How to Make Chess Cool (and Other Marketing Conundrums)

We aren't your typical educational nonprofit, providing the usual services of tutoring and SAT prep. We do something extra- something specific and a bit unusual. We do chess.
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We are not a general after-school program. We aren't your typical educational nonprofit, providing the usual services of tutoring and SAT prep. We do something extra- something specific and a bit unusual. We do chess.

Chess as a marketing tool is both a strength and a weakness. It is unique enough to reach a niche market but misunderstood enough to confuse. According to the United States Chess Federation, 39 million people in the United States play chess. Other statistics claim that 600-700 million people worldwide know how to play. So clearly a lot of people know the rules to the game; whether they truly understand beyond that is another story.

If we embrace the chess marketing niche (which apparently is not so niche-like anyways), the question becomes: who is this chess audience? There are the players in Washington Square Park, the Marshall Chess Club, and few superstars -- like Magnus Carlsen -- who have crossed over into the mainstream lexicon. The group is pretty limited. But then we have high-profile chess enthusiasts like Peter Thiel (co-founder of Paypal, early investor of Facebook), Carl Icahn (a New York philanthropic icon), and Howard Stern (no description needed.) It is this target of donors Chess-in-the-Schools needs to reach, if we are to continue to grow.

Chess-in-the-Schools is largely comprised of two parts: chess and college prep. If we were only a chess-teaching program things might be simpler. If we only did college prep that too would make things easier. But as we seek to use chess as the tool with which to motivate and aid the college prep, the way we explain and market ourselves becomes a more difficult task. Chess itself can be seen as a contradiction -- dually an art and a science, it is a game that uses logic but can also produce madness. But it is also a game that has inspired thousands of inner-city students to focus their energies on school, on community, and on their future.

So here is our dilemma: How can we effectively use chess to market ourselves to this new demographic of donors? How can we make chess "cool"? Do we even need to?

And then it struck us. Chess doesn't have to be a niche market; in fact, chess is constantly and consistently being pushed into our collective subconscious. Through ads, subliminal messages, and Christopher Nolan's screenplay. Though Bobby Fischer has held the longtime monopoly on the mainstream's association with chess, apparently so have advertising agencies. From sleep aids to cell phones, financial planning services, the NBA Finals, and Marine recruitment, chess is the chosen symbol for all things Public Relations. It's history, it's setup, its strategy: all these make chess ripe for advertising interpretation and product hawking.

Film and television also frequently feature chess. Usually the intellectual emblem, chess can be seen in "Casablanca", "Inception", the "West Wing", "CSI" and "House". The list goes on. If chess is used so often, with such vast and varied audiences, then perhaps Chess-in-the-Schools need not worry so much about how to go "mainstream." Perhaps our demographic is built right in, with a bit of help from Ronzini pasta and the NHL. Rather than explain why chess is useful, we might be better served to just show our track record of success.

However, the advertising world beckons. There is something there for Chess-in-the-Schools to capitalize on and collaborate with. The Tacori diamond ad puts it well, "Adorn her like a queen. In this vignette, ornate chess pieces are a metaphor for the passion of conquest."

Look for Claire Wasserman's next article on how Chess-in-the-Schools is planning to team up with advertising agencies and production companies in an effort to streamline chess in the media while benefitting New York City public school students.

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