If you ever wondered about the validity of the old proverb, “necessity is the mother invention,” then you’ll want to read word for word my extensive interview with Dara Royer, Chief Development and Marketing Officer of Mercy Corps and winner of The CMO Club‘s Officers Award. Like her organization, Dara works miracles on a minuscule budget and in the process provides yet another illustration that the cool CATS of marketing get it done:
- Courageous: Dara talks about courage as her secret weapon, noting that you have to “trust, in what you see and what you believe is an opportunity if you’re going to create big positive change.”
- Artfulness: It takes a deft hand at the tiller to turn an organization in a new branding direction. As Dara puts it, “Being right isn’t always enough to get you to the finish line,” you need to listen and let others participate in the process.
- Thoughtfulness: As a purpose-driven organization, thoughtfulness is at the core of the brand she explains, “If you want to create transformational change in individuals, in communities, in our broader world, you need to not only meet people’s urgent needs of today, but you need to focus on helping them build a stronger tomorrow.”
- Scientific: In addition to tracking key business metrics like fund-raising, Dara is committed to constant improvement through a test & learn approach: “We’re evolving little things along the way to make sure that the brand is really usable for people.”
Drew: I have this theory that there’s at least a little renegade in every CMO. What is one way that you’re a renegade?
Dara: Where others run away, I run toward challenges. In fact, like a bee to honey. Truly, if you tell me something can’t be done or there’s no way that we can accomplish something, then to me that’s the clarion call to action. We’re going to take on that challenge and run square at it and try to wrestle it to the ground. For example, there are 2 million purpose driven organizations in the U.S., and at Mercy Corps we’re working to put ourselves on the map with a smaller marketing team and a smaller budget than some of the big dogs. We’re already making progress against that goal.
Drew: Running towards a challenge is certainly a very renegade thing. When you’re running at the challenge, and you are underfunded, what’s one nontraditional technique that you used with success?
Dara: We handle a lot of things in-house that most other organizations or businesses would outsource. A great example would be global brand research. There are many organizations that would pay big bucks to do that. We didn’t have those dollars so we actually trained our teammates that work in many of the different countries in which we operate. We taught them research methodology and we taught them how to talk to their fellow team members, government officials in the area, and the beneficiaries of the people that we help in order to pull out insights that are going to be valid for us to synthesize as part of a global brand research. The benefit of that was that we were actually bringing them along, our global teammates, in the process of building our global brand and that was actually the upside of taking a road less traveled.
Drew: We have a client who’s looking at a global study and its hugely expensive to do it right, to translate it into multiple languages and then to try to synthesize the data after it’s in these languages and then bringing it back to English. Using employees to field the research is brilliant — the tricky part is getting them trained. How did you make sure that they did this in a valid research fashion?
Dara: It’s a great question because as we all know, garbage in garbage out. If you didn’t have a solid research methodology, then you won’t have valid results. We did a number of trainings with the people who were going to participate and then we actually had them do mock interviews, because this was all qualitative research, so we could give them feedback on the way they were approaching the work. Every single person was trained in that same fashion following this research guide that we created. The proof was in the pudding. The results that we got back were consistent and valid, and the reason we knew they were applicable is because we were able to pull out the same kind of thematics regardless of the country in which the research was done. The same themes were coming to the surface–incredibly powerful, and much less expensive than the traditional way of approaching the work.
Drew: I’m curious, because we encourage our clients to do research for any number of reasons, how you used the research once you gathered all this information.
Dara: The research was the underpinning of our brand refresh that we did and it was important to help get the organization out of what I call the echo chamber, where we talk to each other, we nod our heads, and we all share a brain around what we believe the truth is. Yet, there are lots of different perceptions that exist out there. Part of what we were trying to do was show the organization some different perspectives that exist, so that was step one. We shared this information internally, and it absolutely informed how we positioned our brand strategy and ultimately our visual and our verbal identity.
Drew: We all know that it’s hard to get marketing messages to stand out. What’s the one thing you do to make sure that your marketing cuts through?
Dara: It is absolutely a challenge. We are focused on the overall epic, not the episode. What I mean by that is particularly for an organization like ours, that works in 42 different countries, our work is so vast and so diverse but we’re trying to tell one big story vs. lots of little stories. We want to make sure that whenever anyone is interacting with Mercy Corps and sees any kind of content, be it a video or a direct mail piece, that they’re understanding what that larger story is. Telling the epic, being consistent in the story that we’re telling, is a huge focus for us in trying to break through the noise. Because when you try to tell many different episodes, people start to not understand who you are, what you do, and why you matter.
Drew: I haven’t heard storytelling put that way, but certainly we all love epics. What is that epic story that you’re telling for Mercy Corps?
Dara: Our epic is rooted in this fundamental belief that a better world is possible. If you want to create transformational change in individuals, in communities, in our broader world, you need to not only meet people’s urgent needs of today, but you need to focus on helping them build a stronger tomorrow. Our response to an earthquake in Nepal or the way that we are helping millions of refugees who are fleeing war conflict in their countries has a common theme, which is that our donors, or the people that partner with us, are the bridge from a challenge today to a better tomorrow that we believe is possible in the world.
Drew: What are some of the tricks that you learned to make sure that you have a great story?
Dara: I’m going to tell you a story in my answer. First, you start with relevancy and an understanding of the audience that you’re trying to engage with. What is going to make a story relevant to their world and their life long enough for them to pause? The story I’m going to tell you is about our desire at Mercy Corps to talk about our conflict resolution work. Sounds like a snoozer, right? It’s important, though, because when we work with refugee populations and you have 2 million refugees flowing across borders, it can create huge tensions in communities. We set out to tell this conflict resolution story, and the story we ended up telling was from the perspective of a mother who had been part of a Mercy Corps conflict resolution program. She, and the other mothers in this group, ended up creating a playground where their children, Syrian and Lebanese children, could come together and play together. The result was incredible. These women all became part of a larger community and what you heard was her voice, you saw her tears, you saw the children playing on the playground together. It was incredibly compelling and it was relevant and relatable to any mother, anyone who’s been a child, or anyone who could get into the heart of the story. Yet it was on a very wonky subject. Kudos to our team and our producer for heading into this situation and saying “what would make this a relatable story to people?” You show vs. tell. We showed something vs. saying “we want to talk to you about the importance of conflict resolution.”
Drew: It’s amazing because it’s not preachy but it’s very clear and it’s very moving and that’s why we all like storytelling. What resource would you suggest other renegade marketers look to?
Dara: This is a personal resource that I think renegade marketers need to tap into. Simply put, it’s courage. When you’re a renegade and you’re disruptive, either in your organization or the marketplace, you’re going to have opinions that aren’t popular. You’re going to stand alone. You’re going to have to be able to dig deep and have confidence, and trust, in what you see and what you believe is an opportunity if you’re going to create big positive change. The one resource is that you have to be courageous.
Drew: What’s the toughest lesson that you’ve learned when it comes to marketing?
Dara: Being right doesn’t always matter. I was schooled in speech and debate, and I competed for a long time, and I learned in that trade if you brought the right evidence to the table and you were a good speaker, you generally win. It doesn’t work that way in the real world and in business, particularly in today’s day and age. I think a lot of people will come to the table whether they work in HR or finance and everyone thinks they’re a marketer. You can’t just show up at the table like you’re hired to be the expert and you wear the CMO hat or you’re in charge of marketing and therefore everybody should just pause and listen to you. You have to have great negotiation skills, you have to understand internal dynamics and politics. You have to be a good listener. Being right isn’t always enough to get you to the finish line.
Drew: Let’s dive deeper into the brand relaunch and the key steps.
Dara: Step one was that we had to convince the organization that we needed to pay some attention to our brand. This first step was actually selling senior leadership and our board on the reality that there is so much potential for our brand to be stronger than it is, but it’s going to require us to find the simple human truth that exists at the core of our brand and reposition ourselves to be successful in the marketplace. Step one was gaining some internal buy in. Once we got that, we moved into really extensive research- qualitative and quantitative research at a global scale. With those insights in hand, the next step was building our brand strategy and there were three components: the essence or positioning, our attributes, and our behaviors- because we know brand is not just how you think or how you speak, it’s how you act as well.
Drew: What was the next step?
The next step was to build the visual and verbal identity, our brand standards, and a toolkit so that team members in our very decentralized organization could start bringing the brand to life themselves. The next step, which I will say is still ongoing, is what we called our rolling rollout. Rather than a giant “ta-da” launch, we started our rollout in Uganda about a year ago at our global leadership gathering. We continued to evolve the brand, create more tools and resources, bring the brand to life, and help our field teams bring the brand to life as well. It was a detailed, multi-step process, handled largely by our in-house team.
Drew: Was any of the brand development outsourced at all?
Dara: It was. For the quantitative research, we did work with an outside firm. The majority of the qualitative research we handled in-house. For the brand strategy, we did outsource the first piece of that work as well. The visual and verbal identity, the rollout, all the tools, and the creation of the brand book, was all handled in-house.
Drew: What were some of the hurdles that you had to overcome in order to bring this program to fruition?
Dara: As I’ve always said, your first audience is your internal audience. I’d say bringing the team, the global team of 5,000 people, along with us in this process. Even just helping people see that brand is not bad. There was a view in an organization like ours that brand is selling out and that our work should just be able to stand on it’s own. That was certainly a hurdle, bringing the organization along. I would also say it was helping people believe in something that they’ve never seen before. They’ve never really seen a brand process or been inspired by a brand product and we had to bring them along in that. That was a challenge.
Drew: What were some of the other challenges?
Dara: The budget was absolutely a challenge too. It was daunting to think about creating an entire visual, verbal identity for a global organization and then rolling it out globally with what was originally a $50,000 budget for all of those steps. I had a team here who had never done brand work before, who I turned to and asked to be a partner and to do this work in addition to their normal day job. When I say everyone said it couldn’t be done, there were certainly moments where I thought to myself “what are we doing here? Can this actually be done?” We just decided failure wasn’t an option. The brand needed to be as strong as our global work and our global mission. We plowed through, but it was certainly a challenge. When you have a field-led organization that has a very diffuse strategy, how do you get to a common factor that is our singular human truth? Getting to that essence was really challenging for us, but we got there, it’s resonating and that’s powerful.
Drew: Was there an “a-ha” moment when the folks suddenly understood, because I think the issue of a nonprofit organization having a brand is an interesting one. Did you find that they suddenly went “oh” and lightbulbs went off because you suddenly got them to understand brand?
Dara: The lightbulbs went off at the right moment, but it was a real nailbiter. When we went to the global leadership gathering in Uganda, there was an hour-long presentation on where we’ve been, where we had come to, and how our brand is going to come to life. That was the moment where the lightbulbs went off. It’s because people all of a sudden could see themselves in the brand. What I realized is that the fear people had was that we were going to tell a story that wasn’t authentic to who we are. When they realized that the heart of the brand was totally rooted in authenticity and was just shining a bright light on our work in a way that gave a nod to the diversity of what we do but also spoke to what tied us together and what united us as a global group, that’s when people got it.
Drew: How did your targets react?
Dara: They were so moved and tearful and I had people, from our country director in Iraq to the woman who heads our programming in Nigeria, come to me and say “I have never been so proud to be a part of this organization.” That was the lightbulb moment. They saw themselves in it and then they understood what it is we’re trying to accomplish. It wasn’t until that point, though.
Drew: That’s a great story. How did you measure success with the rebranding?
Dara: Step one was clearly the response that we were getting internally, because in an organization that’s not centralized, our team members in the field actually have to activate and bring our brand to life and if they’re not feeling it, and they don’t believe in it, they’re not going to do it. The brand would fall apart. Step one was that people bought in. Every week, I get photos from people in the field who are so proud to share with us ways that they’re bringing the brand to life themselves consistently. That tells us that we’re getting the internal buy-in we need to continue to move forward.
Drew: Do you have other measures?
Dara: The other thing that we’re starting to see as we’re being more consistent and bringing this to life externally is obviously greater response rates in terms of increase in giving. We’re coming off of our strongest end of year in fundraising and we’re seeing people who are more engaged too. They’re more interested in spending time with our story and hearing more. All of those metrics are moving in the right direction and that tells us that our story not only resonates with us internally, but it’s also resonating with other people.
Drew: What would you say the biggest lessons learned from all of this are?
Dara: I think there’s been an evolution in brand development over the past 5-10 years. The days of the big “ta-da,” the big reveal, where you would do a giant brand launch and you’d have a thousand page brand book and you’d say “look, we’ve answered all these questions now go forth and conquer” are over. Iteration is now king. I think we learned that it was important for us to be willing to not answer all the questions and that’s why we’ve called it a rolling rollout, where we are engaging in the stakeholders that are key to bringing the brand to life and we’re getting their input along the way. We’re evolving little things along the way to make sure that the brand is really usable for people, and that it’s responsive to how people need to bring the brand to life within a framework. I think iteration is a big key lesson.