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How great marketing can change the world

Of all the fantastic sessions at Marketing United 2016, Scott Harrison’s was by far the most memorable. A newcomer to the MU stage, his presentation was unlike any other we’ve experienced at a marketing conference: Rather than laying out email design best practices or talking SEO, he simply shared how charity: water came to be.

For Scott’s powerful account of his time as a New York City club promoter, his first experience encountering the global water crisis, and his heart-wrenching anecdotes about the people he met along the way, we highly recommend watching his full talk.

But here, we wanted to focus on one specific topic he covered: How creative branding helped charity: water capture public attention and truly make a difference in the world.


How Scott Harrison built charity: water, the brand

663 million people don’t have access to clean water.

The majority live in isolated rural areas, where they spend hours every day walking to collect water for their families. And the water itself often carries diseases – diseases that kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. So after experiencing the horrors of the water crisis for himself, Scott founded charity: water with the hope of bringing clean drinking water to every person on the planet.

Scott decided that if charity: water was going to be a success, he'd need to do things a little differently. Here are three ways he used creativity and smart marketing to fundamentally transform the way people think about nonprofits.


Radical transparency

46% of Americans don’t trust charities. Headlines report CEOs of major nonprofits paying themselves millions of dollars every year, and people wonder, “Where is my money actually going when I make a donation?"

Scott knew that to make a real impact, he would have to find ways to address the pain points so many people have with nonprofit organizations by reinventing charity. So he came up with a new business model:

1. 100% of public donations would fund water projects. By depending on their board of directors, sponsors, and private donors to cover operational costs, he could ensure that every cent donated by the public went straight to the field.

2. Use data to show an impact. The public would be able to see every water point on Google Earth, track progress on every drilling rig via mounted GPS units, and easily surface information on every effort being made by the organization on their website.

3. Use data to show sustainability. charity: water worked with Google to develop sensors that would keep track of their wells’ health even after projects were considered complete. At the same time, they trained local mechanics to ensure that if projects had problems, someone nearby could quickly and efficiently resolve them.


Smart partnerships

Scott knew that to truly capture attention, he needed to build a brand people cared about. As he looked at the charitable sector, there was no Apple, no Nike, no Uber. During his talk at Marketing United, he referenced a quote Nick Kristof wrote in the New York Times:

“Toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than all of the world’s most life-saving causes.” 

It’s so true…  and it’s so sad. Somehow, many of the biggest nonprofits in the world still haven’t learned to market themselves. So to differentiate charity: water from the pack, Scott hired quality designers and marketers to develop tasteful campaigns on the level of the biggest brands out there. And he didn’t stop there – what better way to join the ranks of the biggest brands than by partnering with them?

One of charity: water’s first brand partnerships was with Saks Fifth Avenue. Scott approached them about working together with an interesting pitch: “You sell $5000 handbags – I sell $5000 water projects.” (The marketers at MU had a good laugh from that one.) But to his surprise, they actually went for it. Saks Fifth Avenue included charity: water in their catalogs for two seasons, and they gave him their store windows in cities like New York, Beverly Hills, and Chicago. They told their customers, their employees, and their vendors about the water crisis, and in the end, the campaign raised over $700,000.

Later, Macallan approached charity: water with another crazy idea: They were going to take a special edition 64-year-old whiskey – their absolute finest offering – on a world tour to raise money for charity: water. People in each city would have to donate $5,000 to taste 10 centiliters of the stuff. The craziest thing about it? It worked, and that single bottle raised $605,000.


Powerful storytelling

Ever since he founded charity: water, Scott has looked for every possible way to build on their momentum and reach more people with their story. Social media has played a huge role in that: charity: water was the first non-profit to get a million Twitter followers and the first charity to get on Instagram. Along with their regular efforts, here are two of their biggest, most impactful marketing campaigns so far.

“Donate your birthday” campaign

Scott has found that the most powerful story-telling comes from when he doesn't try and make the organization the hero but instead puts the focus on everyday heroes like their supporters, their beneficiaries, and their partners.

A prime example of this? Their  “Donate Your Birthday” campaign. Inspired by an email Scott sent on his own 31st birthday, this is what the campaign entails: In lieu of gifts, people ask friends and family for their age in donations for charity: water (e.g. $10 from people for a 10-year-old, $25 for a 25-year-old). Celebrities like Adam Lambert, Tony Hawk, Jack Dorsey, Will and Jada Smith have all gotten involved, but what’s most inspiring are the regular people who have made a huge impact.

During his presentation, Scott shared the story of Rachel, a 9-year-old girl who donated her birthday and set a goal of $300. She came up a little short, raising just $220, and vowed to try again the next year.

A few weeks later, she was killed in a tragic car accident, so her family re-opened her campaign to honor her last birthday wish. The story went viral online... and she ended up raising over 1.2 million dollars. Afterward, charity: water invited Rachel’s mom and grandparents to Ethiopia so they could see the impact she was able to make. Here’s a look at their experience and the monumental power of a single story:

Virtual reality

charity:water also utilizes new technology to create empathy and bring people closer to the water crisis. Wanting to experiment with virtual reality, their team created an 8-minute film, “The Source,” which follows a young girl named Selam through her day-to-day life, from walking for dirty water to celebrating a new well in her village.

In one of their most ambitious marketing efforts yet, charity: water showed the film to over 500 attendees at their 10th-anniversary gala. Using donated virtual reality headsets, everyone present was able to experience the film at the exact same time. That effort alone – one single, 8-minute video – raised 2.5 million dollars.

charity: water also brought their virtual reality experience to Marketing United. Over 350 attendees watched the film, and in doing so, they unlocked a $10,000 water project. That donation is now being used to fund a Tap Stand for a community in Nepal!


These lessons don’t just apply to nonprofit organizations – every brand can find inspiration from the innovative, impactful work Scott and charity: water have done. It’s incredibly energizing stuff, so to watch his full talk (seriously – you should do it), go here.

To learn more about how you can give back to charity: water, visit their website.