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Lessons on Cause Marketing From Fred Astaire

In 1946 Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly did an extended song and dance number called the Babbitt and the Bromide in the 1946 MGM musical Ziegfeld Follies. (That’s it on the left) The music was by George and Ira Gershwin and the choreography by Astaire and Kelly, the only time they collaborated while both men were yet in their prime. One thing you notice is that Astaire’s blue socks are visible because his pants were hemmed rather high.

It was a classic case of showmanship.

As was typical of the choreography of both men, when Astaire and Kelly danced together their steps mirrored each other. Moreover, they're dressed identically. Why, then, was the great Astaire wearing ‘floods’? In 1946 Astaire was already 47 years old and Kelly was 13 years his junior. By rights Kelly should have left Astaire in the dust. But still I couldn’t help looking first and most often at the immortal Fred Astaire.

(A few years later in the 1954 MGM musical Brigadoon, Kelly did the exact same thing to his dance co-star Van Johnson by wearing high-hemmed pants showing red socks. Van Johnson was four years younger than Kelly.)

Little wonder, I suppose. Fred Astaire was so talented, a famous perfectionist, and a grindingly hard worker yet he still 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 might be as skilled as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly!

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.”

In short, Fred Astaire was practicing showmanship. Maybe even gamesmanship.

Like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire you may be doing the same dance… the same bunch of cause marketing steps… that other sponsors or respectable and worthy causes are doing.

What do you do to stand out?

More on that in a moment.

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 couldn’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.

Ronald Reagan may have won the 1984 election in a debate with Walter Mondale when he said at age 73, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

Someone wrote that joke for Reagan; it certainly wasn’t impromptu. But as a showman Reagan knew exactly when to bust it out. Even Mondale laughed at the time. What else could he do?

A showman’s greatest technique might be his professionalism or apparent imperturbability. The American writer Mark Twain had intertwining careers as both a writer and a speaker. When he spoke his humor and wit seemed perfectly 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. The great British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who we think of as an unflappable man of the moment, was also a man of meticulous speech preparations.

Some of the same lessons apply to cause marketing.

If you’re a charity or sponsor, look around. No matter how worthy your cause or campaign, you’ve got competition. For money and attention.

How do you make sure that your campaign stands out?

I've already offered three suggestions. Fred Astaire and Ronald Reagan practiced great showmanship. Mark Twain and Winston Churchill prepared and polished with enormous professionalism. All of them were tireless workers.

And all brought great panache to their performances.

But by showmanship I don’t mean “cutting through the clutter,” per se. We all are bombarded by thousands of messages a day, commercial and otherwise. That’s clutter. One of the appeals of cause marketing is that by itself it can help cut through the clutter.

Instead, what I want to highlight are three media choices that can help your cause marketing campaign ‘flash a little blue sock’ while everyone else contents themselves to show you their plain old pant leg.

For a ‘sale’ (whatever that means to you) to take place a customer typically moves from awareness of your product/service along a continuum to interest, then to desire, commitment and finally action.

For the sake of brevity let’s just say that there are six basic tactical media choices available to marketers:
  1. Mass media (in its many varieties)
  2. Public relations
  3. Direct mail
  4. Internet including social media
  5. Events
  6. Personal communications.

Depending on the campaign, the audience and the budget, all may have a role to play. But the most efficient media are those that can move the sales process from interest to action in one fell swoop. While there are always exceptions, mass media can’t do that. Neither can public relations or direct mail.

But certainly the Internet and social media can. So too can events and personal communications.

As you plan your cause marketing campaigns work to make the most of these three media.

Do it right, with showmanship, professionalism, hard work, and panache, and like Fred Astaire it will be your campaign people notice, no matter who else is also dancing.


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