How For-Profits Look to Non-Profits for Marketing Inspiration

Modern Marketing


Historically, non-profit and for-profit organizations took advantage of tangibly different marketing strategies to reach their goals. Non-profits tended to focus on matters of the heart, celebrity endorsements, and compelling causes; for-profits tended to tap into other motivations.

But in recent years, many for-profit companies have changed their strategies, trying (and succeeding) with tactics that had proven effective for non-profits. Here are a few ways they’re doing it:

1. Appealing to Consumers’ Humanity

These ASPCA commercials featuring Sarah McLachlan undeniably tug on the heart strings of even the toughest viewers — and they work. Within one year of the first time the commercial aired on TV, the ASPCA raised roughly $30 million. To this day, it’s the organization’s most lucrative fundraising campaign.

Watch the video on YouTube here.

Many for-profit companies have taken this strategy to the drawing board, developing campaigns that invoke an emotional response in viewers, and adding a human touch to campaigns. Here’s one from Dove, which appeals to female viewers by examining ideas about beauty:

Watch the video on YouTube here.

2. The Power of Social Proof

According to Brian Gardner, social proof is “the positive influence created when people find out others are doing something – now, suddenly, everyone else wants to do that something too.” Let’s say a long line of people are waiting to get into a club behind a red velvet rope. Passersby will naturally become interested and curious about what’s inside the club.

Many non-profits harness the power of social proof by making their accomplishments public. For example, many display tickers on their websites tracking progress with fundraising goals, and then integrate those goals into their campaigns. A non-profit might also promote plans to give away prizes when they reach a certain goal, and make it easy for donors to advertise their support on social sharing sites. The more people see peers donating, the more likely it is that they will also donate.

For-profit organizations now leverage the power of social proof though social media marketing, particularly through paid posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. Although these promoted posts are labeled as such, they integrate seamlessly with unpaid posts made in a user’s social feeds. Since people can often see how much engagement (likes, comments, etc) a post gets, they are more apt to engage with the post as well.

3. Seeking Expert Approval

Just as huge crowds of people flocking toward a cause or a product is persuasive, so is a single person – if that single person is a big deal. Non-profit organizations have used celebrity endorsements for decades. This video from St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital is a prime example:

Watch the video on YouTube here.

Taking a cue from these endorsements, many major retailers use celebrity endorsements these days, and others structure their entire brand around endorsements. Oprah Winfrey has built an empire on her name alone, and Rachel Ray’s face on a cookbook is priceless for marketers.

Pepsi has a long tradition of enlisting big names to promote its products — Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and Mary J. Blige, to name a few. Here’s a recent Pepsi commercial shot with Beyoncé Knowles:

Watch the video on YouTube here.

4. Focusing on a Common Goal

Everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon today, but ten years ago, it was primarily non-profits shining the spotlight on the environment. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) was established in 1961, and remains the world’s largest conservation organization. Today, for-profit organizations have begun to recognize consumers’ desire to reduce their environmental footprint.

In response, many corporations have begun to implement conservation practices within their organizations and promote them accordingly. Nike’s “reuse-a-shoe” program is a great example of a for-profit organization generating positive publicity through environmental awareness and conservation efforts.

So there you have it: four ways that non-profit strategies have rubbed off on the for-profit world. Have you noticed any of your favorite for-profit brands using non-profit techniques? What about the reverse? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.