Cause-Related Marketing and William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, philanthropist, author, bon vivant and intellectual leader of American conservatism for more than 50 years, died a week ago today at the age of 82.

He was also the father of my favorite American political satirist, Christopher Buckley. As evidence of his versatility, the old man wrote a darn fine series of spy novels himself, many of them set during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

I had exactly one personal experience with Buckley. Personal in the sense that I (along with about 1800 other people) watched him debate the towering American economist John K. Galbraith on stage at Symphony Hall in Phoenix, Arizona.

I blogged about the experience on Nov. 6, 2007. As I wrote then, when Buckley started to lose a point to the physically-imposing Galbraith, he would back up to the curtains and start to make them sway, thereby drawing attention away from Galbraith.

Even in the nonprofit world it’s a crowded marketplace for resources and attention. And like Buckley, there are times when you'll need to practice showmanship to stand out.

In memory of William F. Buckley, may he rest in peace, here’s a re-run of that post.

I happened to catch a few moments of Gene Kelly and Van Johnson dancing in the 1954 MGM musical Brigadoon on television the other night.

As was typical of Kelly’s choreography, when he and Van Johnson danced together their steps mirrored each other. And Johnson, who was a pretty good hoofer, acquitted himself very well.

But still I couldn’t help looking first and most often at the immortal Kelly.

Little wonder, I suppose. Gene Kelly was so talented, famously perfectionist, and a grindingly hard worker who somehow managed to make every step look fluid and easy.

So much so that when the great Latvian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was considering defecting to the West during the bad old Soviet days, one thing that gave him pause was that all American dancers were as skilled as Kelly or Fred Astaire. Hah! (Baryshnikov once said of Astaire, “His perfection gives us complexes, because he’s too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity that’s hard to face.”)

All that’s a given. Even though Van Johnson was pretty good I had to force myself to watch him. As I did so, it finally came to me why it took effort to notice him there next to Kelly.

Part of the reason my eyes gravitated to Gene Kelly was that he wore his pant legs hemmed quite high (we called them ‘floods’ or ‘highwaters’ when I was a kid). As he danced you could see flashes of red socks peeking through. I couldn’t see any of Van Johnson’s socks, even though red socks were his trademark.

In other words, Gene Kelly was practicing showmanship. Maybe even gamesmanship.

John Wayne practiced showmanship, too. I saw an interview wherein he confessed that he developed his famous rolling walk early in his career… when he wasn’t the featured actor… so that when he was in a scene he wouldn’t be missed, even as a secondary character.

And it’s not just performers who employ the tricks and techniques of showmanship to make them get noticed.

I once watched a debate between William F. Buckley (who launched modern American conservatism) and John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent liberal economist. The debate took place on the stage of a large symphony hall and featured two podiums set about 10 feet apart.

Not far behind them was a massive floor-to-ceiling curtain. Galbraith was 6’9” tall (206 cm) and even in the cheap seats where I was you could see that he towered over Buckley. When Galbraith would score points, Buckley would aimlessly back up to the curtains and position himself between the folds where he would gently sway back and forth, drawing attention his way. It was a rude and brilliant act of stagecraft.

A showman’s greatest technique might be his professionalism or imperturbability. The American writer Mark Twain had intertwining careers as both a writer and a speaker. When he spoke he seemed off-the-cuff. But that was only because his preparations were so exhaustive. Twain would script not only his text, but also his asides and quips, and then rehearse it all until he appeared to be speaking extemporaneously.

Winston Churchill, who we think of as a completely unflappable man of the moment, did much the same when he gave speeches.

How does this relate to cause-related marketing? If you’re a charity, agency or sponsor, look around. No matter how worthy your cause or campaign you’ve got competition. Certainly for money, but also for people’s attention.

Like Gene Kelly and Van Johnson you may be doing the same dance… the same bunch of cause-related marketing steps… that other respectable and worthy causes are doing.

How do you make sure that your campaign stand out?

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