Beyond marketing: Cosmic’s Eric Ressler on helping social impact brands make more impact | The UnNoticed Entrepreneur — step into the spotlight.
By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur .
Eric Ressler , Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of , talked about cause-based marketing and entrepreneurship in the latest episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. He’s working with companies that are making a social impact — companies that often have to change behaviours for their audience, introducing disruptive technologies that also need communication.
How Cosmic Landed on the Social Impact Space
Cosmic is a social impact creative agency. They work with organisations that exist to create a social impact as their primary mission. It includes a broad variety of organisations — from nonprofits to social enterprises to foundations or funders and sometimes even government organisations. The thread that ties them all together is that they exist primarily to create a positive impact on humanity.
As a creative agency, Cosmic helps them with building their brand and the digital expression of that brand through websites and other channels so that they can reach their audience, build brand awareness, and scale their impact with whatever niche they serve.
In the US, over 40,000 marketing-focused agencies are out there, serving various types of clients. And at Cosmic, they realised that for them to scale their organisation and grow — not necessarily in terms of size but in terms of impact — they needed to find a niche of their own; a category they could own.
They looked back at all the different work they’d done over the years. They were about seven years in when they made the transition, and they’d done a lot of work with tech startups as they’re close to Silicon Valley. They’ve worked with business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) brands and had awesome experiences working with them. They learned a lot from all these different sectors and from their clients across those sectors.
Looking back, they found that the work that they got the most enjoyment and the most meaning out of was when they were able to work with social impact organisations.
They also saw a huge opportunity there because, traditionally, their branding, marketing, and content were not at the same level as some other companies doing tech, entertainment, or food and beverage. They felt that their expertise in design, communication, and technology — when applied to social impact — has potential.
A Big Space Addressing a Big Problem
There’s a huge variety of focus areas within social impact. It covers everything from climate and environment to sustainability and conservation (which is often where people go) and social services (or helping people who need additional support).
The categories can be very broad because science and research are also considered social impact. These include organisations or institutions that are researching how we can create new technologies, new systems, or new ways of doing things that can make society better for all of us.
We’re now in a situation where there’s still a lot of inequity globally. There are a lot of folks who are just doing their best to get by and perhaps not even succeeding there. On the flip side, there are a lot of folks who are quite wealthy. They have wealth beyond what they could ever need, spend, or imagine. And there’s everyone in between.
We’re still trying to figure out how to create a society that works better for everyone. In certain ways, we’ve succeeded; in a lot of other ways, we’ve failed. But the good news is there are a lot of institutions, organisations, and people who see these issues and want to help to make them better.
They at Cosmic feel lucky to work with organisations that look at that from all kinds of different lenses.
The Challenges Faced by Social Impact Brands
In the cause-based category, funding is always a challenge (though Eric thinks it might not be completely different from profit-driven counterparts). How do you attract, retain, and grow funding to scale operations? In this sector, this can be more challenging or not as challenging in certain ways.
In general, though, he’d say that the social impact space is underfunded. There’s not enough funding to reach the scale and scope of the problems they’re trying to solve.
Oftentimes, staff, employees, and leaders within these organisations are making significantly less than they would make doing similar work in the corporate sector, so to speak; yet, they’re making those sacrifices because they care deeply about the work that they’re working on. And even those that are paid more fairly are still working longer hours or taking on more work than they typically would in the corporate setting.
But now, we’re starting to see some shifts. People realise that it’s not sustainable — both at the level of the organisation and the funders who are funding the organisation (whether it’s government, institutional, philanthropy, or foundation).
Though we’re starting to see some tides change there, it’s still a persistent problem in the sector.
In general, there’s also less emphasis on communications, brand building, and marketing in the social impact space. That’s starting to change as well in a positive way. And hopefully, some of Cosmic’s work is starting to help there.
Agencies like theirs and other leaders and consultants are saying that just because their clients are nonprofit or social enterprises, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to build a strong foundational brand and invest in marketing and communications.
For Eric, this also stems from this persistent problem of being underfunded: Many organisations would love to do this, but they just don’t have the funding to do it.
Sometimes, they also don’t understand why such things are important. They also think they shouldn’t do those because they’re a nonprofit (which is a traditional idea in this space).
All this is starting to change, which is great because it needs to change. He and his company have seen how building a strong brand and having an understanding of the potential of marketing — and applying that to social issues — can make a huge difference. Sometimes, it can be thing that can help you break through as an organisation.
You could be doing really good work, but you might not be doing a good job of telling people about the work that you’re doing or attracting the right supporters that you need — or even the right team to do that work.
Another challenge is that there’s no in-house capacity, capability, or expertise around how to do things like building a brand and marketing.
In the traditional corporate sector, you have a marketing department, and you have marketing expertise early on; that might even be one of the first things you invest in before some of the core operational work because you want to start building awareness.
That challenge is unique, and it’s one of the reasons Cosmic saw an opportunity in this space as an agency: Organisations really need help doing this work. They don’t have internal expertise, or if they do, they don’t have the capacity to do it. They need a partner to help at least build the foundation and teach them how to use these tools properly.
One of their clients is called STEM from Dance . They’re based out of New York, but they’re expanding outside of that region and into the rest of the United States and, ultimately, beyond that. They have a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)-based curriculum for high school-aged and younger girls.
Primarily, they’re trying to help reach black and brown girls who may not have interest or access to STEM-based education in the way that they would need to be prepared for a STEM-based career.
They’re doing it through a dance-focused curriculum. They’re bringing girls in and creating these dance performances with elements of technology. The girls are programming lights, working with technology and code, and mirroring that with dance.
It’s a really interesting kind of expression and creative way of bringing people into STEM who traditionally haven’t had as much access, opportunity, or cultural interest in STEM-based activities because of the structures of society.
Cosmic helped STEM from Dance with a brand refresh and building out a new website and digital infrastructure to help scale their program and generate more interest in funding for the work they’re doing.
Another is an organisation in the climate action space, and it’s called Let’s Green California . It’s a regional campaign in the state that Cosmic helped with in terms of branding and building out an action and education centre.
The idea is that they’re creating legislation and a grassroots movement to help push California’s role as a climate action leader even further and faster. The goal is to let others use this model of how California is leading in the climate action, environmental, and sustainability space — and apply that model to other states and, eventually, the world.
Cosmic helped with their brand and their overall messaging strategy. Then, they built out some digital infrastructure that allowed them to generate support and a movement for the campaign and ultimately led to them publishing a bill that they’re able to get signed into law in California.
Creating Unique Visual Identities
Creating a visual identity is unique to every organisation.
Certainly, there might be some trends within social impact that Cosmic follows. Still, the way they think about branding is that it’s about understanding the audience that their client is serving and trying to reach deeply so that they can create a brand that resonates with that audience.
There could be trends in environmentalism, for instance. But Cosmic may go against those trends intentionally to create something that stands out, is different and bold, and captures people’s attention.
This is actually the case for Let’s Green California .
If you think about a lot of climate action organisations and their branding, it’s traditionally kind of sombre, negative, and sometimes alarmist. They, however, thought that it was not going to work. If they want people to feel like they can make a difference, then they’d want to build a brand that feels good. And so they tapped into the nostalgic, good vibes of California in the past and launched a retro-futurist brand.
They did that because they wanted people to feel like they could make a difference and feel good while doing it, not like there’s so much doom and gloom out there about climate. Eric and his team did that for a good reason: They acknowledge that we need to get our act together. But if we constantly focus on the problems and make the solution too hard to feel emotionally connected to, it leads to apathy instead of action.
What they wanted is to create a brand that was inviting, had a positive feeling, and made people feel like there was still a sense of hope even though there was a lot of work to do — work that they needed to do very quickly.
Tools to Use
At Cosmic, they use many different platforms and technologies. They use some for themselves. Their clients also all have various tools and platforms that they use.
Sometimes, if the clients come to them are established, they’d figure out how to best use the tools that they have, extend them, or build on top of them. Other times, clients will ask for help with the right platform.
For example, with Let’s Green California, they used a tool called EveryAction . It’s built specifically for advocacy work, and there are specific benefits around their platform that wouldn’t exist in a tool like (which Cosmic uses for marketing automation and customer relationship management or CRM).
The tools do vary a lot. For Eric, though, there are two most important categories of tools: One is an internal project management tool.
Cosmic uses to manage all of their work. It serves as a place where they can look to know their priorities and deadlines across multiple clients. They also use HubSpot, while others use Salesforce and in their ecosystem. The key is to have a solid solution for your internal organisation and planning.
The other category of tools is for your external marketing communications and contact management.
Getting Cosmic Noticed
Eric has had Cosmic since 2009. And a number of elements moved the needle in terms of getting his agency noticed.
In the early days, they were really focused on doing good work and serving their clients well. If either of those two things goes away, then nothing else they do would really matter at the end of the day. This is the critical foundation for doing their work.
When they transitioned into social impact seven years ago, they knew there would be a lot of work to do to make a name for themselves in that niche.
They had a handful of social impact clients they served and did good work for, but no one really thought of them as a social impact-focused firm. At that point, they knew it was time for them to do a rebrand, which they did.
They came out with a new message and a new mission as an organisation. They articulated that clearly on their website and in everything they did — in how they communicated, in the types of clients they brought on, and in that whole process.
It was a rapid evolution for them. But one couldn’t simply close old doors and open new ones. There had to be a transition, especially because they’re funded by client work. They had to keep the cash flow and payroll going and all of that.
After that, they started to make a name for themselves in that space. And for Eric, a critical part is that they committed to producing content around the niche, mostly in written form: in articles on their website, white papers, articles, and resources that are free.
It’s what people would traditionally call content marketing — or producing valuable free content that would be helpful for people who will never hire them. The ultimate goal is to have content that’s valuable. Even if someone reads it and doesn’t hire them, they still benefit from that transaction, so to speak.
They also build brand awareness by coming onto podcasts and talking to folks so they won’t be regionally focused.
They used to get a lot of work being regionally focused and having an office in the Bay Area. If you’re a generalist, you can do quite well as a firm doing that. But knowing that they wanted to hit this social impact niche and not be constrained by their region, they knew they needed to have some other tactics to build broader brand awareness.
It’s why they also started doing a lot of the things they were suggesting their clients do, which is, ironically, not something that most agencies do. It’s easy not to take your own advice as an agency, not do content, not spend a lot of time on your own marketing, and just expect referrals to keep the doors open.
Looking back, the transition they made has been extremely valuable, and it was a lot of work. But, it’s work that’s well worth doing not just from a marketing standpoint — because producing content and spending time writing really helps sharpen your expertise in a way you weren’t expecting.
Sometimes, you might think that you know all about a topic and can write an article about it. But when you sit down and write, you’ll realise that you actually don’t know it as you thought you did. It turns out that there’s some deeper thinking that must be done.
To learn more about Cosmic, visit https://designbycosmic.com .
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This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.