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Want better purpose marketing? Try diplomacy.

In my last article, I talked about the similarities between diplomacy and branding, and I feel it’s a  relevant intersection for marketers today. Purpose or cause marketing is trending strongly with Millennials and Gen Z, and it seems nearly every brand today is clamoring to present a cause they are passionate about. I feel there are lessons to learn from diplomacy, because respectfully, the State Department has been doing purpose marketing for quite literally hundreds of years. If your brand is truly committed to purpose marketing beyond producing a moving commercial, then the tactics used by diplomats are worth exploring, because diplomacy actually does work, and these programs are highly effective in informing, influencing and persuading.

Diplomacy is about persuading your target market to align with your agenda through various tactics, including dialogue, negotiation, and other measures. And branding is “a means to shape opinion, influence and persuade behavior.” Bring on the overlap: both require mastering persuasion and influence for success.

As a starting point, let’s acknowledge a different set of tools. Whereas advertisers typically use film, print, a website, social media, and increasingly a barrage of apps to convey their brand message, diplomats work with quainter tools: a podium and talking points; social media and old fashioned PR; by organizing exchange programs and events; and by hosting talented envoys to deliver brand experiences that educate and persuade a foreign audience’s opinion. (Note: The State Department calls them envoys; given what they actually do, I prefer the more au currant title: influencers). In this piece, this last point is where I’d like to focus; I’ll touch on other methods in another piece.

Influencers? In Diplomacy? In fact.

Yep. Long before Instagram’s acclaim and ‘influencer’ became a coveted job title, diplomacy was using influencers not just to demonstrate, but to deliver experiences in a way that expresses American values persuasively. Be it a dance troupe / jazz ensemble / elite sports figure / chef / musician / celebrity, the brief was – and still is – to have these talented American influencers engage with a foreign public, and in doing so, showcase our values in real life. It’s a pretty effective approach for purpose marketing.

Say, for example, an Embassy wants to convey the importance of women’s rights + equality. If soccer is a dominant sport in the country, a diplomat might use a sports diplomacy program to bring over several elite US female soccer stars for a few weeks. During their stay, these athletes might hold leadership training camps with boys and girls of impressionable ages, play in a televised goodwill game with the country’s leading soccer players, speak at universities on leadership + teamwork, and do a slew of press events and engage on social media to amplify the effort.

U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team player Tracy Noonan coaching girls in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. State Department.

Rather than a well-crafted speech to Parliament on the importance of female equality (though those would happen as well), here’s why this program works:

  • It’s relevant. These influencers are interesting to the target market (soccer fans). Wouldn’t you pay attention to a cause that involved some of your heroes?
  • It’s demonstrative. These influencers don’t just talk about women in power; they are women in power. Depending on the influencer, they can be the best messenger for your message.
  • It’s experiential. They bring engagement. Through camps, media, events and other interactions, they invite a foreign public to experience female equality first hand, and this is bar none the best way to educate and shift mindsets.
  • It’s credible and cool. Because of their accomplishments, these envoys bring credibility and a cool factor to an important topic that might otherwise get polite nods and short shrift.
  • It’s residual. There’s a halo effect for the Embassy brand: this goodwill sticks around in people’s memories, and rubs off onto other projects the Embassy does.

So while I don’t want to take anything away from a powerful speech to Parliament, experiences are often the best educators and shifters of public opinion.

Takeaway for brands and marketers

It’s no secret that Millennials and Gen Z want experiential brand interactions; they crave the tangible and tactile. If we want to make purpose marketing more effective, let’s get experiential. Let’s make the emotive video, but also make our campaign more attractive by partnering with influencers who appeal to our target and are passionate about our cause. Let’s build experiences for our influencers to meet our audience and interact, educate and persuade (and by the way: they can bring their audiences along and introduce them to our brand as well). Let’s find new ways for audiences to learn and experience first hand what our purpose is all about. Gen Z is hungry for the experiential, so let’s meet them there with compelling talent and an invitation to get involved in a purpose, beyond a rousing :60 film.

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Juliana Spaven is a serial brand strategist and marketer with over 20 years of advertising and marketing experience. In 2011 she joined the State Department as a Public Affairs diplomat and served in Sri Lanka (2012 – 2014). She was awarded the Embassy’s prestigious Meritorious Honor Award for her work in promoting Freedom of the Press to the Sri Lankan public. She also served in Frankfurt, Germany (2015-2016) where she received awards for her teamwork and professionalism as Vice Consul. She left the State Department in 2017 and currently lives in DC with her family, where she works to make brands magnetic.