Thu, September 08 2011

Great storytelling and marketing lessons from the Stove Man

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Filed under:   Marketing essentials •

If you work for a good cause, you know how hard it is to tell your story in a way that does justice to the needs you face and the miracles you make.  But you have to find a way to do this well, because a nonprofit without a great story is like a novel with no plot.  Who would want to buy that book – or give to that organization?  Without story, we have nothing to capture imagination, stir emotions or compel actions. 

That’s why I’m always on the hunt for examples of stellar storytelling.  And that’s why I sought out the Stove Man. He knows how to weave a tale.

Here’s the background: The Paradigm Project is a social enterprise that strives to replace cooking on open fires with simple, sturdy wood stoves across the developing world.  To promote the work of the project, co-founders Neil Bellefeuille, Greg Spencer and Greg’s son Greg W. Spencer, created “Stove Man,” a web video series that documents the travels of Greg Spencer (junior) and Austin Mann as they set out to support The Paradigm Project’s mission to bring 5 million stoves to families in developing countries by 2020.  The second episode, featured here, takes Greg and Austin inside a hut in Kenya to experience what more than 3 billion women and children experience every day cooking on traditional cook stoves inside their huts. The massive amount of smoke and poor ventilation literally brings these two grown men to tears and seems physically unbearable. The exposure of smoke emitted by traditional cook stoves is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes daily, according to the World Health Organization, and claims the lives 1.9 million people every year.

Episode 2: Cooking & Crying from The Paradigm Project on Vimeo.

I called up Stove Man (Greg) to find out the story behind this great storytelling.  He got started with The Paradigm Project after visiting Uganda with his father. Both Gregs fell in love with the country, and when the elder Greg, who had a career in greenhouse gas offset projects, wanted to look at how to develop a product to make life better for the people in Africa, the younger Greg said, “Dad, I’m in.”  They recruited Neil to help run the company, drawing on his management experience with brands like Nike, PepsiCo, VF Brands, Conoco-Phillips and World Vision.

Q. Let me start with the most important question: how are your lungs?

A. I was hurting for two days after this episode was shot.  I’d been in huts for a few seconds here and there, but never before for the preparation of an entire meal.  After cooking one meal of rice and beans, I felt like I had the flu—eyes burning, nose running, chest and lungs hurting.  Austin and I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation till we experienced it that way.  One dinner and we were on the ground hurting.  It surprised both of us.

Q. In all your work, you do such a great job of taking an issue from the far reaches of the world and grabbing the attention of viewers in the United States.  What are keys to great storytelling?

A. The first thing that Austin and I were conscious about was to be real and genuine and if things don’t go as we wanted in filming we said: let’s show that.  Let’s not try to manufacture something.  Let’s bring it down to a personal level rather than relying on stats.

I think another key is having an American talking to an American audience – because this is way outside the norm of our stovetops and microwaves.  To see a couple of American guys go through that and communicate back really helps people relate.

Third and most important, we’re super conscious about the people in the communities we partner with.  We care about building relationships with them first and great video comes second.  But the thing is, in the end, you get better shots and video by putting those relationships first. 

Q. What branding or marketing lessons from Neil’s Fortune 500 experience have you applied to your social cause?

A.  From my perspective, from the get-go, we focused on providing a big experience for people, with strong imagery and high quality branding.  Instead of saying what can we do with $10K, we said, what do we need to go get that experience.  That’s the downfall of nonprofits unfortunately – because they are budget constrained, they approach issues dollar by dollar rather than starting with goals and vision.  We wrote out our vision, defined our brand and described the story we wanted to tell – then we created the marketing materials.  We drew a lot of inspiration from Charity: Water, which does great work in this area.

Find someone creative within the marketing department or get some consulting and create something UNIQUE. There are a million non-profit voices out there who are asking for donor funds and you have to find a way to set yourself apart in the way that you tell your story and the offering that you give people to support your group. Take a risk and do something special and different. If you play it safe and do another “sponsor a child” (not that there’s anything bad with that), you will be swept away in a sea of organizations with more resources and more experience with child sponsorship and will likely struggle to gain funding. Push the envelope, see what storytelling works for big corporate brands, reality TV, feature films, etc. and see how you can apply that to your work.

Neil adds:

Great marketing does not have to be expensive, it just has to be inventive. People tend to be fairly sophisticated consumers of marketing in general, likely because we absorb so many messages and learn to filter them efficiently. If you think about it, you know intuitively the brands and messages that stand out to you, and yet most people lose the ability to apply that filter when it comes to creating their own marketing messaging and end up producing work that is dull and that disappears in the noise.

You need to understand and accept that people will not necessarily automatically care about the issues you care about. The world is saturated with good causes asking for help. If you can get your hands on them, great imagery and music and other emotive tools are very powerful when used in effective ways. More importantly, though, you need to approach your marketing in the same way you approached your business—with a clear plan that defines how you and your cause are unique and interesting. With that plan in hand, you are much better equipped to develop messaging that communicates that difference. Without it you are more likely to develop work that focuses on the common denominator (hungry children, mothers in need of work, etc.) without clearly defining why the viewer should choose your solution to those problems over others.

Getting specific, social media is a great tool for sharing your passion from the heart. Use this venue to speak openly about why you care and why you think you have a great solution. Share yourself and be open and honest rather than trying to market to someone. It’s a venue for conversation, not broadcasting, so leverage its strengths and engage like-minded people in dialog that helps develop and tell your story more completely. It’s also a great venue for refining your messaging. Because it’s a two-way stream, you will have a lot of input on what parts of your story matter to your audience and be able to refine messaging on the fly.

For more traditional forms of marketing, focus on specific elements of your story that have emotional power and that you feel you can own in comparison to the competition. What are your unique strengths and weaknesses and how can you use them to your advantage? For instance, being very small can be a distinct disadvantage. But you could also embrace that aspect of your brand and talk to people about engaging in a cause that has a real person and individual attention attached to their support. Yes, you may give up a portion of the audience that is focused on scale, but you if can’t deliver scale regardless, you shouldn’t be worried about that.

Finally, this all leads to a pseudo golden rule for your marketing work: you can’t be all things to all people. Cliché as it is, this is a really critical concept. Many, many marketers know this and still produce work that is trying so hard to capture breadth that it completely fails to capture anyone. Instead, be so focused in your work that it makes you a little uncomfortable. Literally define the person you’re trying to reach as an individual with a name and a neighborhood and hobbies, etc. Find a fictional picture of them. Put it on your wall. Now develop messaging specifically for that person. What do they need to hear to respond to your message? It may seem odd building for one person like this, but it ultimately makes a lot of sense—the more intimate and focused you are on a specific audience, the more your messaging is going to seem like a conversation between two friends instead of a mass marketing message. And the more you can bring it to this level, the more powerful and resonant it becomes.

 

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