If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!

Nonprofits, Marketing, and Pop Culture

We love the Oscars, Grammys, Spirit Awards and more! Recent wins and nominations for Black Panther, Roma, BlacKkKlansman, and a slew of documentaries and foreign language films demonstrated that, in 2019, pop culture movies that embraced social justice themes received positive feedback from both critics and audiences alike.

Very few people would deny the impact that pop culture has on society. However, many nonprofits’ work to change society narrowly on changing laws or influencing government policies. But hearts and minds aren’t affected by political changes alone. Cultural shifts are often first made — and ultimately normalized — through mass media. From All in the Family in the ‘70s, to The Real World in the ‘90s, to Teen Mom today, pop culture is a vehicle that gets people talking about social issues in ways nonprofits may not able to.

So, how can your organization take advantage of impactful pop culture moments?

The first step is to shift your organization’s mindset around communications. Nonprofit communications have come a long way over the last 5-10 years by professionalizing their materials and integrating digital media. However, as audiences (and potential supporters) have become more sophisticated media consumers, communications teams need to focus more on marketing. While communications emphasizes the overall messages you’re sending to the world (such as your mission and vision), marketing focuses on differentiation — what makes your organization different from the hundreds of others out there? With that in mind, the content you produce should be viewed as marketing materials, and not just strictly communication items.

Target Audience

This goes beyond just print and social media. Any available “screen” can be used as an opportunity to get your message out, so think about including film, television and apps, too. Your marketing communications materials and various digital platforms should no longer be considered separate entities. Instead, any content your organization produces should be viewed as being one small part of a cohesive marketing platform, sharing a common theme.

Secondly, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! These days nonprofits must try to grab the attention of a public that’s constantly engaging with all kinds of content from a variety of platforms (including streaming services, social media, apps, and traditional media). Going up against Netflix, or Hulu, or the latest blockbuster movie is, frankly… not a battle your organization can easily win. So if you can’t beat the competition, work with them! Integrate this “competition” into your work. By referencing themes and impactful moments across different media, your organization demonstrates it’s on top of issues that are truly important to the community and can also expose your work to new audiences.

For example, one of the most talked about scenes from 2018’s Black Panther focused on bravery and humanity in the face of enslavement. If your organization focuses on issues of race and social justice, it would be beneficial to reference this powerful moment. But if your organization doesn’t meaningfully engage with pop culture, you can miss the importance these media moments have on people’s lives. In this case, by not tapping into pop culture, your organization would have missed a big opportunity to connect to the larger audience who really were impacted by the messages from this film.

black panther pop culture
? Marvel Studios

Finally, even a little can go a long way. The good thing about engaging with pop culture is that your organization can choose its level of involvement. Actions can be as simple as tweeting a meme, or hosting a Twitter chat or a webinar. You could also choose to do a little more work and develop an actual fundraising or awareness campaign. Your organization may even try to do some influencer/celebrity engagement to help tie into your mission. No matter how your organization chooses to engage, by integrating pop culture moments into your marketing, your organization can increase outreach and awareness of its mission, educate people on the issues, and have a little fun while doing so.

Want more information on making the shift to marketing? Need help with how to include pop culture into your work? Consider getting in touch with a consultant.