Category: Market Research

Environmental Non-Profits Need a New Marketing Playbook. And They Need It Now.

As published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy

For more than a decade, we’ve helped multinational, national and regional environmental non-profits advance their conservation objectives by enhancing the efficacy of their communications, fund raising and advocacy efforts. Through the lens of primary research, we have identified pervasive trends affecting today’s environmental non-profits—attitudinal and behavioral shifts that dictate a significant departure from the traditional approach to stakeholder engagement.

Many environmental organizations are perilously dependent on older donors. The percentage of donors who are 55 years of age and older was never less than 50 percent of an organization’s donor file and was occasionally as high as 70 percent. Also, for most environmental non-profits, donors significantly curtail their financial contributions upon retirement, save for bequests.

The attitudes and behaviors of younger supporters are markedly different from those of previous generations. Millennials are more environmentally conscious than previous generations, but for them the environment is one of a larger, more diverse set of societal priorities that competes for their time and money. Also, they place equal emphasis on their everyday behavior to protect the environment, from recycling to the brands they patronize, as making a donation. Millennials, too, are more likely to believe that many of the world’s environmental challenges will be solved by new technologies, not simply the work of non-profits.

Despite today’s partisan climate, environmental organizations attract supporters of all political stripes. While the donors, advocates and volunteers of environmental groups generally skew Democratic, they also represent significant percentages of self-described Republicans and Independents. While people of varying political identities often share common environmental priorities, they frequently differ in their opinions about how these priorities are best addressed. Republicans favor public education and hands-on conservation to governmental regulation, for example, while Democrats are not averse to the use of litigation to advance and protect environmental interests.

Today’s communications ecosystem elevates the importance of “people like me”. Social media, in particular, places a premium on word-of-mouth communications.  Before the average Millennial or Gen Xer donates, volunteers or advocates on behalf of an environmental non-profit, they must first hear good things about the organization from “people like me”.

Today’s environmental non-profits require new strategies for cultivating their next generation of donors and advocates, especially given the advancing age of their traditional supporters. While such strategies are unique to each organization—just as each environmental non-profit has its own priorities, operational competencies and peer sets—they invariably include the following imperatives.

Identify your priority segments and meet them where they are. An environmental non-profit’s current and prospective supporters typically fall into three or four prime segments whose members, while sharing a common commitment to the environment, possess different demographic and psychographic characteristics. An organization must tailor messaging and engagement strategies to each segment if it is to make inroads with younger donors, advocates and volunteers.

Increase trust by linking impact attributes. The greater the trust a person has in an organization, the greater the likelihood they will act on its behalf. However, because trust is influenced by a combination of individual attributes an organization demonstrates, environmental non-profits need to understand the attributes their supporters value most, as well as the potency of their relationship to one another. Donors may particularly appreciate a non-profit’s “local impact” and the “use of a conservation plan”, for example, but demonstrating that the local impact is a result of an organization’s long-term plan can significantly bolster trust.

Showcase organizational leadership, while tapping “people like me”.   The leadership profiles of environmental organization’s CEO or chief conservationist have long been a common prerequisite for trust. Because the strength of an organization’s leadership is largely attributable to the expressed opinions of “people like me”, environmental non-profits need to use digital and social media to engage Millennials regarding the vision and work of their senior leaders, and leverage their volunteers and staff as advocates

Act like a news organization. One of the traits shared by various generations of environmental supporters is an appetite for objective, unbiased information. Compounding this appetite is the expectation that organizations make a priority of educating the next generation of environmental stewards. Those that do this particularly well create a steady cadence of high-quality original content addressing their environmental priorities, while spotlighting their key personnel and signature initiatives.

Tens of millions of Americans are highly concerned about environmental threats ranging from climate change to chemical contamination, but converting the concern of younger supporters into action requires new and different approaches. The aging donor bases of many environmental non-profits, in particular, underscore the urgency to develop and implement new stakeholder engagement strategies.

Bob Knott is founder and principal of Timbre Strategies and Jason McGrath is a senior vice president at Ipsos.

The Curious Case of Colin Kaepernick and Nike

As we explained earlier this year, more businesses are participating in the public discourse surrounding divisive social issues, undeterred by today’s hyper-partisan climate. While their impetus to do so varies, many companies are appealing to the interests of their customers and employees. For a company to do otherwise is to imperil its wellbeing, after all. That is why most businesses, before taking a public stand on an issue, invest in market research to approximate the reactions of key stakeholders.

Even by these emerging standards, however, Nike’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign is arrestingly bold. Not only is Kaepernick a polarizing figure for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games to protest racial injustices, the former San Francisco 49er is suing the league—an important Nike partner.

The company’s move provoked an array of responses, ranging from predictable Hatfield/McCoy standoffs on social media to a modest selloff in Nike shares. In a Wednesday Tweet, veteran pollster Frank Lutz railed against the move: “What happens when the world’s most popular sports brand doesn’t do its research? It loses $4 billion. I am continually amazed when big brands that should know better still make colossal errors based on faulty judgment. I’m sure they will sell more stuff… But is it worth it?” Separately, a poll of U.S. consumers was released Thursday indicating that 24 percent of respondents now view the brand unfavorably, up from 7 percent.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Nike’s actions will be accretive to the company’s long-term success. Nevertheless, there is an apparent logic to Nike’s strategy that is instructive to stewards of both consumer and corporate brands.

Mine new markets – The new Just Do It Campaign is evidence that Nike is playing a long game that is aided by the revitalization of its brand. As Oppenheimer’s Brian Nagel observed, “the extensive roster of athletes and their powerful stories are core to the company’s stepped up efforts in reaching a younger demographic”—a market segment that, at least domestically, values social activism. Moreover, the company is targeting 12 priority markets in an online sales offensive, only two of which, New York and Los Angeles, are located in the U.S.

Tap one’s heritage – In ways that are scarcely recognizable to the diversified holding company that it is today, Nike was an upstart brand that represented a fresh alternative to Adidas, Puma and Converse. Just Do It wasn’t simply a departure from industry conventions, it constituted an in-your-face challenge to athletes and consumers alike to dig deep to be their best. The company’s willingness to take chances has occasionally backfired, including the cringe-worthy 2010 television commercial in which Tiger Woods was asked by his deceased father if he had “learned anything” in response to the golfer’s marital infidelities that dominated the headlines. For better or worse, Nike has been steadfastly daring.

Contemporize the brand – In 1995, Michael Jordan, a Nike pillar, reportedly quipped that “Republicans buy sneakers too” when asked why he didn’t weigh in on political and social issues. Even in the pre-social media days of yore, the world’s most famous athlete was criticized for playing it safe, which he acknowledged in a 2016 essay, “I Can No Longer Stay Silent.” And so it is that athletes and other popular culture figures today aren’t simply tolerated for expressing their views, they are expected to demonstrate them. Therefore, Nike casts Kaepernick as an embodiment of what it means to just do something, only now in ways that transcend sports.

Embrace the chaos – It’s not for nothing that Nike elected to launch the new Just Do It campaign with a Tweet by Kaepernick, willfully making a splash in the contentious end of the social media spectrum. The rollout strategy is notable not because the company initiated an important conversation—as if social media routinely enables measured discourse among parties who disagree—but because it substantiates Nike’s narrative that doing something that matters frequently entails pushback and, sometimes, the need to go it alone. It is also a calculated gamble that more online influencers would act as advocates than detractors, an outcome that benefits the campaign in ways that nether paid nor earned media can.

Nike hasn’t been pitch perfect in its efforts thus far. For example, Just Do It’s signature phrase—Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.—would have greater impact had Kaepernick not been under contract with the company as an unemployed quarterback. Still, the campaign has the potential to significantly advance Nike’s overarching business strategy. And, no matter the increased emphasis on social issues, that remains the foremost utility of business communications.