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How The Washington Humane Society Brands Social Engagements

Katherine Kennedy (Washington, DC) —

Brands with a genuine “cool factor” or a hip CEO have no problem drawing fashionable tastemakers to their social events. But other brands, particularly in the public and volunteer sectors, have valid and interesting causes and missions but must work harder to draw an influential crowd to their digital or real life social engagements. Here, I describe how the Washington Humane Society uses creative branding of their social engagements to raise awareness of their cause and raise funds to make their efforts more sustainable.

Should we go to the Humane Society happy hour?

Hip business leaders like Ricky Van Veen of CollegeHumor.com or Kevin Rose, until recently, CEO of Digg, or Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes, don’t have much trouble drawing a crowd. Their brands are perceived as hip, and their charisma as leaders makes intangible human connections that keep people engaged in their brand narrative over months and years, online and offline. But brands, and leaders, like these are relatively rare. What’s a regular brand to do? Luckily, a little creativity can go a long way.

The Washington Humane Society provides incredibly valuable advocacy and action. But, let’s be fair, their brand doesn’t exactly inspire you to party Diggnation-style. Unfortunately for brands like this, things like humor, fashion, music, and film attract hip, influential people, and it’s probably fair to say that these things aren’t what come to mind when you think of a Humane Society event. It’s a tough situation – how to draw donors and others who can spread word of mouth?

This is a particularly important concern in the public and volunteer sectors, where missions are critical but marketing budgets may be low or non-existent, and where profits are not the motive of organizational behavior, getting creative about raising money and awareness is not only critical for organizational sustainability, but also to some degree for the public good these groups make happen.

The Washington Humane Society Creatively Brands Engagements

If you look up the definition of “sub-branding,” you’ll find information about products that are for sale to a subset of customers. For example, Coca-Cola has “Coke” and “New Coke” and “Cherry Coke” and “Diet Coke” and so on, and with some overlap, each appeals to a different subset of their customer base, or the available soft drink customer base. Same goes for Cheerios and Honey-Nut Cheerios, M&M’s and Peanut M&Ms, and so on.

But non-profits don’t have products that they sell to customers. They have services they provide for the greater good. How do you market “the same thing we’ve always done” in new and exciting ways, without seeming too radical and loosing the mindshare of your base supporters? The secret lies in an approach somewhat like an individual product brand, except that the ‘product’ being sold is an idea, a concept, an inspiration. A community engagement.

Tara de Nicolas, until recently the Director of Marketing for the WHS, had an idea – Why not brand a major fundraising social engagement as something fun, meaningful, and memorable? And so, “Fashion for Paws” was born in Washington, DC in 2007. It was conceived as a fun, upbeat, fashion show and party to raise funds and awareness. And since then, F4P has grown from just a once-per-year event to a year-round marketing campaign. Last year’s event has about 1,000 attendess and completely sold out the gigantic Italian embassy space it was hosted in. And activities around the F4P brand include the recent Fashion for Paws Runway Show Model Fundraising Kick-off Reception.

In an exclusive interview with SECTOR:PUBLIC, Tara related,

The idea to launch Fashion for Paws into a year-round marketing and fundraising program unfolded in pieces. With the success of the spring runway show [slated for 4/9/11 at the National Building Museum] and its ability to garner such tremendous attention from Washington, DC’s most philanthropic, in addition to gaining mass media attention for the Mission and programs of the Washington Humane Society (WHS), while it was outside the standard PR tool box and comfort zone of any local humane society, WHS was progressive enough, and our fantastic CEO, Lisa LaFontaine, was open-minded enough to believe in the concept and allow the idea to unfold.

And in October 2009 I moved out of my full-time position as the Director of Marketing and Communications for WHS and into the position of Executive Director of Fashion for Paws.

And while it would have been easy to rest on her laurels with the huge success of Fashion for Paws, Tara kept being creative with social engagement branding. The series of warm-weather Pawtini Happy Hours at places like the outdoor patio in the W Hotel welcomed donors and their dogs to socialize Southern-style. Her photography exhibit at the fashionable DC nightclub L2 (‘Brangelina’ were there last week!) revived and reused the photographers photos from her event six months later in a strategic partnership with the arts event FotoWeek DC. And near Christmas at the mall, you could take your pet to take special photos with Santa.

What all of these activities have in common is that they all, at their core, meet WHS goals. They raise awareness of the organization. They get animals into owners’ hands. And they raise money.

Marketing Lessons from the Washington Humane Society

There are some valid questions to be asked about brand extensions and sub-brands with repect to this discussion. For example, will the array of brands create confusion among the audience? Do the new brands create any unanticipated limitations for the future? Will the brand extensions strengthen or detract from the primary brand?

In the case of WHS, part of the secret seems to have been narrowly defining the goals of the events. Sure, the names were different and so on, but they all offered the same things at the core: fashionable people, funny pets, and a fun time. These variations on a theme didn’t distract from the main mission. And while they are certainly not as conservative-sounding as the primary brand, through inspiring and mobilizing the community digitially and in real life, they have strengthened the WHS brand reputation in Washington, DC, and probably reflected well on the national organization as well.

So, what did Tara de Nicolas and the WHS do right which you might emulate if you work in a public or volunteer sector organization and want to raise awareness or funds?

  1. She used creative engagement brands that people want to spread. Pawtini is just a cute word that you want to tweet, simple as that.
  2. She gave herself a “title” related to the new brand. She’s not the Director of Marketing running an event; she’s the Executive Director of F4P. Why not?
  3. She serialized engagements. They were not one-offs, but rather events that people look forward to repeatedly and compare to the last one.
  4. She got the community involved not only via attendees, but by making her biggest supporters models in shows, and therefore participants.
  5. She organized models under the motto “competition breeds success” and had them compete against each other to grow fundraising exponentially.
  6. She continued to innovate. Not stopping at F4P, she created Pawtini happy hours, and Pet Photos with Santa at Christmastime.

What all of this does in total is generate an engaging narrative for a specific audience related to a particular organizational mission. This is a generic strategy that truly works, but too often brands get bogged down in the details (what’s our Twitter strategy?) without thinking about the bigger, picture enough (what’s our brand extention strategy?).

If you work at the TSA, or Greenpeace, or the Marine Corps, your particular concerns, pressures, rules, contraints, and tactics will differ, but the overarching strategy of creating serialized novel engagements, owning the words and social media around them, getting the community involved in your narrative, and ultimately moving the needle on organizational goals is the same.

Katherine Kennedy is a guest writer for SECTOR:PUBLIC. She is a Washington, DC-based philanthropist with an interest in social entrepreneurship, and was the star of MTV’s “Blonde Charity Mafia.” You can follow her on Twitter at @katherinekenned.

Editor’s note: On Thursday, February 3rd, Teatro Goldoni restaurant will host their annual Kick-Off Reception from 7-9pm to mark the launch of the new 2011 F4P Runway Show website and the start of the model fundraising competition.

Picture of Happy Hour used under Creative Commons. Picture of Diet Coke from Wikipedia. Picture of Fashion for Paws 2010 show from Fashion for Paws.

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