The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

The Robin Hood Interviews: Selling Soap and Good Causes

For my final posts this year, I’m going to publish some of my favorite interviews on marketing from my book, Robin Hood Marketing. Today, I feature one of my greatest mentors, Bill Novelli.

Bill’s career has been the living, breathing answer to Gerhart Wiebe’s question, “Can brotherhood be sold like soap?” Novelli started his career at Unilever, where he marketed laundry-detergent products in New York. After several years of selling soap, he went on to work for the ad agency Wells, Rich, Green. There, he first was confronted with the question of how soap related to good causes. “I had come from Unilever and working on the same kind of products—packaged goods. I was marketing laundry detergent, cat food, dog food, kids’ cereals, whatever,” he recalls. “Then they gave me another account, which was public broadcasting. This was the first time public broadcasting had hired an advertising agency to build audience. The first thing I did was to go to a press conference run by the woman who had created Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney. And she was applying what I thought of as marketing to Sesame Street, which is education. So I thought to myself, you can do more with this thing. You can apply it to education or perhaps other issues, other ideas, other sectors. And that got me going.”

Novelli, an engaging, quietly intense man with a good sense of humor, had found his calling. He went on to direct marketing efforts for another good cause: the Peace Corps. He then founded his own public-relations firm with Jack Porter in Washington, D.C. He built Porter Novelli into one of the largest public-relations firms in the world, and in the process, pioneered the application of private sector savvy to social causes. “In the early days, I liked to call us a bunch of soap salesmen who were trying to work on high blood pressure and cancer. Then I discovered the academic literature. I read the seminal paper on social marketing by Phil Kotler and Gerald Zaltman. I thought to myself, these guys are framing this very nicely. I’m using my lessons from laundry detergent, and they’re framing it better. I need to marry the academic and the practical. That’s how I started, bringing in theory, bringing in the academic perspective, and saying, boy this helps me to do my thing.”

Novelli went on to apply that thinking as executive vice president of the international relief and development agency CARE, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and as chief executive officer for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). He is currently a professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He teaches in the MBA program and has created and leads the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at the School. He also is Co-Chair of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC), a national organization dedicated to reforming advanced illness care by empowering consumers, changing the health care delivery system, improving public policies and enhancing provider capacity. In each role, he has paired his dedication to good causes with business sensibility and convinced the rest of us that yes, we can indeed sell brotherhood like soap.

Me: What is the goal in marketing good causes?

Novelli: I think a lot of programs make the mistake of stopping at attitude change, —in other words, getting people to believe as you believe. They think, well, what can I do about teen pregnancy? Well, I’ll get these kids to understand “X.” There’s a difference between understanding and doing. We need to understand we are in the persuasion business, not the information-dissemination business. When people tell me, “It’s not our job or our place to tell people what to think or do,” I think we might as well be shoveling pamphlets out of airplanes. If you really want to get someone to do something, close the sale. If we want to communicate to American people that the world’s oceans are in trouble, ask what you want the consumer and the audience to do. Do you want them to drown themselves, or write a letter to a congressional Congressional representative?

Me: Is brotherhood just like soap?

Novelli: A company looks to potential market demand when developing a product. People say, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door,” but that is not marketing. Marketers start with the consumer, not the mousetrap. The the people with the mice in their homes —do they want to get rid of the mice? How satisfied or dissatisfied are they with current mouse-removal systems? How much would they pay to remove mice? Nonprofits are by contrast product-driven, not market-driven. That makes it more challenging.

Me: So how do we know what will close the sale?

Novelli: I really like the idea of positive deviance. Don’t study the people who aren’t doing it. Study the people who are and see what motivated them. One of the tenets of marketing is that your best prospects are people like your customers. You want to sell laundry detergent, see who’s buying it now. These people are predisposed. If we’re thinking about smoking cessation, people who have tried to quit smoking twice are more apt likely to try a third time than people who’ve never tried at all. If we’re thinking about physical activity, people who already own a pair of walking shoes are more disposed to get back into it than those who have never gotten off the couch. If we’re thinking about social change, I think it’s a mistake to focus only on individuals. People are swimming in a larger sea. They’re influenced by the media, by normative behaviors. If you look at a neighborhood where all the kids smoke, that’s what you see. It doesn’t matter if your parents are telling you to quit. If we could make physical activity normative behavior, if everybody was doing it, —movie stars, your neighbor, Oprah—it would help. If the media and policymakers are behind it, that is part of it too. Then there is private policy change, though corporations and organizations.

Me: How can good causes manage all of these audiences?

Novelli: Nonprofits have so many more stakeholders than a corporation has. We’ve got this many-layered onion. Maybe at the core is the board of directors, and we have to inform, educate, and persuade our board. The next layer is staff. They tend to be socially oriented, mission-driven. They need to be involved. Beyond that, you might have volunteers, members, and the general public. You have to work with all of them in sequence. If you have the board, you have a better chance of getting the outer layers.

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Connie Poulos
Senior Associate, Copywriter

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