis, this emphasis on openness and integrity has reached the B2B world as well.

Customers are now demanding transparency and good corporate citizenship. For over a decade, we have heard B2B customers claim they took environmental and social responsibility seriously when making buying decisions, but only in the last three years have we seen those elements emerge in our statistical buying models that derive the importance of brand attributes through their impact on actual behavior.

Interestingly, as B2B companies learn from nonprofits, customers start to demand that they act like one in the sense of becoming philanthropic.

4. The importance of personality and tone in communications

The majority of communications for B2B brands are sterile. They focus on the “what” (e.g., what they make), miss the more important “so what?” and never truly develop a personality.

However, nonprofits take a different approach and try to take on personality attributes—trailblazer, cool, bold, innovative, friendly, etc.—to their branding and communication channels.

Why is that important? It gives their audience a lens in which to view themselves from their association with the brand.

Unfortunately, most B2B companies will not be able to communicate a believable attitude of “cool” or “bold,” but there are many distinct personalities they can take on.

Finding a voice helps potential companies connect with your brand and gets customers asking more questions outside of only what you do.

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In many ways, nonprofits and B2B companies are not as different as one might think. They both use the support of the customers (donors) to move towards a specific goal. Successful nonprofits have always done an exceptional job of attracting and connecting with their base.

Moreover, we are slowly seeing profit-driven organizations take notice of their tactics and evolve their outreach and brand positioning in accordance.

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