Season 1 - Episode 04

We’ve GOT to Stop Marketing Like This.

Dive into the pitfalls of transactional marketing in the social impact space and how a brand-building approach secures lasting community support.

DT Episode 4 Website 1

Picture this: You’re scrolling through your inbox and see a message from an organization you support. But something’s not quite right. 

The subject line reads “URGENT! WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!”

You open the email, only to be bombarded with more fake urgency around hitting an important fundraising deadline and how you, and only you, can make that happen. You just have to donate RIGHT NOW OR ELSE the organization will fail miserably and the entire world will come crashing down. 

This may seem dramatic, but these exact tactics and fake urgency messaging are becoming more and more common for social causes. What was once contained to political campaigns is rapidly spreading into social impact marketing and appeals. 

And there’s a good reason why. 

In today’s episode, we cover: 

  • Why this shift into transactional marketing is becoming more common.
  • Different transactional marketing traps and the problems they create. 
  • How you can embody a brand-building approach to create deeper, lasting support with your community. 




If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends in social impact content and campaigns, then what I’m about to describe is probably unfortunately very familiar. 

You’re scrolling through your inbox and see a message from an organization you support. But something’s not quite right. 

The subject line reads “URGENT! WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!”

You open the email, only to be bombarded with more fake urgency around hitting an important fundraising deadline and how you, and only you, can make that happen and you just have to donate RIGHT NOW OR ELSE the organization will fail miserably and the entire world will come crashing down. 

I wish I were being overly dramatic in this example, but these exact tactics and fake urgency messaging is becoming more and more common for social causes. 

What was once contained to political campaigns is rapidly spreading into social impact marketing and appeals. 

And there’s a good reason why. 

This urgent, fear-based messaging WORKS. It works really well, actually. But what’s the long-term cost?

I can’t tell you how many brands I’ve reluctantly unsubscribed from over the last couple of years. Organizations I care deeply about. That are doing genuinely good work and creating important impact for the world.

But these organizations all fell into the transactional marketing trap. 

And this fake urgency approach is only one of many transactional marketing traps we’re seeing social impact brands fall for today. Although this particular trap seems pretty obvious and easy to avoid, there are many others that are way less obvious but equally insidious. 

In today’s episode, we’re making the case for a different approach to your marketing. A case for playing the long game. And a passionate argument against short-sighted, transactional marketing. 

The antidote to transaction marketing — this long-game approach — is brand-building. 

Brand-building is supported on a foundation of respect, honesty, integrity, and value creation for your community. And when you embody a brand-building philosophy for your social impact content and campaigns, you’ll build a fierce and loyal community of advocates and ambassadors for your mission. 

In today’s episode, we cover why this shift into transactional marketing is becoming more common, different transactional marketing traps and the problems they create, and how you can embody a brand-building approach to create deeper, lasting support with your community. 

Let’s get to it. 


Part 1: Why Transactional Marketing Is Becoming More Common

What’s driving this growing adoption of transactional marketing practices in the first place?

Although it might feel like it, marketing hasn’t always been this way.

Organizations used to take a much more brand-forward approach to marketing. And although there’s always been different forms of transactional marketing at play, they were usually supported by larger brand-building strategies.

[Tooltip: Organizations used to be more brand-forward with their marketing]

And that all changed when more and more of our interactions with brands started happening through digital platforms and channels. 

Suddenly, marketers had exponentially more data and metrics providing detailed insights around which campaigns, messages, and approaches to their marketing were converting and driving engagement with their audience. 

[Tooltip: Marketing has become more data-driven & analytical]

This had been the holy grail for marketing since before the Mad Men era of big advertising. You’ve probably heard the famous quote by John Wanamaker who once said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

So all of this data and metrics is great, right? Not entirely. 

Over time, marketers have become hyper-focused on these metrics. A/B testing every element of their campaigns. Optimizing every step for conversions, donations, and sales. 

But this has all gone way too far. 

Today, our digital culture feels like navigating a precarious maze of transactional marketing trip wires and booby traps.

Because slowly but steadily, behind the scenes of this marketer’s dream come true, the experience and relationship we have with most brands today feels transactional, extractive, and sometimes even straight up dishonest.   

And, unfortunately, social impact organizations are part of this growing problem. 

[Tooltip: Social impact brands are part of this growing problem]

Facing the challenges posed by the attention economy, we’ve been trained to focus primarily on short-term performance metrics at the micro-campaign level. 

But we’re losing sight of the larger trends. Public trust with philanthropy and social impact brands are down. Giving is down across the board. Conscious consumers are growing skeptical of the authenticity of impact-driven brands and marketing.

And when your social impact marketing isn’t approached from a brand-building philosophy, you’re not just missing out on growing and activating your community of supporters — you might be actively driving them away. 

[Tooltip: Transactional marketing actively drives away your supporters]

Luckily, there’s a middle ground between complete trust in brand-building and this transactional marketing tradeoff.

You can approach your marketing from a brand-building perspective and still use these new tools and technologies. 

[Tooltip: Brand building can be supported by data-driven marketing]

And when you find this middle ground, the true power of brand and technology shine most brightly. 


Part 2: Different Transactional Marketing Traps and The Problems They Create

Now that we’ve covered some reasons why transactional marketing is a growing problem in and out of the social impact space, let’s break down some of the common transactional marketing traps we see, and why they are so problematic over the long term. 

We’ve already illustrated an extreme example of fake urgency earlier in the episode, but it’s worth revisiting again briefly. Communicating a sense of urgency is a very effective way to drive action from your community. People want to step up and help out when it matters most, and when something big is on the line. 

And when you have a truly urgent need or call to action, by all means, share that with your community. But when everything is urgent, all the time, it waters down your message and your community will quickly begin to question if your appeals are truly urgent at all. Then, when you do have an authentically urgent need, you’ve lost your credibility and opportunity to elevate that ask or call to action above the noise you’ve created by your own doing.

Fake urgency, at its core, is a dishonest practice and rightfully damages your reputation as a brand. 

Number 2: Fear-based messaging

Fear is a strong human emotion, and one of the most powerful psychological shortcuts to driving action. And fear-based messaging is a very common transactional marketing tactic used to capture and convert attention in social impact content and campaigns.

But just like with fake urgency, when you oversaturate your content with fear-based messaging, it ultimately starts to hurt your brand reputation and relationship with your community. 

It’s ok, and important, to talk about the problem you are working to solve. And educating your community about this problem, in new and creative ways, is a great content strategy. But if you do this from a fear-based approach, without countering that with optimism, hope, and stories of progress, you’re ultimately telling a story counter to your goals.

If your audience only hears about how big the problem is and how it’s growing, they aren’t learning how your organization is creating positive change and meaningful impact. You look like you aren’t doing your job. 

People want to support organizations that are making a true and tangible difference. Make sure your content doesn’t lean too fear-based and communicate the opposite message.

Number 3: A high ask-to-give ratio

Have you ever donated to a nonprofit, or purchased from a social enterprise, only to be asked to donate or buy again right away? 

Just like any brand, you ultimately need to deliver true value to your community. That value can show up in many ways as a social impact brand. 

The ultimate goal, of course, is to deliver value in the form of measurable impact for your mission. But there are small, but powerful, ways to deliver value along the way. 

As a social impact organization with learned experiences and expertise within your category, you’re uniquely positioned to provide valuable insights and lead the conversation with your community.

From stories of impact, to educational content about your issue area, to trends and opinions from your team that communicate your point of view, you have an opportunity to provide valuable content to your audience. 

Of course, you need support from your audience. From donations, to purchasing products, to sharing stories, to spreading the word, to taking action, activating and engaging your community is a critical element to your social impact strategy and operating model.

The big idea here is to pay careful attention to your give to ask ratio. Just like any healthy relationship, you have to reach a mutually beneficial and respectful balance and an equal exchange of energy and value. 

Generally, we’re big fans of targeting a three to one give to ask ratio in your content strategy. Put simply, for every four pieces of content distributed to your community, the primary focus of three should be on giving value to your community and just one primarily focused on asking for support. This ensures that the overall experience for your supporters feels valuable and balanced. 

Number 4: Truth-bending & misinformation

Although this is most common with political campaigns, other social impact brands are not immune to it. Of course, straight up misinformation is dishonest and never worth it in the long run. But there are more subtle traps to watch out for here too. 

Exaggerating your impact, or taking credit for work or progress that was a collaborative effort are more common forms of truth-bending that we see. 

Fake urgency again falls under this category. Performative campaigns and appeals, where the focus is on the appearance of impact but isn’t supported by a substantive or measurable plan or strategy. 

Another less discussed form of this is hiding your failures, or sweeping lack of progress or impact under the rug.

In today’s culture where information and truth are democratized, it’s more important than ever for brands to act with respect, honesty, and transparency. Brands who embody this philosophy stand out and earn loyal support from their community. 

Number 5: Transactional, low-effort content

Sometimes we all feel like we’re just feeding the never-satisfied content machine. Hitting a certain cadence, having a presence on all the different channels and platforms, including every little thing that happened this month in the monthly newsletter. 

Creating and distributing content is half the battle. But if you’re putting out low-effort, uninspired, dull content, you’re basically just checking off the boxes instead of realizing the true potential for effective brand-building through content-focused marketing.

Look, you’ve got to start somewhere. And consistency is critical for your content marketing to work. But you owe it to yourselves and your community to ensure that you are generating content that’s truly valuable, inspiring, creative, and effective. Otherwise, you’re just adding noise to the ever-growing stream of low-value content and wasting everyone’s time and energy. 

When you consider it this way, it’s a disrespectful action that can tarnish your brand reputation over time. 

Number 6: Unethical storytelling

By now, you’ve probably heard plenty of people preach the benefits of impact storytelling as a cornerstone of your content strategy. And there’s a good reason for it. Effective storytelling, rooted in human connection and emotion, is a proven strategy for capturing attention and growing support for your movement. 

But even storytelling can become transactional, or even extractive, if you aren’t considering how you are approaching it with your community. 

Often, when helping people who are facing hardships, struggles, or societal inequities, the stories that you share are highly personal, emotional, and even traumatic. And beyond that, these stories aren’t yours. They don’t belong to you. 

So when you’re asking individuals affected by these hardships, even individuals you may have helped, it’s your responsibility to do so ethically. 

This starts with an acknowledgement that these stories are not yours, and that they have value. If someone agrees to share a story, they’re giving you something of value — and that value should be repaid. This might be a financial reimbursement, or other forms of value exchange from your organization.

You should also consider building expertise and training for your team for trauma-informed approaches to soliciting stories from your community. Sometimes even the act of telling these stories can retrigger or perpetuate traumatic experiences. 

Human-centered, emotional storytelling is a powerful and important pillar of your content strategy. Just be sure to approach it respectfully and empathetically with your audience, or you risk becoming transactional and extractive — even if that’s not your intention. 

These are just some of the common transactional marketing traps that we see. Once you’re trained to be on the lookout for them, you’ll start to see just how prevalent they’ve become in our digitally-driven culture. 

But if transactional marketing isn’t the right long term solution, how does brand-building nurture meaningful relationships and support for your cause? And how can you adopt a brand-building approach to your social impact content and campaigns? Let’s find out.  


Part 3: A Case Study in Effective Brand-building

We’ve covered the reasons behind this growing issue of transactional marketing and reviewed some of the common transactional marketing traps we see in the real world. 

But what does a brand-building approach look like, and how can you build a social impact brand that nurtures meaningful relationships with your community and supporters?

Before we get into the specific strategies, there’s a really important example of a brand — and more specifically, a particular campaign — that is the quintessential case study of an organization with a relentless commitment to brand-building. 

I almost hate to use this example here, because when we started this podcast I made a commitment to avoid using this brand as an example. But, it’s just too good to hold out on this one. 

This brand, probably not too surprisingly, is Patagonia. 

I know I know, a poster child of social impact brands. A go-to example. But, for good reason. 

And one of the best examples of an organization committed to playing the long game. 

From the beginning, they’ve focused on sustainability in all meanings of the word. 

Skipping short term gains to live by their founding values, they’re almost rebellious in their commitment to pioneering new approaches in the fashion and apparel industry. An industry notorious for wasteful practices and unapologetic transactional marketing. 

Patagonia has many different brand-building strategies they’ve used and continue to use to power a die-hard, maybe even cult-like, level of support. 

I could talk about their worn wear program, which allows customers to repair, trade-in, or buy used patagonia gear to help reduce the amount of clothing going to the landfill. Or their Patagonia Provisions product line, which produces sustainable adventure-ready foods to fuel your next big outdoor expedition. Or their broader commitment to sustainability, sourcing, inventing, and championing high quality, lasting products that hold up in everyday life and the natural elements. 

But the specific campaign I want to cover is an even better example. And it’s probably one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns of our modern era. 

In 2011, Patagonia placed a full page ad in the New York Times. The ad featured a simple photo of a Patagonia jacket covering the entire page, crowned by a provocative headline that read, “Don’t buy this Jacket.” 

The brilliance of this campaign is that it’s so perfectly aligned with their values and culture as a brand. 

[Tooltip: Patagonia’s campaign aligns authentically with the brand’s core values and culture]

It boldly and confidently communicates a message that defies transactional marketing norms. 

And the chef’s kiss? This ad ran on Black Friday, which might as well be a transactional marketing holiday. 

You might be thinking this was just a smart PR move by Patagonia. And it was a smart PR move. In fact, sales from the campaign outperformed their baseline performance by 30%. 

So did the campaign actually backfire in its strategy to reduce consumption? 

It would have, if Patagonia didn’t back this campaign up with The Common Threads Initiative, a program that spearheaded much of the impressive improvements in sustainability efforts that Patagonia has continued to invest in to this day. 

It’s precisely because they had a track record of authentic and measurable impact supported by a strong brand reputation that we can call this campaign a success by all measures and not just purposeful marketing hype.

[Tooltip: Patagonia’s brand is built on authentic and measurable real-world actions]

This example showcases how strategic brand-building, approached and applied consistently and creatively, outperforms transactional marketing and wins the hearts and minds of your community. 

[Tooltip: Patagonia’s brand-building campaigns outperform transactional marketing approaches]

And the best news? You can use these same strategies for your social impact brand. We get to that next. 


Part 4: Adopting a Brand-Building Approach

Most of us aren’t in a position to market like Patagonia, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adopt a brand-building approach to your social impact content and marketing strategy.

Let’s cover some practical and actionable steps you can take for your social impact brand. 

Number 1: Know Your Values & Culture

If you don’t have a clear sense of what’s authentic for your brand, it’s going to be more difficult to know what marketing activities are supporting brand-building vs. transactional marketing. 

Number 2: Understand Your Core Community

You also need to understand your core community. Deeply. Focus on creating content, messages, and campaigns that speak directly to your bullseye community members and die-hard supporters. If you try to appeal to a broader audience, you’re already slipping into another transactional marketing trap

Number 3: Expand Your Horizons

Let me be clear. You should absolutely measure engagement, conversion, and other metrics for your campaigns. Branding and Marketing is an art and a science. But don’t get caught in assessing every single post or email or campaign in a silo. Look at the larger trends and evaluate your marketing as a whole. Think months, not weeks or days. 

Remember, brand building is the long game. You have to give it a chance to play out before you call it a flop and revert back to short-term tactics. 

Number 4: Market with Empathy

Before you press “post,” or plan your next campaign, take a moment to put yourself in your ideal supporter’s shoes. Would you want to be on the receiving end of whatever it is you’re communicating or creating? Is it providing real, tangible value for your community? Or is it adding more noise to our overflowing content streams and channels? 

Number 5: Remember that Brand-Building is Continuous

Every choice you take, every action you make, is either strengthening or diluting your brand message and reputation. More than ever brands and individuals are pumping out low-effort, transactional content and marketing to feed the content machine. We are entering the era of authenticity, and we will become more discerning than ever around which brands to support and which brands to ignore and forget.

Number 6: Brand-Building is Co-Created by Your Community

Brand-building is not a one-way street. It’s co-created by you and your community of supporters. This is only possible with deep listening, learning, and open and transparent communication with your community. Being willing to accept constructive criticism, remain brutally honest, and develop a learning mindset as an organization are critical to the success of brand-building and your organization.

Number 7: Brand-Building Transcends Marketing

Although brand-building as a philosophy should inform your content, campaigns, and marketing strategies and actions, it’s important to remember that true brand building is a result of the actions that you take every day outside of your marketing. Are your choices, investments of time and resources, and real-world decisions supporting the brand you are building? If not, you’re cause marketing quickly becomes inauthentic cause washing. 

I hope these ideas are a helpful starting point to get your gears turning around how you might rethink your social impact brand strategy. I won’t pretend the brand-building way is the easy way, but the rewards are well worth the effort. 



Today we explored the important distinction between transactional marketing and brand-building. The short game vs. the long game. A focus on performance vs. a focus on partnership.

We outlined some of the common transactional marketing traps from fake urgency, fear-based messaging, and a high ask-to-give ratio, to truth-bending, misinformation, low-effort content, and unethical storytelling. 

We studied best-in-class brand-building strategies through Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign and their relentless commitment to authenticity to their community.

And we outlined some specific tips and insights for how you can embody a brand-building approach for your social impact organization. To practice effective brand-building, you have to know your values and culture, understand your core community, expand your horizons, market with empathy, and continuously co-create your brand in partnership with your community. 

Before you post your next message or plan your next campaign, remember to take a moment to pause, reflect, and honestly answer this question:

Is this approach building my brand and providing value for my community? Or am I thinking about my marketing and my mission transactionally? 

The brand-building way is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re listening to this podcast, and you’ve made it this far, I have a feeling that you’ve got the courage and the creativity to join us in our commitment to playing the long game. Because at the end of the day, it’s just a better game to play. 



1 Candid: Trust in nonprofits, philanthropy continues to decline, study finds,

2 Charity Navigator: Giving Is Down


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