What The Super Bowl Commercials Mean For Nonprofits

That was quite the Super Bowl and we saw something we've never seen before. We also saw more of something we will continue to see more of in the form of business branding themselves more on beliefs than benefits. But this is your space.
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Did you watch the Super Bowl? Even if you hate Tom Brady (great name), sports, and chips and dip or any combination of those three that game was hard not to like (and if you do hate all three of those then we just shouldn't be friends). The greatest quarterback of all time (notice the lack of 'arguably') leads one of the greatest teams of all time (in their era) to the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time (perhaps any postseason ever) in the first-ever overtime game. Seriously. This was something we've never seen before where Brady's Patriots had a 99.7 percent chance of losing as late as 6 minutes left in the third quarter.


I have a better chance of marrying Tom Brady's Brazilian supermodel wife Gisele Bündchen than the Patriots did in winning that game. And I'm happily married. And so is she.

It was an amazing game and story to witness. Oh yeah, Lady Gaga jumped off the roof too. Well sort of.

But the Super Bowl, even great ones like this, aren't just about the game. Or the chips and dip. They are about the commercials! In Canada, for years and years, we would miss out on the US commercials and get dubbed in local ones selling mattresses or highlighting some crappy new show on CBC (Schitts Creek excepted, #respect). When my mom was in news broadcasting I remember driving into the station and watching the live feed in one of those dimly lit back rooms with the techs just so we could watch the commercials. But, thankfully, we were able to get more and more of the 'good' US commercials and see some of the trends.

As a charity nerd and nonprofit marketer, what I saw made me a bit frightened. Brands are continuing to catch on to the fact that humans have emotions and feelings and want to feel something! These feelings are what connects them to the brands they care about. If you don't believe that this is a trend, check out some of the top commercials from that night. It will open your eyes to something that's been happening for a while now: businesses are invading your turf.

Companies are starting to understand that in a world of choice where you can get whatever information you want on a product at any time wherever you are, the classic 'feature-benefit' strategy isn't cutting it anymore. So they are diving deeper. Into people's hearts. And your nonprofit's soul.

Check out this commercial for Audi.

Yes, my friends, that is a car commercial. A freaking car! And I wept.

Maybe it was the overdose of pepperoni or being with my 9-month-old niece, but this commercial stirred something in me and reminded me, in a powerful way, that the treatment of women when it comes to opportunity, equality, dignity, and justice just isn't just.

So here's the bad news: brands that have more money, more people, and more following than you ever will are invading your turf.

But are you ready for the good news?

They may be able to sell the emotion and values you possess but they can't sell the action a viewer wants to take. Only you can.

As fired up and emotional as I got watching that car commercial, I wasn't about to hop into my car (not an Audi) and go pick up an Audi. Nor would 99.99999999 percent of other viewers of that commercial. I know that's not Audi's expectation and this is about positioning their brand but we live in an ever increasing immediate culture and when I watched that commercial I immediately wanted to cry, punch something, and then go do something about that! Not buy a luxury car. Buying a luxury car was not in the Top 100 things I could think of to make a difference in that moment for that issue. And that's where (most) brands will always struggle.

Budweiser told their genesis story in a great way tapping into the recent immigration furor and the American dream. While the subvert political statement and great commercial may persuade people to choose their generic beer over another generic beer, when it comes to standing up for immigration rights lifting up a Bud just isn't going to cut it.

Hyundai shot a 'live' commercial with military families being able to watch the game with their spouses/partners serving overseas. It was a great commercial and story but buying a Hyundai won't bring troops home, end wars, or ease the burden on families who are separated from or widowed because of conflict.

And Kia took a more humorous approach to evoke emotion but here was their commercial tagline and call to action:

It's hard to be an eco-warrior, but it's easy to drive like one.

Are you kidding me? Seriously? Do you see what they are doing? They are trying to convince consumers that they can live our their values by consuming their product. By buying. And in the case of car companies, spending tens of thousands of dollars to do that.

You know what is an easier way to be an eco-warrior than buying a Kia? Carpooling. Taking a train. Giving Greenpeace $10/month. Those are pretty darn easy actually.

So while brands continue to invade 'our space' in these story wars we still have the leg up. We have a head start. But we need to take the threat seriously and make sure we are keeping ahead, otherwise, we will continue to lose ground to brands and more people will start to believe that they can best, or even only, live out their beliefs by buying. And if that happens, we are all in trouble. Not just because your business, and mine, relies on a philanthropic and charitable sector based on people giving away, not consuming, but because we will continue down an increasingly narcissistic path where all things are about me and I don't actually have to do anything that doesn't benefit me directly. And that's dangerous.

So What Can You Do When It Comes To Your Nonprofit Storytelling?

  1. Understand there is a battle and you are in it
  2. Understand you aren't just battling other organizations but other businesses and brands
  3. Understand what really drives consumers/donors to buy benevolently or give to you and give them more of that
1. Understand there is a battle and you are in it

I'm always surprised how little competition is discussed amongst nonprofits and their leaders. I wrote my Master's thesis on Competition in the Nonprofit Sector and while it was very flawed in its execution, it is still a subject I'm not sure I've seen or heard too much about. I think the digital age makes it a bit easier to know and understand you are in a battle as your inbox and feeds are flooded with news, offers, and images. But having a website and mission statement isn't the battle, it's what gets you even close to the battlefield. Can you separate your mission from that of other similar organizations? Do you even know what your mission statement is? More importantly, do your donors even know how to describe what you do or why others should support you? Because I can guarantee you the answer to that question is not your mission statement.

You are in a battle for time and attention each and every single day. Whether you want to accept that or not and what you do with that information is up to you but it's a reality either way. And embracing that fact gives you a fighting chance.

2. Understand you aren't just battling other organizations but other businesses and brands
So you're in a battle. Okay. Who with? The 'other' child sponsorship organization? That group that has the bigger gala two weeks before you? That organization with a cool website? Yes and, at a much much much more important level no.

First, yes. Donors have a choice. They can spend 10 minutes on Google and find any number of charities and causes to discover. They can open up 5 tabs in their browser and compare pictures, stories, and impact. More likely they are looking at crap metrics like 'overhead' but they are still looking and comparing. They are looking for an organization that they can fight with. That is doing work they can fight for. For people and projects they can believe in.

But on a bigger level, no. That other organization is not your biggest threat. It's Audi. It's Hyundai. It's Kia. And most dangerous of all, it's doing nothing. In Canada, about a quarter of people give to a charitable organization (officially via claims on their tax returns). That means 3/4 of tax filers in Canada are not participating in charitable giving (note 'charitable' there, many people give in un-receipted ways, with their time, etc.). But those 3/4 of people are buying things. And not just the basic necessities. But toys their kids don't need. Clothes their spouses don't need. And deodorant they don' need. Okay, that last one is kind of important.

Charitable giving as a percent of GDP has been flat for 40 years. And while there is some encouragement in the past 10 years and what the Millennial generation may do with their purchasing power, giving is no more a part of the consumer's life today than it was 40 years ago. And that's where the real battle is. And when you understand you are not just in a battle with other organizations but more importantly a central character in the conflict over consumers your perspective changes. Or it should.

If you are World Vision, instead of thinking "is our website better than Compassion's? Or Plan's? Or Food for the Hungry's?" You should think "is our website better than H + M's? Nike's? Amazon's?" And while it may be unrealistic to think that your website will actually be better than theirs, the point is that they are who you are shooting for. They are stealing your donors. Not your 'competitors'.

This is one thing that has helped the charity: water's of the world separate themselves is that they think like big brands and not ordinary organizations. And they don't market or sell like Apple exactly, they understand how people like to have a great experience and design websites, campaigns, and events that tap into donor values but with consumer level experiences. And that's what it takes, and will take to compete, and continue to compete, with the true competition in our world: consumerism.

3. Understand what really drives consumers/donors to buy benevolently or give to you and give them more of that
This is the 'fight fire with fire' approach. What if that Audi commercial was not from a car company, but a women's rights or equality organization. And the commercial was part of a pledge campaign where people would sign their name, through an email sign-up, that they believe their sisters, daughters, and nieces deserve to grow up in a world where they are valued just as much as a man. And after they sign the pledge they were offered the chance to give and further support women's rights efforts through advocacy or job skills training or scholarships for girls. How could Audi compete with that?

See, Audi gave people something to fight for, and fight against, but they didn't give them something tangible to actually do. So it just becomes a nice commercial. You, we, have the ability to move people into action. Real action that leads to real change. But we have to give people something to fight for and fight against. And something that stirs the soul.

We need to use videos and images. We need to use compelling copy. We need to use donor psychology. We need to use every available resource and piece of knowledge we have and have access to in order to understand donors, and your donors, and what makes them want to fight. Want to stand up and make a stand. And then we need to give that to them. Not just once a year in a flashy campaign but every quarter. Every month. Every day!


That was quite the Super Bowl and we saw something we've never seen before. We also saw more of something we will continue to see more of in the form of business branding themselves more on beliefs than benefits. But this is your space. This is our space. This is my space. We need to know beliefs. And we have the secret weapon here: giving and getting involved in your work is
the easiest, cheapest way to live our their values and make a difference in our world. It's up to you to enter into the battle, which you're already in, and fight it out not just for more donor dollars but to get new donor dollars involved. It won't be easy, battles never are, but it's a worthy one and will take all we know about people and donors to even stand a chance. Fight the good fight. It's yours to lose. Good luck.

This was originally posted on re: charity and can be read in full here.

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