An Optimistic Approach
Bill and Melinda Gates opened their 2018 Annual Letter, The 10 Toughest Questions We Get, on a positive note. “We are outspoken about our optimism. These days, though, optimism seems to be in short supply. The headlines are filled with awful news. Every day brings a different story of political division, violence, or natural disaster. Despite the headlines, we see a world that’s getting better.”
This outlook led us to reflect on one of our long-held values—our preference to lead with Positive Messaging.In our work with social purpose brands, we’re often confronted with difficult social issues: environmental degradation, genocide, climate change, social injustice, and more. It’s easy to dwell on the negative effects of these problems.
We understand the need to clearly explain the issue at hand. And we never shy away from showcasing the damage being done to our planet and the harm inflicted on its people and animals. It’s critical to describe the problem(s) that your organization is addressing. But it’s just as important to tell people what’s been done, what’s in process, and the next steps you’re taking toward resolving the problem.
Confronting people with the horrors of the world is a proven strategy. Decades of showing starving children and abused animals on late-night TV has produced ongoing contributions and multitudes of visits to animal shelters.
Guilt works as a strategy.
Populate your website with brutal images, depressing statistics, and large DONATE buttons and people will contribute.
But it doesn’t last. Sure, some people will set up ongoing donations, but then they tune out due to the poor way in which they are being asked to donate.
Typical profit-driven organizations spend a brief amount of time explaining the problem and a significant amount of time demonstrating their solution and how it improves people’s lives. This is basic marketing. Have you ever seen an antacid ad that only focuses on the problem?
There’s only so much negativity a person can take. Eventually they’ll turn away, overwhelmed. You don’t want your audience to disengage. You want to grab their attention and hold it. You want to get them to empathize with your cause and do something about it. And most importantly, you want them to remain connected—to become ongoing contributors, and/or loyal customers who help you make the world a better place.
Think about this in everyday life. We all know people who focus on all of the terrible things that are happening in the world. But when someone does nothing but share disturbing headlines, lament their issues, or complain about their situation, they’re emotionally difficult to be around. In extreme cases, people avoid them, just like they disengage with negative messaging.
Lastly, unrelenting negative messaging doesn’t communicate accomplishments. People want to contribute to organizations or purchase products from companies that show measurable results. If your proportion of showing those results vs. reinforcing the negative messaging is askew, potential customers might believe that you’re not actually addressing the problem. If they reach this conclusion, they’ll shift their donations and/or purchases to an organization that is demonstrating results.
We prefer the strategy of positive messaging. Lead with solutions. Set tangible goals that, when reached, give your contributors a sense of accomplishment.
Some of the problems that social purpose brands address are global in scale, and that can make the problem seem too big to be solved. Taking it in small chunks and celebrating milestones leads to a sense that your organization’s mission is being accomplished. It shows partners and contributors that their actions result in measurable improvement.