7 Cause Marketing Lessons from Machiavelli

Nevermind I wrote this post last year. It will live forever!

Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian diplomat who wrote the classical treatise The Prince 500 years ago, probably would have been a big fan of cause marketing. For a man so interested in statecraft, Machiavelli would appreciate the bottom-line benefits of cause marketing to causes and companies.

Some have called Machiavelli a manipulator. I see him more as a realist. He was practical and committed to getting things done - in any way possible.

That doesn't mean Machiavelli didn't believe in ethics, morals and scruples. He did, but not just because doing good was the right thing. It was frequently the best thing for any savvy prince to get what he wanted.

While Machiavelli never bought a pinup to help children made orphans by the plague, or "liked" a Facebook page to trigger a donation from the powerful Medici family in Florence that would support local artists (including some guy named Michelangelo), Machiavelli's advice transcends the renaissance and politics. It can arm us for the effort between companies and causes to woo a new prince: consumer attention, favor and their all-mighty dollar.

"God is not willing to do everything, and thus take away our free will and that share of glory which belongs to us."

Machiavelli lived during a time when unbelievers were burned as heretics for denying the omniscience of God. Nevertheless, he asserts that men and women need to play a more active role in accomplishing their goals. This is true for your cause as well. You're waiting for donors, fate, luck, even God to save you when opportunities like cause marketing and social media may help you save yourself.

"Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are."

As we learned from the controversy surrounding a cause marketing promotion between Kentucky Fried Chicken and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, cause promotions are about marketing and perception, not truth and reality. Smart causes leverage their strongest emotional appeal in cause marketing campaigns to engage consumers quickly and powerfully. Other nonprofits worry that this one appeal is limiting and won't accurately reflect its full mission. You'll have plenty of time to explain and expand on your work after you set an emotional hook, which cause marketing provides.

"Men are driven by two principal impulses, either by love or by fear."

The emotional appeal for cause marketing has to tap something that consumers either deeply love (e.g. pets, green spaces, children) or seriously fear. When consumers donate to cancer causes, it's done out of fear. Fear that it will afflict us and our loved ones. Whether it's love or fear, your appeal should elicit a strong response from consumers.

"Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed. . . . Before all else, be armed."

Are you truly ready to try cause marketing, which demands staff, time, money and a stiff sail? Cause marketing is much easier when you have a partner already lined up. But what if you don't? Do you know enough about the practice to sell a prospective partner on it? Do you know how cause marketing can give businesses a competitive edge that goes beyond product and price? If you recruited a new partner tomorrow, what would be the first thing you'd do? Arm yourself for success. Or be prepared to fail.

"A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it."

There are lots of great resources and people to help new cause marketers. Cause Marketing Forum is one of the best, but there are also people online you can follow and learn from. Larger companies and causes are also good teachers. Check out the cause marketing programs CMF honored earlier this month with Halo Awards. Your program probably won't be as successful as theirs, but it will have a "tinge of it" and you'll be on your way.

"Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great. "

Nothing is accomplished without enthusiasm. If you're excited about and committed to cause marketing you'll overcome any hurdle, meet any challenge. But if you're just going through the motions because your boss told you to, expect half-hearted results from your half-hearted effort. Machiavelli said that nothing is accomplished without danger. But no danger was ever surmounted without a strong will to succeed.

"The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar."

Try to view your cause marketing promotion through the eyes of everyday consumers and donors that are seeing your promotion for the first time in aisles, at checkout or on shopping sites. Examples abound of programs that may have had good intentions but didn't have the intended effect. Consider the Urban Outfitters t-shirt that benefited National Public Radio. Sold online by both NPR and Urban Outfitters, only tees sold in the nonprofit's online store raised money for public radio. But don't you think shoppers that bought the t-shirt on Urban Outfitters' site thought NPR would receive a portion of their purchase? There was nothing on the site saying that NPR would benefit. But what expectations did consumers have? How do you think they felt about Urban Outfitters when they learned the truth?

Machiavelli believed that success meant constantly adapting for the times. When cause marketing was first introduced in the 1980's it represented a new kind of corporate giving that smart causes and companies latched on to. With the rise of the web in the late 1990's, together they explored online initiatives. The progress continued as social media platforms were introduced and developed. Today, innovative nonprofits and businesses are embracing location-based marketing, QR codes and mobile technology for cause marketing.

For Machiavelli, a prince's success depends on his ability to prepare for the future and execute his designs without fear, hesitation or regret. If you add transparency, honesty and authenticity to these cause marketing lessons from Machiavelli you'll avoid becoming the cunning, grasping Machiavellian that The Prince sought to overthrow.