June 10, 2020
Case Study

5 Marketing Lessons From a Unique Nonprofit That Sells Products (and why the world needs marketers today more than ever)


The world needs marketers today more than ever — your unique skillset, the way you see the world, the way you connect those who produce value with those who seek it.

As an example, I give you lessons you can apply to your business today from a nonprofit doing good in the world. Before you think “this doesn’t relate to me, I need to sell a product and I need to do it now,” this is a very unique nonprofit.

It sells products, in stores and online, just like every marketer must. But since it is a nonprofit, you can see more clearly the transcendent impact that marketing effort and those product sales can bring to the world.

Read on for lessons you can learn from this nonprofit, plus, a new show you can participate in to learn more and apply your marketing skills to help alleviate poverty for artisans around the globe.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

(As seen in the MarketingSherpa newsletter. Click to get a free email subscription to the latest from MarketingSherpa.)

Marketing transcends technology or data or even business. Marketing is the art and science of letting people know when value is created — value that will help them achieve a goal or overcome a pain point.

And yet, too many marketers are trapped under a myopic view of their role in society. You’re told you just need to hit numbers. You’re told you just need to please clients.

Marketer, you do so much more.

MarketingSherpa’s sister publication, MarketingExperiments, has launched a new YouTube show. The Marketer as Philosopher: Become a Force for the Good is meant to teach marketers how to improve their marketing skills while applying them to a worthy endeavor to benefit real people, right now.

And right now the need is critical. The coronavirus crisis coupled with social unrest has caused the global economy to grind to a halt. Which means, throughout the world there are people plying their trade, creating value, without the ability to support their families.

Nowhere is this pain more acutely felt than in communities that were already struggling in economically developing countries, where societies have far less of a backstop during times of economic strife.

Marketers can’t develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus but are uniquely skilled to assist in one crucial way — help potential customers perceive the value produced in these hard-hit areas.

To do that, MECLABS Institute, along with its publishing brands MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa, have chosen Ten by Three as the focused nonprofit for the first season of The Marketer as Philosopher.

In this article, we’ll break down five lessons we’ve learned from our journey with this unique nonprofit already, lessons that you can apply to your non- or for-profit business. But first, here is the pilot episode of the show.

Helping to end poverty by connecting artisans in developing countries with customers in America

For the past 16 years, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Ten by Three® has worked to create a sustainable end to poverty in Bangladesh, Ghana, Madagascar, Uganda, Togo and Kenya with a simple model — the nonprofit purchases 10 products per month at a Prosperity Wage® (at least 2.5 times fair trade) for three years and requires the artisan to invest those funds, in part, into three small businesses. As those businesses succeed, the artisan exits extreme poverty and graduates from Ten by Three’s program, allowing the next artisan to enter.

But COVID-19 and the larger societal disruptions it has caused have decimated this nonprofit’s ability to end poverty in the lives of those it serves. Its artisans’ handmade home décor, baskets and accessories are primarily sold in physical retail locations — Whole Foods Market, Room & Board, Disney theme parks, and local specialty shops across the U.S. The drop-off in foot traffic caused by the coronavirus pandemic has caused an instant, massive drop in funds, which is why MECLABS Institute has chosen the nonprofit as the subject for this new show.

While the nonprofit has had challenges more recently, it has helped pull thousands of people out of poverty over 16 years, so I learned several lessons from founder Theresa Carrington and her approach that I wanted to share with you, even though our journey with Carrington has just begun.

Lesson #1: There is always value. Find it, tap into it and market it.

Oh if we all only had the perfect product. A product or service that customers would instantly desire. It’s a lament I’ve heard from many a marketer … and must admit have felt myself.

While the job of the marketer is to deeply understand the customer and advocate for a product or serve that truly serves that customer, none of us can use an imperfect product as an excuse for a failed marketing campaign.

The marketer should also be a value hunter. Oftentimes a product has hidden value that simply isn’t being communicated well to the customer. If your company is in business, there is some value there.

For Carrington, she sought to help communities in some of the poorest countries in the world. Communities that others help, altruistically, by pouring in external resources instead of seeking value within. Communities that some might scoff at, thinking that they don’t produce anything of value in the world market.

But Carrington didn’t look to just ride in on a white horse and save the day. Instead, she found value where others saw none. She saw that artistic ability in the communities and realized that she could assist them in getting their products to the right buyer with the right communication — sound familiar, marketers? — that these communities could help themselves.

So instead of just being a nonprofit that sought donations, Ten by Three became a nonprofit that sold products like baskets created by the artisans in the community it was seeking to help. Carrington found the value, and then just like a good marketer would, she communicated that value to a customer to drive a value exchange to help those communities.

“We believe the rural poor in developing countries are quite capable of pulling themselves out of poverty,” Carrington said. They just need the marketing help Ten by Three provides.

Just like your company’s software engineers and product developers and recipe creators are able to create things of value, but they need the marketing help that you provide.

Creative Sample 1#: Weaving techniques explained on Ten by Three website

ten by three-1

Lesson #2: For a truly groundbreaking concept, take it beyond the obvious solution

Back in my copywriter days, I knew my creative partner and I had developed a strong concept when it had “legs.”  It didn’t just work on the first, obvious level, it worked on the second level, perhaps even a third level or more for a really golden idea.

A truly great concept gets beyond the obvious solution.

In Carrington’s case, once she found the often overlooked value created by these artisans, she could have created the obvious concept — sell their baskets and other handiwork and use the money to build wells and schools in their communities. Or perhaps, sell the baskets and given the artisans the money.

But she pushed the idea even farther. When an artisan is selected, Ten by Three agrees to purchase 10 baskets a month from that artisan to create a steady income. In return, those artisans agree to invest in at least three businesses. Those businesses grow and produce income for the artisans who “tip” from poverty to prosperity in an average of three years. As a result, Carrington has helped 8,000 artisans emerge from poverty, and more than 18,000 people total, once you consider all the people who rely on those artisans.

“Success is when our best basket makers stop making baskets for us, and they start running their three businesses full time,” Carrington said.

In this way, they can build a resilient prosperity, no longer reliant on outside help.

That is taking a concept far beyond the obvious solution.

Lesson #3: Challenge the status quo

Says who?

Those words are vital to the vocabulary of every marketer.

Your company’s value proposition, your marketing tactics, your brand, your website — don’t think any of these are set in stone. None will weather the test of time. Your competition is relentless. Technological change, macroeconomic shifts, the styles and whims of the day — these are disruptive forces. Every successful brand today is built on the ruins of previous civilizations of successful brands.

So just because something was done before is not a good enough excuse. Oh, it has to be done this way? Says who?

The status quo in Carrington’s case was an industry that either went into these communities and decided what was best for them or worked with artisans paying what the organizations considered fair wages.

Carrington broke the status quo and took a different approach. Her goal was to get the money in the hands of the artisans, relying on them to decide what is best for their communities. “Artisans are free to steward the money as they wish but must agree to start three small businesses,” she said.

She determined that “fair wages” were not enough to reach this goal because, again, she did not want to create a workforce reliant on Ten by Three. So she pays at least 2.5 times fair trade for their handicraft, a model she calls Prosperity Wages. “Helping each and every one of our artisans become an entrepreneur and enabling them to earn sufficient wealth through Prosperity Wages to build their businesses is at the core of our Graduate from Poverty model,” she said.

Lesson #4: Connect the value creator to the value receiver (the customer)

Some marketers focus incessantly on sales, but margins will make or break a business. Many marketers can juice sales by abusing incentives, but if those products or services aren’t sold at a healthy margin, you do not have a sustainable business. It will catch up with you eventually.

To sell at a healthy margin, marketers must be masters at communicating value.

In Carrington’s case, if she is going to pay above-market wages, she must be able to sell these products at a somewhat above-market price to sustain margins.

Through Ten by Three’s Artisan & You feature, customers are able to directly see and learn about the artisans who crafted their specific basket, much like an art collector knows the artist who created a painting or sculpture.

Creative Sample #2: Feature on Ten by Three’s website that connects the customer with the artisan

ten by three-2

Each basket is affixed with a unique ID when it is originally purchased in a developing country. That ID follows it all the way to the U.S., where it is tagged before being shipped to a store or sold online. Customers can then use that unique ID to learn about and even communicate with their artisan.

This makes the product so much more than a generic basket you buy in a store. It brings meaning to the product for the customer, and with that meaning, higher perceived value.

Lesson #5: Understand what you have to work with and apply it in a unique way

When MarketingSherpa asks questions about marketers’ biggest challenge, invariably, budget will top the list. In good times and bad. For B2C marketers and B2B. While, yes, we would all like a bigger budget or more resources, what do you have at your disposal to power your marketing?

For that manner, what can you personally call on within yourself to power your career?

For Carrington, she was a television, newspaper and radio journalist for 20 years, spending more than half that time as an investigative journalist and won 13 Mid-America Emmy Awards. She has leveraged that storytelling experience to create Ten by Three and help so many climb their way out of poverty. Again, most people did not just buy a generic basket when purchasing a Ten by Three product in a Whole Foods Market or online. They bought a story. They bought marketing. And by doing so, they helped alleviate poverty in communities around the world.

This has brought this former journalist new accolades — like being named an Intercultural Leader by United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, a BMW Foundation Leader, and a Queen Mother of Development for the Zaare and Nyariga Traditional Area.

If that example feels too far away for you, here’s one from a fellow marketer. While you might know the creator of the new Marketer as Philosopher show as a marketing leader, Flint McGlaughlin, CEO and Managing Director, MECLABS Institute, leveraged his unique background to create this show, a background that stretches beyond the marketing industry. McGlaughlin was the co-executive producer of an early reality show that aired on FOX Family called “Courage,” which won him a TV Guide “Editor’s Choice” Award.

In fact, Carrington and McGlaughlin originally met when they worked together at a TV station.

The pilot of “Courage” was hosted by John O ‘Hurley, known as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” which to me is a fitting connection because Carrington’s stories of adventurous work in these communities sound straight out of a J. Peterman catalog.

After the pilot, the show went on to be hosted by Danny Glover.

The World Needs Marketers Today More Than Ever

MarketingSherpa exists to bring you lessons like ones you read in this article, to help you become a better marketer. And most articles I wrote would end here with success.

But these are not normal times. As I mentioned, recent events have rocked Carrington’s nonprofit, threatening its ability to help these impoverished communities.

This is why MECLABS Institute has come alongside her organization to help apply the crucial skill of marketing so her organization can successfully communicate value and get back on track.

Carrington has graciously allowed us to make each step of this story public so you can learn — and help — through every step of the journey.

For example, I asked Carrington is she has any lessons from the journey so far that she could pass along to our audience of marketers, and she told me, “MECLABS and Flint taught me to see my customers’ journey through categories I had never considered. Flint asked me to place any content I felt relevant into 11 category folders with titles he provided. Reason, Relevance and Results were among these folder titles. For Flint and his team, this was a natural part of the onboarding process. To me, dividing our organization into these 11 topics clearly showed me a customer journey.”

You can build your skillsets and help as well by following along on the story. Here again is the pilot episode, and you can subscribe to MarketingExperiments free newsletter to get notified every time a new episode is released.

Related Resources

The Marketer as Philosopher, Episode 3 — The Conversion Heuristic Analysis: Overcoming the prospect’s perception gap

Data Pattern Analysis: Learn from a coaching session with Flint McGlaughlin

The Marketer as Philosopher Episode 2 — The Data Pattern Analysis: 3 ways to turn info into insight

8 Mini Case Studies of Using Marketing as a Force for Positive Change in Our World While Getting Results for Your Company and Clients

A Deep Elemental Force: What (truly) is marketing?

Value Force: How to win on value proposition and not just price

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