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Learn how a special event can draw attention to your organization, generate interest in your issue, and/or raise money or membership or participation.


  • What is a creative promotion?

  • Why should you develop promotions?

  • What are some tips for creative thinking?

  • How do you plan an effective and creative promotion or promotional campaign?

  • What are some tips for following up on a promotion?

If planned an executed well, creative promotions can be an effective way to draw attention, generate support, or raise money for an issue. Promotions can be difficult to manage, and tend to be a large commitment. However, the benefits to your organization or cause that promotions can generate could make a huge difference in community support and awareness. This section discusses when and how to develop creative promotions for a community initiative.

What is a creative promotion?

A creative promotion is one that draws attention to your organization or initiative, to the services you offer, to an event or campaign you're running, or to a particular issue or cause you sponsor, and does it in a positive way that people will notice and remember.

People have probably tried to find creative ways to influence others since the dawn of time. On the well-preserved walls of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the first century A.D., there are ads for various merchants ("Shop at Marius's best deals, not like that robber Publius down the block."). Political slogans meant to promote candidates have been found in ancient Athens, and American politics has always been livened up by jingles and slogans ("Van [Buren], Van, he's a used-up man!" "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!") that were often put on banners or on hats or pins that people could wear. Only in our century, however, have publicists and advertising agencies actually been paid to come up with creative promotions and occasionally they do.

There are ads and catch phrases and slogans that all of us remember, depending upon our ages: "I like Ike," "The Great Society," "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," Speedy (the Alka-Seltzer man), the Ajax Cleanser jingle ("Use Ajax, bum, bum, the foaming cleanser"), Nike's "Just Do It," even (more to the point) Tommy Tooth and Mr. Tooth Decay, from the American Dental Association. These were all ways to get a message across, and they worked: even though some of them haven't been seen or heard for over forty years, they're still immediately recognizable to anyone who was exposed to them.

There's a lot more to creative promotion than advertising slogans and memorable characters, however. We are in fact drowning in bumper stickers and T-shirts with logos and slogans on them. Baseball caps proclaim the virtues of everything from chicken feed to drug companies, and there's hardly a personal or household item that hasn't been used as a promotional item at some time. In some ways, these promotional items have become the wallpaper of our lives and we really don't notice them at all. How can you generate new ways to get people to recognize and become involved in what your organization or initiative does? How can you use familiar promotional methods in creative ways that fit your message? This section is meant to help you find answers to these questions.

In a sense this section is titled incorrectly. Any promotion you do should be creative, regardless of how "normal" its form or intent is. A newspaper ad for an event you're running should be as eye-catching and memorable as possible. A radio spot advertising your services or promoting your issue should be different and entertaining enough to catch and hold listeners' attention. Otherwise, you might as well not have bothered: all promotion depends on creativity. With that understanding, the focus in this section will be on imaginative and different ways to present your organization and your message, ways that mirror your purposes and stick in people's minds.

Why should you develop promotions?

Although promotion is the stock in trade of advocacy organizations or initiatives that work to gain the acceptance of a particular cause or behavior, many grass roots and community based organizations and initiatives believe that promotion is somehow contrary to what they're trying to accomplish. The reality, however, is that non-profit organizations, especially those that provide needed services, are businesses, and like any other businesses, they need to advertise so that the public will be aware of what they offer and will take advantage of it. For any type of non-profit organization, creative promotion is a means to survival and growth.

Some specific reasons for developing truly creative promotions:

  • They spread your message and reputation faster and more effectively. The more interesting and different the way in which your message is presented, the more likely people are to remember it and the organization that created it.
  • They build a positive image of your organization. If people are entertained or moved or enlightened by the presentation of your message, rather than hammered with it, they're more apt to think well of your organization and what it does.
  • They can be tied to your message or mission in interesting ways. You could draw attention to a day care center by handing out copies of children's art made there, for instance, or by playing in a public place (with permission, of course) a recording of the children singing.
  • They don't have to cost a lot of money. Part of your creativity can go into figuring out how promotions can be carried out with materials at hand, or through free media. The suggestions about the day care center, for instance, would be nearly free. The only expenses would be copying costs or the cost of a tape; the sound system could easily be someone's home boom box, with an extra speaker or two also loaned plugged into it.
  • They can bring in money for your organization, often from new sources.
  • They can bring in more membership for your organization, again perhaps from new sources.
  • They can increase participation by your target population. The more people know about your organization and what it does, the more likely you are to attract those who need its services or can benefit from its activities.
  • They can increase your support and cement your position in the community.

Be careful not to let creativity interfere either with the meaning of what you 're trying to say or the connection to your organization or purpose. During the 1992 Olympics, a well-known beer company ran a highly-regarded series of TV ads about fictional Olympic competitors. The ads were photographed beautifully, and featured a vision of America that brought tears to the eyes. Their only reference to the beer was in the familiar cans in the hands of the plain folks who supported and cared about the local Olympic heroes. Unfortunately, surveys showed that while almost everyone loved and remembered the ads, very few viewers had any idea what product they sponsored.

What are some tips for creative thinking?

Unless you hire someone to do your promotions for you an option that's usually out of the question for all but the largest non-profits you're going to have to come up with some creative ideas yourself. Just about every organization has at least one staff member who's really clever at promotion (or who could be if given the opportunity), and everyone is creative at least some of the time.

In fact, thinking creatively is at least partially the result of people believing they can be creative. Sometimes just giving people permission to be creative can have results. A college professor regularly demonstrates this principle in his class, dividing his students at random into two groups. One group is merely given a test of creativity, while the other given the same test is also given special instructions to the effect that they can be wonderfully creative if they just relax and let their minds run free. This second group invariably comes up with many more ideas in the activities on the test. So give yourself and others permission to play with ideas, and you may get surprising results.

Even if you're a small organization without much money, there is the possibility that you can convince an advertising or publicity firm to do some work for you pro bono. Loosely translated, pro bono means "for the general good," and is the way such firms describe work they do for free for worthy causes. Many firms have a policy of taking a certain amount of pro bono work a year (usually one or two percent of their total business), and you may be able to take advantage of such a policy to receive some high quality consulting or promotion development. Finding innovative ways to get professional help counts as creativity, too.

Some ways to get people thinking and to pull out creative ideas:

Involve as many people as possible. Your organization's staff may be small, but it probably has friends, supporters, a Board of Directors. Pull as many of them together as possible (perhaps in more than one group, so everyone can be heard) to throw around ways to get the word out. Not only do more people bring more ideas to the table, but a larger group also increases the chances that one person 's idea will fertilize another's, and lead to something really interesting.

Be inclusive. People with education have no monopoly on creativity, nor do people of a particular gender or ethnic background or age. Pull in staff, participants, community members whoever's willing to work on the promotion or campaign. The more different points of view are represented, the more likely that an unusual or interesting plan will result.

If the ideas aren't flowing or even if they are try some techniques to get at things you might not otherwise think of. Brainstorming, making lists (of objects related to your service or cause, of celebrities who have some connection to it, of the different things the organization actually does, of neat promotions you've seen or heard about, etc.), drawing pictures, acting out scenarios related to the organization's purpose any or all of these can help an individual or a group of people to come up with new thoughts and connections.

Brainstorming: Perhaps the most familiar of all ways of generating ideas in a group, brainstorming consists of everyone simply calling out ideas as they come up, with someone writing everything down so everyone can see it. Ideas can be silly or outrageous or seemingly unrelated to the topic, as long as they have some connection in the mind of the person who comes up with them. A brainstorming session usually lasts about ten minutes or so, until the flow of ideas has run down. Then the group considers the suggestions sometimes defining categories for similar ideas, or grouping ideas by some other system; sometimes just taking each idea separately. Even if the process doesn't result in anything concrete, it may lead to something later, or serve to shake loose a totally different idea that can become the basis for action.

Look at what others have done. While you're trying to come up with something that will stand out because it's different, don't scorn something just because it's already been done. It may not have been done in the way you'd like to do it, or may be unexpected if it's applied to your particular needs, rather than the way it's been used in the past. A good idea remains a good idea, especially if you can put a slightly different spin on it. In addition, someone else's promotion may give you a totally new inspiration

Try to think "outside the box". You often hear this phrase in connection with creativity, and in fact it's the kind of thinking that brainstorming and most other techniques are trying to get at. It means letting go of what you know, or believe you know, and thinking about things in a different way. Some of the greatest creative discoveries in history came about because someone was able to step back from his assumptions or preconceptions and look at things in a new way. Because Copernicus was able to ignore what he "knew" that the earth was the center of the universe we now understand the structure of the Solar System. Einstein thought about what would happen if he could ride on a beam of light and developed the theory of relativity.

How do you plan an effective and creative promotion or promotional campaign?

There are a number of elements to planning a creative promotion. The fact that you have a creative idea doesn't necessarily mean that it's appropriate for what you want to do. You need to consider what you want to say; to whom you want to say it; how much money you have to spend; the timing of your promotion; and whether the medium you choose and the promotion itself fit your message and the mission and philosophy of your organization.

There are a few elements of successful promotions, some of them tied to psychological factors, that you might consider as you plan what you're going to do. These include:

  • Novelty. Responding to new things has survival value for living things, including people. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but cats wouldn't be curious if it didn't benefit more of them than it killed. Lacing your promotion with the new or unexpected will attract more attention than simply repeating what people have seen a thousand times before.
  • Vividness. Strong or unusual visual or auditory images tend to stay in the mind longer than more conventional ones. That's why we use logos, slogans, and those horrible advertising jingles that you can't get out of your mind.
  • Repetition. We're all constantly bombarded with information. The more times your message is repeated, the more likely it is to make its way through all the other messages flying around and into people's consciousness.
  • Providing a benefit for the target of the promotion. If you can find a way to reward people for responding to your message, they're much more likely to do so. Examples of rewards include the donated premiums that public radio stations distribute in return for pledges; free refreshments at a meeting or rally; T-shirts or other signs that someone helped or took part in a promotion or activity; etc.
  • Pairing the promotion with something people might want anyway -- food, entertainment, etc. (See "A Piece of the Pie" below.)

Choose your message

What exactly is the reason for this promotion? The nature of your message is an important piece of how you can best frame and deliver it.

  • Are you trying to make sure that the public knows your organization exists?
  • Are you advertising your services?
  • Are you trying to raise money?
  • Are you trying to get the word out about a particular event you're sponsoring?
  • Do you want to call attention to the larger issue your organization deals with?
  • Are you trying to convince the public to take some specific action (write to Congress in support of a bill)?
  • Are you trying to change people's behavior?

The ultimate effectiveness of your promotion will be judged on whether it accomplishes its purpose, not on how creative or artistic or clever it is.

Identify your audience

Who are you trying to reach?

  • The general public, or the community at large (usually the case if you're trying to raise money).
  • Potential participants or beneficiaries of your organization.
  • Potential volunteers or Board members.
  • Policy makers or the media.
  • Specific groups involved in your issue (medical personnel, social workers, environmentalists, etc.)

Once you've identified your prospective audience, you can think how to reach that audience most effectively. For instance,

  • Are there language issues to be addressed? In some cases, your target audience may need to be approached in a language other than English. In all cases, your language needs to be understandable and clear, and shouldn't offend those you hope will respond to it.
  • Where and how can your target audience be reached? No matter how creative your promotion is, it's useless if people don't see or hear it. What medium are the folks you're aiming at most likely to pay attention to? TV? Radio? A professional journal? Bumper stickers? The answer can vary tremendously, depending upon who you're trying to reach.
  • What will your target audience respond to? Humor? The unexpected? Something absolutely straightforward? It's important to understand what interpretation your audience will put on your promotion, and important, therefore, to know something about the culture of that audience. What do they consider funny, what do they consider offensive, what are they likely to remember?

Consider your budget

Your budget enters into your promotion in two ways. First, it obviously dictates how much you can spend, and therefore controls to some extent what kind of a promotion you can attempt. But second, the budget for your promotion also makes a statement about your organization. If the promotion is too obviously expensive (unless doing major promotions is what your organization is about), you may be seen as wasting money that could have been spent on services or organizational activities. When you think about how much you're going to spend, you need to take both of these issues into account. The trick is not to spend the most money possible, but the right amount of money, so that the promotion both has enough resources to be effective and sends the right message.

Time your promotion

Is this promotion meant to last a long time, or is it aimed at a specific event or action? If you're trying to improve your organization's profile and name recognition in the community, you might want to consider a promotion that puts your name on the streets over a long period of time. Articles of clothing hats, T-shirts, or something less expectable (reflective safety vests, perhaps) bearing your organization's name are one possibility; a recognizable or unusual organizational vehicle could be another.

A day care center in a small town used a van painted with scenes of children playing to pick up and drop off its young charges. The van quickly became totally recognizable to everyone in town, and not only served as an ongoing advertisement for the center, but also improved safety for the children: other drivers would automatically stop when they saw the van stopped, because they knew it was the day care center transport.

If the promotion has a more specific purpose, a performance or some other one-time event might serve just as well. The timing of this event has to be thought through carefully, however, so it will catch the largest number of people, and be close enough to the time when you want people to do something that they'll be moved to take action.

Another way to approach the issue of extending a promotion over a long period of time is to create an event or situation that recurs at regular intervals. For most organizations, that means an annual event often linked to or focused on fundraising that is identified with the particular organization. Such an event, and its regularity, can serve many purposes: it can call attention to the organization; add to its status; raise money for it; and raise consciousness about its issue. Furthermore, each time the event runs, the community comes to expect it more and more, and to automatically associate it with the organization and its mission.

In the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, for many years there has been a fall event called "A Piece of the Pie." Hundreds of restaurants, the total has grown year by year, donate a part of their profits over the course of a given week to the local food bank. Not only has this provided the food bank with a considerable source of income, but it has served, because of the name and nature of the promotion, to draw attention to the problem of hunger in the area. (The timing of "A Piece of the Pie" is particularly important: it takes place close to Thanksgiving, a time when food is in everyone's mind, and when the problem of hunger becomes particularly poignant.)

The event which was conceived by the food bank's director has increased both the status and the potential of the food bank, and has made the public far more responsive to its appeals. This promotion also gains a great deal of favorable publicity for the restaurants involved. People who care deeply about hunger often decide to patronize only participating restaurants, no matter what the time of year.

If your promotion involves items for sale or give-away, think about how they connect to what you want people to remember.

  • For adult literacy: Pens, bookmarks, pads of paper, books of writings by learners, other literature.
  • For child nutrition: Samples of appropriate (non-junk) snack or regular foods for children at different stages of development; pocket-size charts of foods children at different stages particularly need, or of what nutrients can be found in what foods.
  • For recycling: Recycling bins (especially made of recycled materials); plans for building a set of recycling bins from recycled materials; composters.
  • For a designated-driver campaign: key chains with an attached plastic or vinyl flap printed with the numbers of local cab companies; bumper stickers ("I'm a designated driver: Friends don't let friends drive drunk." "Designated driver on board")
  • For a "Take Back the Night" anti-violence campaign: flashlights, whistles.

In general, as with "A Piece of the Pie," it makes sense to connect your promotion directly to the issue it's meant to affect. An event that highlights the rights of the disabled, for instance, needs itself to be 100% accessible and trouble-free to anyone with a disability. That might mean providing sign language interpreters for all gatherings, making sure every venue and restroom is physically accessible, making all announcements and information in both visible and audible forms, etc. The point of all this is not merely consistency (although that is important), but a demonstration of how an event can address and respect the rights and needs of the disabled.

How you conduct the promotion will both influence people's reactions to your organization and its issues, and also tell people a great deal about the organization and its priorities and philosophy. An event, for instance, may be inclusive, participatory, and casual (A $1.00 donation gets you three square feet of the art wall to paint anything you want!), or it may be exclusive, hierarchical, and formal (Come to the $1,000.00 a person Charity Ball!). In either case, it will say a great deal about the world view of the organization that runs it. If you want your organization to be seen in a particular light as, for example, empowering and democratic then your promotion or campaign should reflect that in the way it is conducted. It should be open to all (or almost all), should allow participants to have some effect on what goes on, should be relatively informal, etc. It's hard to maintain your credibility as a grass roots group if you're charging $500.00 a plate for a black-tie rubber chicken dinner.

Another point to consider here is the organization's overall media strategy and relationship with the media. If you have particularly close ties to particular media outlets or individuals, you might consider incorporating that into whatever you do. If you have agreements with particular media outlets or individuals, those should be considered when you run a promotion as well. Your relations with the media and how they portray you are important to your organization, and can really help or hurt your promotion.

What are some tips for following up on a promotion?

Once a promotion is over, there's a natural tendency to let down, and to assume that your promotion was great because of the time and energy you put into it. Friends and colleagues will generally try to be positive regardless of what they really thought

The final step in a creative promotion is to assess whether it's been successful. Some questions you might ask after the promotion ends:

  • Most important, did the promotion accomplish its purpose, and how well? If the purpose was to raise the profile of your issue, it might even be worth it to ask people on the street what they know about it. If the purpose was to raise money, how much did you raise, and how did that compare with what you've raised in the past from other methods? If the purpose was to get people to participate in an event, how many people showed up? An analysis of the effectiveness of what you've done will tell you more than anything else about how successful you've really been, and whether you should repeat this particular effort.
  • What could you have done better? Are there obvious improvements you could have made in the quality of the item you sold or gave away, for instance? If you gave people T-shirts that disintegrated after the first washing, that's not likely to improve the image of your organization.
  • Should you try this, or something similar, again?
  • If it's an event, should it become a regular part of what your organization does? Does it have the potential to become a tradition, or at least something that people look for on a regular basis?
  • How was it perceived by the target audience? Do you hear a positive "buzz" about what you did? Do people understand why you did it? Is there more sympathy for, or understanding of your issue as a result?
  • How well did it represent the organization its mission, its issues, its purpose, its philosophy?
  • Did it get any positive press, either because it was interesting enough so that you could convince the media to run stories about it, or because it was so compelling that they ran stories without any urging on your part?

If the answers to most or all of these questions are positive, then you've run a successful creative promotion, and you might consider doing it, or something similar again. If your reviews are mixed or negative, then it's important to understand why. What did you do that people didn't like, or that may have misrepresented the message you wanted to send? The answer to that question is a lesson learned, and will help you tremendously in planning your next promotion. And there should be a next promotion.

Part of following up on a promotion is making sure people don't forget it. One of the best ways to do that is to launch another one before too much time has passed. The public's memory is notoriously short; the fact that you've developed and run a successful promotion doesn't mean that everyone will still be passionate about your organization or your issue in six months. If you want to have a high profile, or to make sure people remember and pay attention to your message, you have to continue to find creative ways to communicate it.

In Summary

Developing creative promotions is a necessary piece of "selling" your organization, your issue, and your message to the public or to a specific target audience. It will help raise your profile, and will assure that people understand what you're about and why.

In order to develop creative promotions, it's important to

  • Think creatively
  • Be clear about why you're running this promotion
  • Choose your message carefully
  • Consider your target audience
  • Think about the timing of your promotion
  • Try to match the form and character of your promotion to the issues and values of your organization
  • Follow up on your promotion, to understand what went right or wrong, and to guide or improve your next effort

If you can do all this, the chances are that your promotions will be both creative and successful, and will accomplish what you want them to.


Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Creativity Unleashed Limited, a creativity consulting firm. Techniques for stimulating creativity, books, software, other resources.

Print Resources

Horowitz, S. Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring.

Moore, M. C. (1987). Group Techniques for Idea Building. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.