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The Power of a Single Picture in Cause-Related Marketing

Best Buy and Fisher House

Early in my career a grizzled old veteran of marketing and communications for nonprofits said in a meeting “it’s all about the T-shirts.”

He meant that when it came to marketing and communications campaigns the biggest battles were often over the smallest things, like the T-shirt. Because when it comes to marketing and communications even if few people know the marcom concepts of ‘return of customer investment’ or, ‘share of requirement’ everybody from the CEO to the janitor understands T-shirts.

I’m now a grizzled old veteran and I beg to differ. Everybody seems to want input on T-shirts, that’s true enough. But it’s not all about the T-shirt.

No, in cause-related marketing campaigns one of the details you should obsess over is the picture… or pictures… that illustrates the cause.

Among other talents, these days an effective cause marketer better be a very good photo editor.

The classic example is Special Olympics. As soon as you see the kids racing in a pool, getting a medal, or reaching out to hug a volunteer, you know everything you need to know. The picture tells more than all the words that follow ever could.

A kid in a wheelchair in a hot air balloon tells almost the whole story for Make-A-Wish. Likewise, a woman wearing racing shorts, a pink logo T-shirt with a bandanna tied over a bald head sums up Susan G. Komen’s story with just one photo.

To a degree you can do the same with hospitalized kids. But it’s trickier. At Children’s Miracle Network… which raises money for 170 children’s hospitals in North America… we would never showcase a kid who subsequently died. It was considered to be exploitive and it cut against the cultural grain. Nor did we often use pictures of a child in a hospital bed with 20 tubes and hoses going into the child, although that image conveys plenty of information, too.

Other charities don’t have it so easy.

It would take a very talented photographer indeed to tell the whole story for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association with just one photo, for instance.

So imagine the challenge facing the Fisher House Foundation. Fisher House provides comfort housing for the families of military veterans receiving medical treatment at 33 locations across the United States, frequently near VA and other military hospitals and at low cost. It was founded in 1990 by Zachary Fisher, a New York City developer, philanthropist and patron of military veterans and causes.

In short, it’s the Ronald McDonald House for the families of injured military veterans.

But how do you illustrate that mission and purpose with one photo?

The image above from a sales flyer for Best Buy, shows us how. First of all we see the soldier in uniform, even if he isn’t wearing any insignia or rank. The uniformed services, including firefighters and police officers, of course have the advantage of well-recognized uniforms.

The photo also depicts the soldier sitting. It’s a little hard to make out, but the soldier is in fact an amputee. They could have depicted him standing and leaning on crutches but that’s potentially exploitive.

They also show him getting support from his smiling wife and baby daughter. While our heart goes out to him for the terrific sacrifice he’s made, this isn’t just about the soldier. The family also pays a price. And when you support the family you support the soldier, too.

The American flag background is expected, even if people outside the States might find it over the top. Americans come out of the womb as flag-wavers.

No photographer who considers himself or herself an artist would put this photo in their portfolio. It ain’t exactly art. But a self-respecting cause marketer could proudly put the photo in their portfolio. Because with just one image it goes a long way in describing the work of the Fisher House.


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