It’s better to be Marmite than mediocre

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It’s better to be Marmite than mediocre

It’s better to be Marmite than mediocre

Many charities view emotions as dangerous and unpredictable – but they are the rocket fuel of effective fundraising, according to Nick Thomas at Campfire Marketing…

Last month I was enjoying a break in Sorrento and noticed a Marc Chagall exhibition being advertised just off the main square, so went to have a peek. Chagall was an early modernist painter famous for his fearless use of colour. What he may have lost in accurate depiction he more than made up for in emotional clout.

Taking in his extraordinarily bold paintings, etchings and glasswork, it was impossible to feel neutral about his work; while I was a fan, many around me clearly weren’t. Chagall would have been delighted, as with all great painters he believed the role of art was to arrest, to polarise and create emotion.

At the exit of the exhibition, I noticed a quote from the artist: ‘If I can create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head almost nothing.’

I’m no Chagall but this neatly sums up my career as a creative fundraiser. When I’ve created work designed to get an emotional reaction, invariably it has succeeded; when I’ve created from a rational point of view, it hasn’t.

So if it works so well why don’t I produce all my work with an emotional focus you may ask? The simple answer is that in the modern fundraising world it’s not always so easy to do, because for many charities, emotions are viewed as dangerous, unpredictable or worse - marmite. It’s a sad truth that for many, when it comes to fundraising it’s better to be bland than upset someone.

The rocket fuel of fundraising

Which is a serious dilemma because emotion is the rocket fuel of fundraising and always has been. Long ago fundraisers realised that emotion is why people gave and being rational is why they didn’t. It’s easy to look back and scoff at the heavy handedness of some charity advertising of the past but the best examples had an emotional power lacking in much fundraising today.

Today the fundraising success formula remains the same. That’s why at Campfire the first question on our creative brief is ‘How do we want the recipient to feel?’ Our clients are happy for us to emphasise this, I like to think they work with us because they want us to evoke strong feelings, and yes even be a little marmite. They accept that although strong marketing might upset a few people along the way, in doing so it will attract many others.

Marmite pays dividens

I recall two instances when ‘being marmite’ like this has paid enormous dividends. The first was World Wildlife Fund and their first legacy marketing campaign. In development, we discovered the startling fact that over 70% of people die without making a Will, so we presented some ideas dramatising this fact. In the face of huge pressure from some within the organisation who were worried the idea was too ‘emotionally charged’, our client ran with it and was rewarded with millions of pounds in new legacy income.

The second was for Help the Aged, now Age UK (see image below). To provide a backdrop for a major Winter appeal we wanted to expose the dangers facing elderly people when temperatures fall. We unearthed the statistic that thousands die from cold related causes and created a media and poster campaign to illustrate this fact.


Initially the organisation struggled with the ‘confrontational’ theme but their Chief Executive got behind the approach. For five days he held fast over numerous media interviews and defended the charity’s right to expose this scandal. The charity made enemies but recruited 20,000 new donors and helped force the government to award heating grants to the elderly.

Expensive marketing is the sort that people don’t notice.

I’ve heard the lament that it’s all too easy in these play-it-safe times to produce mediocre fundraising work – but I say it’s extraordinarily difficult. You’ve really got to be pretty calculated to produce work that doesn’t register at all on someone’s emotional Richter scale.

In my experience, human beings are like balls of unexploded emotion ready to engage with you at the slightest provocation and to help you. To not trigger even a flicker must mean that you’ve produced something either totally derivative or completely devoid of passion.

It’s time to be bolder and, if necessary, ruffle a few feathers. Fundraising is serious work, in the business of saving lives, alleviating misery and righting horrific injustices; we shouldn’t concern ourselves with petty sensibilities if we’re making the world a better place. Because after all, if we can’t get worked up about our cause then why should anybody else?

Nick Thomas is co-Founder and Creative Partner at Campfire Marketing

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