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Innovation in Cause Marketing

I’m reading Steven Johnson’s fine 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and there’s a terrific lesson therein for cause marketers looking to bring fresh thinking to their cause marketing campaigns.

Johnson writes about the invention of neonatal incubators, which date from the late 1870s. On a walk through the Paris Zoo, Obstetrician Stephane Tarnier paid particular attention to the chicken incubators. Infant mortality rates, even in a sophisticated time like the Third Republic, were horrifyingly high. Tarnier wondered if an incubator for infants would help save lives.

Tarnier hired the Zoo’s poultry raiser to build an incubator for infants to test his hypothesis. Knowing that his fellow Frenchmen were in thrall of Descartes and sticklers for measurement and statistics, Tarnier kept careful records. The results of the baby incubator experiment were stunning.

Sans the incubator, 66 percent of low-weight babies in Tarnier's hospital died. With the infant incubators only 38 percent of low-weight babies died, basically halving the mortality rate. Baby incubators were soon mandated in all Paris hospitals. Not long thereafter they became a kind of curiosity and cause célèbre. For nearly 50 years, baby incubators were sideshow attractions. Coney Island in New York had a permanent baby incubator show until the early 1940s.

In time, oxygen supplementation and other improvements were made to the incubators such that between the years of 1950 and 1998, infant mortality declined by 75 percent in the United States. You can draw a direct line between the use of incubators and the increase of the average American lifespan.

Wouldn’t baby incubators, therefore, be a splendid addition to countries where infant mortality remains high?

Yes they would. But the problem isn’t the expense, although they can cost upwards of $40,000 each. The problem with baby incubators in the developing world is maintenance, parts, know-how, and power that doesn’t blink on and off erratically.   

Knowing this, Timothy Prestero of MIT and the design firm called Design that Matters scouted around for a way to build incubators for the developing world, mostly fruitlessly.

But in time, Prestero hooked up with a Boston doctor named Jonathan Rosen, who had noticed that even in the smallest village, locals seemed to be able to keep their Toyota 4-Runners running. Thus inspired, Prestero and his team built a baby incubator made of, no kidding, Toyota parts. Sealed headlamps provide the heat. Car fans provide the ventilation, and car horns provide the alarms. The incubator can run on a motorcycle battery. They call the device the NeoNurture. That's one on the left.

Constructing things from sources at hand is called bricolage, a French word that I learned from Johnson's book.

Here’s how the story comes back to cause marketing:
“Good ideas,” (read: ‘good cause marketing’) “are like the NeoNurture device. They are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus.”
There’s a lesson therein for cause marketers everywhere.

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