musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Marketing Lessons from Kony 2012 & TOMS

Lauren and I just got back from a lovely weekend in Minneapolis visiting good friends working (and excelling greatly) in corporate America. Inevitably, on about the third bottle of post dinner wine under a perfect late summer midwestern night sky, the topic turned to... well... what is it that you 'tree huggers' do again?

International development is a way of life and career for many of my friends and colleagues. Some of us live, breath and tweet it as if our efforts will somehow (perhaps through a shared idea, best practice, etc.) have a positive effect on someone somewhere who desperately needs some positivity.

But, in talking to our friends, it became very apparent that the reason they know that the world of international development even exists is because of our friendship. They still somewhat think we work for 'the agency' (which isn't altogether an off base conclusion given the dangerous history of overlap between aid/development and intelligence), but that's another story altogether.

Here is the main question that was raised out of a simple query as to our impressions of Kony 2012:

  • Whose job is it to educate the philanthropically-minded non-development practitioners (NDPs) on how/where to donate money to maximize effectiveness?
Regardless of how you feel about Invisible Children (the best responses I've seen can be found here), they have undeniably proven that massive amounts of NDPs (100M+) can be made to care about something that didn't originate on TMZ.com and/or doesn't involve Todd Akin. TOMS (you know you own a pair) has similarly figured out a way to turn social product marketing into profit and has been similarly derided in the development blogosphere.

What has made them so much more widely known than J-PAL, Oxfam, Root Capital and others doing great work around the globe? Our friends (both of whom work in sales/marketing - full disclosure) would argue: marketing.

Is capturing Joseph Kony worth 100M+ hits on YouTube in my opinion? He's a bad man, but I'd argue that it's not. Is the TOMS' one-for-one method the best way to get shoes on feet in the developing world? Also no. 

But the folks working at IC and TOMS do marketing better than most in the development sphere and have mobilized massive amounts of goodwill (and profits) for their causes. Our friends point out that instead of/in addition to bashing the ICs and TOMS of the world, development experts should market our own efforts more effectively and mobilize that goodwill (and the cash that comes with it) to ends that fit our definitions of 'better', 'helpful', 'effective', etc. 

The thing is... they're right.

However, in a development sphere littered with thousands of NGOs 'doing who knows what' (ex. Juba), marketing in a cohesive way to 'normal people' (much less policy makers) borders on the impossible. One.org, US Global Leadership Coalition and others have broadened their message in a way that unifies followers behind a common theme - yet ironically that common theme is so broad that it's difficult to market in ways that are truly effective in 140 characters or less.

Alas, I don't have the answer. But, in an era of decreasing government-funded development, we need to find one that better mobilizes the goodwill (and pocketbooks) of philanthropically minded NDPs.

As an aside, the marketing solution should preferably involve a really cute little blonde kid pointing his finger at an African warlord and calling him 'a bad man' (just kidding...... mostly).