Adapted from Chapter 4 of Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes
Open your sock drawer and look inside. I am willing to bet that if you're a man, you'll own at least one pair of Gold Toes. Those are the dress socks with the distinctive gold thread at the toe. If you're a woman, you may have a pair of white work-out socks with that gold color on the toes. The odds are in my favor because more than half of all men's socks sold at U.S. department stores are the Gold Toe brand, and the company weaves more than 140 million pairs for men, women, and children every year.
Why does Gold Toe hold such a strong position in the market? Because it has a clear competitive advantage. In the consumer's mind, Gold Toe stands for quality and durability. Gold Toe socks don't get little holes at the toe after you wear them a few times, nor do they lose their elasticity and start sagging around the ankles after a few washes.
The company gained its toehold in the sock market during the depression, when it began weaving strong Irish linen into the tips of its socks so they would last longer during hard times. In the 1930s, a department-store buyer told one of the company's founders that the durable toes were great, but customers couldn't tell which brand had them. In a stroke of genius, the company decided to wrap gold acetate thread around the linen so its strong toe—now a Gold Toe—would be immediately visible to consumers. The company made its competitive advantage recognizable and unmistakable. That decision has made Gold Toe Brands Inc. the third largest sock manufacturer in the United States. Go to a leading department store today, and you can see why. In a sea of black and blue men's dress socks, Gold Toe practically leaps off the display shelves.
Gold Toe tells us to "enlighten your feet." This holiday fundraising season, we're going to enlighten our minds with Gold Toe's winning approach:Stake a strong competitive position in the minds of the audience. We want to make our competitive advantage as clear to our audiences as if we'd adorned it in gold thread.
Corporations understand their competition in order to be profitable. Good causes need to understand their competition to succeed in their missions. The goal is not to obliterate other good causes or get into hand-to-hand combat with private-sector competitors. The goal is to understand our competition so we can differentiate ourselves and secure a strong and unique position in our audiences' minds.
Competitive strategy should focus on the audience while taking into account the competition, not the other way around. We do not win solely by reacting to other nonprofits but rather by focusing on how best to motivate our audiences.
Think of all the also-ran ideas that were knee-jerk reactions to competition: Burger King's Magical Burger King as rival to Ronald McDonald or Mr. Pibb as an afterthought to Dr. Pepper. These ideas come from the "they did it, we'd better too" school of thought. This thinking can extend to nonprofits, especially with regard to marketing tactics. We don't necessarily need a silent auction or imprinted coffee cups or wristbands or a logo with clasped hands just because the other guy has them. We are better off finding a better, newer approach to communicating.
So how do we differentiate ourselves in the eyes of our audience, which is buried under fundraising appeals? We establish a competitive position and winning message with four attributes: it is based on our strengths, it is unique, it is simple to understand, and it is important to the audience.
The first attribute is our natural strength. We want to take an honest look at what we do well. Gold Toe knew it had the most durable toe in the sock market. To use a nonprofit example, let's think about the relative strengths of Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Greenpeace has a good infrastructure for what it calls "bearing witness" to enemies of the environment and grabbing headlines. The National Resources Defense Council has a band of relentless lawyers and scientists who are great at lobbying and litigation.
Second, define the characteristics that make our cause unique. If we think about our environmental example, one factor that differentiates Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the marketplace of environmental groups and the minds of consumers is how they use their relative strengths. Greenpeace goes after governments and corporations with confrontational tactics that expose environmental problems. This in-your-face style defines them in most people's minds. The Natural Resources Defense Council is good at tightening up environmental-protection policies by working within the system to effect change. It works at the policy level.
The third attribute is to stick to a simple, understandable idea when we market our cause. We want to stand for one idea, consistently. Greenpeace owns the mental real estate of extreme environmental activism. The National Resources Defense Council sticks to the idea that it is "the earth's best defense."
Finally, the competitive position must be important to the audience. If we stake competitive ground that's not relevant to our audiences, we will never get their attention. Our strengths, unique qualities, and single idea must be attractive to the market we want to capture. Greenpeace appeals to a certain kind of person, while the National Resources Defense Council attracts a different crowd. They each have an audience that likes what they do.
Now let's apply this list to ourselves:
- Strength: What is our strong suit, or what strength can we create? What characteristics will make our audience choose us over the competition? Are we especially good at building relationships with our constituents? Do we have good services or an innovative approach to tackling our issue?
- Difference: What makes us unique? Do we have the most stellar reputation in our field? Are we the biggest or the first to offer a service? Are our services more accessible than those of our competitors, or are our customers more satisfied? Is our overhead lower than that of other groups?
- Simplicity: Is our strength or difference a simple, easily grasped concept? At best, we can stand for just one attribute in each audience's mind, so we want that quality to be clear and memorable.
- Value to audience: Last, check ourselves. Is the quality we've chosen something that our audiences care about? The competitive advantage we believe we have is not an advantage if it's irrelevant or uninteresting to the people we want to reach.
Now think about all of your messaging this holiday season. When you're talking about your organization, are you answering these questions? If so, congratulations. You'll have success because your Gold Toe is showing.
© 2006, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Adapted from Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes.
Adapted with permission.Katya Andresen is the author of the nonprofit blog Robin Hood Marketing and vice president of marketing at Network for Good, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits raise money on-line.