Carrots and marketing to the poor

Baby carrots aren’t actually “baby carrots.”  They’re cut carrots that were originally “seconds,” carrots that were too small or deformed to meet supermarket standards.  One day Mike Yorosek , a carrot grower, had the clever idea of peeling and cutting them, putting them in a bag, and seeing if they would sell.  (“Bunny balls,” his other idea, never caught on.)   The rest is history.

Lately, things have gotten tough in the carrot business.

With the recession, people started spending less overall, and when spending picked up again, people bought less-expensive whole carrots.  These end up in refrigerator purgatory – the vegetable drawer – where they’re not eaten.  So while people HAVE carrots, they don’t eat them, and the carrot industry suffers.

Jeff Dunn, who until recently oversaw Coca-Cola’s North and South American operations, is the CEO of Bolthouse, one of two big growers in the North American carrot market.  Faced with flat sales, Jeff is setting out on an aggressive new campaign and he’s totally ignoring all the “benefits” of his product.  He’s not trying to market carrots as a better, healthier alternative to junk food; he’s trying to market carrots AS a junk food…catchy Cheetos-like mascot, crinkly packaging and all.

Image courtesy of Fast Company Magazine - Still life by Jamie Chung

What can we learn from this carrot marketing fable?

A lot is made in the poverty-alleviation space of how we overlook and ignore the voice and the preferences of the beneficiaries of our work.  Well-intentioned, we talk to people about health benefits, about money saved and doctors’ trips averted and days in school, all the while ignoring that this isn’t how you market anything well.  Rich people buy shampoo because of a sense of aspiration, belonging, a story they’re telling about themselves to themselves and to others – why oh why would poor people think or act any differently?  “Benefits” don’t sell.

This is happening for one of two reasons:

  1. Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
  2. Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

(let’s leave aside, for now, that we need a whole lot less ivory tower and a whole lot more people from and of the communities being served).

It’s easy to tell the story of disrespect, but it might be that the people pushing hand-washing, bednets and solar-powered lanterns simply don’t have the same marketing chops as the folks in Atlanta (Coke).

It’s about time we look seriously at what products, outside of alcohol and tobacco, are being successfully marketed to the poor:  cellphones, obviously, and mobile payments; maybe Lifebouey soap or microloans or kerosene (yes, kerosene too.)

It’s time to understand what sells and WHY, and it’s time to take the notion seriously that one of the best things we could do to make a positive impact is to get better at selling things – even free things – to people who need them.  It’s time to take seriously the notion of BUILDING markets, and not just building solutions.  And any efforts that lead with “it’s good for you” had better end up on the cutting room floor.

Fundraising tip

Silence is your friend.

When you’ve shared the great work that you’re doing, when the person across the table from you is clearly excited and ready to jump in with both feet, and when you’ve asked them to make a significant donation…then be quiet.

They probably feel a little uncomfortable at this exact moment.  You probably do too.

If you’re an empathetic person (which you obviously are), you’ll be dying to rescue them from being uncomfortable, and you’ll do it by filling in the silence.

Don’t do it.

If the partnership is the right one, and the funding decision is the right one, then the kindest thing you can do is stay quiet.

Let them fill the silence by saying yes.

Enough with the bad news

You can subscribe to this blog using an RSS Feed (like Google Reader), or by signing up by email. I hope you do one or the other.

(NOTE: for those who find the phrase “RSS Feed” terrifying, it’s actually very simple. Google Reader, for example, is just a web page that puts all of your blog feeds into one place. It’s great.)

The email subscription for my blog is run by Feedburner. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Feedburner site. As long as it is easy for people to sign up for email updates I’m happy.

But Feedburner has one setting that has, slowly and persistently, been wearing me down. Feedburner’s default notification is that I receive an email every time someone unsubscribes from my blog, but I don’t get an email when someone subscribes.

Put another way: the default setting is to send me bad and discouraging news.

So, for the past few years, I’ve been occasionally getting emails like this:

Subject: so-and-so unsubscribed from Sasha Dichter’s Blog.

I almost wish the content were a little humorous. You know: “Sorry, we know you’ve been doing your best, but Sara decided to stop reading. It didn’t work out. Better luck next time.”

I let this continue for so long for two reasons. The first was inertia (finding the darn box to uncheck on the Feedburner site was difficult). But I also told myself that getting this feedback was important, because I could make some sort of connection between the unsubscribe rate and posts that I’ve written, and in so doing I’d improve as a blogger.

What I’ve figure out, though, is two things:

  1. The data are largely irrelevant. I have no idea if someone is unsubscribing because they have a new email address, because they started using an RSS reader, because they’d stopped reading months ago and finally got around to “blog housecleaning,” or because they actually didn’t like something I wrote. (plus it’s not even clear that creating strong reactions is itself a bad thing).
  2. My interest in getting the emails was a perverse form of rubbernecking. There’s a certain fascination with (and motivation) that comes from feedback that tells you you’re not doing a good enough job.

Enough already.  Yesterday I unchecked the box.

I finally figured out that this kind of negative feedback wasn’t helping me at all. It was feeding in to doubt, self-criticism and fear, and was making me more averse to taking risks. All bad stuff.

Are there places/people/things in your life that are set up ONLY to give you negative feedback? Have you been quietly telling yourself that it is useful or, worse, that you deserve it?

Any boxes in your life that you’ve been meaning to uncheck?

The list makes no sense without you

Try this: write down everything you currently do in your job.  Make a good, clear list with step-by-step instructions.  Imagine someone’s really going to read and use and follow this document.

Could they do it?  Could they follow all the steps and do what you do?

I hope not.

What you have to offer is so much more than a list.  We don’t need you to accomplish specified tasks that can be boiled down so succinctly.

We need the list to make no sense without you, because you are the one who makes things happen, who anticipates and makes things more joyful and surprising and unexpected for your customers and your co-workers.

We need the list to make no sense without you, because you naturally coach and mentor and advise and counsel people around you.

We need the list to make no sense without you, because even if some of the tasks seem small or less grandiose than you’d like them to be (right now), you do them with such relish, conviction, and quality that it always ends up being more than the sum of its parts.

We need the list to make no sense without you, because you are doing emotional work that has meaning and spirit and soul, and there’s no handbook for that.

Apply by Monday – looking for two great people

I’m looking for two great people to join my team, most likely in New York.  Both roles have incredible potential for impact.

One person, for the more junior role, is a crackerjack writer, thinker, synthesizer.  He or she will have wondered if her writing and organizational skills could be coupled with her passion for international issues and global development.  And she’ll discover that the answer is “yes.”

The other person, for the more senior role, is a fearless fundraiser, defined as I and you see this role in its fullest way and with all the strategic potential that implies.  This person will externally represent and build cornerstone partnerships for Acumen Fund, so she must be a natural storyteller and builder who has the grace, presence and poise to be thrust into any meeting or relationship (individual, institutional, corporate, government, you name it) and leave the person on the other end thinking, “Wow!”

The links above have all the specific details.

If this job is for you, or if you know someone you think is perfect, let me know AND apply directly.  We have audacious goals, for this team and for Acumen Fund, and I know we’ll get there.  I can’t wait to find the two people who are going to help make this happen.

The deadline is next Monday.  Please spread the word.

The nonprofit chasm

Here’s how a former CEO (for about a decade) of one of a well-known, well-respected U.S. charity started his story about his time there:

“It was a federated structure, so as CEO I raised only 20% of the money.  So of course I had no power and no authority.  Sure, I had it on paper, but really I had nothing.”

So here’s the chasm we have to cross in our sector: the good CEOs obviously get it, they understand that who you take money from is who you are; and they understand the inextricable link between what funds come in (and who brings them in) and power, strategy, and decision-making within the organization.

Yet at the same time there’s general agreement that nonprofit fundraising is still mostly broken, that fundraising jobs are career dead-ends, that fundraising is “overhead” (read: waste, something to be minimized).

Here’s a thought: let’s borrow a page from the corporate playbook.  Let’s take our best, highest-potential up-and-comers and put them through multi-year leadership rotations through ALL major functions in the organization (and no, it doesn’t count if they do 7 program rotations, one for each of your program areas, and then 1 “back office” rotation to cover HR, marketing, and fundraising).  That way no one gets to the top without having been on the front lines.

Oh, we also need a little more rabble-rousing.

Tax day

In the U.S., the taxman cometh tomorrow.  Most of us scramble to make the deadline, but we make it.  We get the forms signed, the extra work done, we dot our i’s and cross our t’s before time is up. The deadline is firm, so we deliver.

Why not create another deadline for yourself, right now, but instead of filing your taxes you’ll ship something really important that you’re stuck on.  If you already know that you push off your own deadlines, make them more like tax day:

  • Set up a meeting in which you promise to present your new findings
  • Decide you’re going to talk about this thing in a speech you’re giving next month
  • Email 10 friends right now and say “I’m writing something really important that will be ready on May 1st, can I send it to you and get your feedback?”
  • Tell your boss today that you’d like to meet with her about this in 10 days
  • Post on Facebook or Twitter that you’re getting this thing done next Friday, no matter what
  • Promise to stop eating – sweets, milk, dessert, breakfast cereal – until you send off your first draft

Deadlines are powerful, so go ahead and make one right now for something important to you.  Once it’s out there, I know you’ll deliver.

Oh, and don’t forget to mail in your taxes tomorrow.