A Conversation with Tom Fishburne Marketoonist

Posted on Nov 17, 2011

A Conversation with Tom Fishburne Marketoonist News Post Image

Paul Skinner: Tom, for the benefit of any readers unfamiliar with your work, you use cartoons to communicate marketing messages, and have built up a massive following with 100,000 marketers engaging with your work every week and features in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and the New York Times.

You run Marketoonist to create cartoon-based marketing campaigns at help businesses communicate and have developed cartoon campaigns for the likes of Microsoft, Harvard Business School, CaseCentral, Epicurious, Boeing, Satmetrix, and others.

And you draw from a 15-year career in consumer marketing. Most recently as VP at Method Products, the innovative home care brand, and previously leading brands at Nestle and General Mills.

And on a personal note I recently listened to you speak in Soho, London and your talk just made me want to go out and create – and was therefore probably the most worthwhile thing I’ve listened to all year!

Tom, before we get on to your cartoons, we’ve heard a lot about your experiences as VP of marketing for the iconic cleaning brand Method and loved the mission: “People against dirty!”. Could you tell us a little about how that mission shaped a participatory approach to your marketing and what charities and social ventures can take from that experience and apply in their own context?

Tom Fishburne: On every method bottle, you’ll find the statement, “made by and for people against dirty”. “Dirty” is a much more powerful sentiment than simply a clean home. And that mission not only drove the Method team, it inspired the consumers who followed us.

There’s a quote from Simon Sinek I like that “people don’t buy what you make. They buy why you make it”. There has never been a greater time for purpose-driven organizations. There is a shift happening in marketing from brand promise to brand purpose. Yet, if you talk to many businesses about purpose, they think about the stale mission statements that hang on the wall that don’t really inspire anyone (which I enjoy parodying in cartoons).

I met recently with an amazing organization called Teach for America that places recent college grads into a two-year teaching assignment at under-privileged urban and rural schools. They shared that it was tough to recruit college grads who were fielding top job offers from consulting firms and blue chip companies. I shared that while they couldn’t out-pay those competing organizations, they could out-purpose them. Purpose is the killer app.

Paul: Fascinating stuff Tom. And from the perspective of Pimp My Cause I’d have to agree – the only reason we are able to achieve what we do is because our members share our purpose. That is certainly our “killer app” – and the kind of motivation that you have encouraged Teach America to tap into is exactly the well from which many of our causes need to draw to achieve their goals as well.

I love the Mission Statement cartoon – and speaking of which, of all the “marketoons” you have created, could you show us your favourite and tell us the story behind it?

Tom: Any idea worth launching into the world will face obstacles, set backs, and idea killers. Sometimes those challenges will sand away the essence of the idea until there is nothing left. It’s easier to critique than to create. Yet, I admire those who plant ideas even against the odds, and through passion and perseverance, manage to grow those ideas into something remarkable.

Paul: Marvellous! I think one of the features of cartoons that makes them so powerful is their ability to persuade – what lessons can be drawn out of the way cartoons work that can help people improve their marketing?

Tom: We live in a cluttered world and audiences are no longer captive to a handful of television stations. It is no longer effective to simply out-interrupt each other. There has never been a better time for brands that can tell a story well. Yet, most marketing is not content worth sharing.

A good question to ask is whether your audience would tape your marketing communication to their fridge?

I think that marketers can learn from cartoons as one of the simplest forms of storytelling. The cartoon caption contest ignited readership in the New Yorker. The most popular cartoon on the web (XKCD) has punchlines you can't understand if you're not a Unix programmer. Cartoons are episodic, simple, interactive, and incredibly powerful with niche audiences. Most importantly, the best cartoons are about the reader, not about the cartoonist. Audiences can easily filter out marketing that simply pitches features and benefits. Today’s marketing can’t be too self-promotional. It needs to be content worth sharing.

Paul: Well after posting this interview I’m off to the fridge to stick that cartoon on the door!

But before I do that Tom, at this point in our interviews we ask you to pick out one of our member causes and offer them some high level advice or ideas to help them with their marketing. Who would you like to pick and why?

Tom: There are so many inspiring member causes. I was particularly struck by CreateAbility and their mission to “encourage the artist in vulnerable people”. I think that we too often forget the artistic ability we all shared as children. All of us have the capacity to create. When you awaken that natural ability as adults, I believe it can inspire confidence and empowerment. I’ve started to incorporate drawing workshops into many of the organizations I speak with. It is liberating.

Paul: That is a great choice Tom. And what advice would you give them?

Tom: I like the idea that the CreateAbility artwork can be be exhibited and sold. I’d recommend expanding that idea further. In a marketing context, each piece of artwork is a piece of media. The artwork could be shared, not only in exhibitions, but in social media, PR, and any point of CreateAbility marketing communication. Each piece of artwork is a Trojan Horse that communicates the individual artist as well as CreateAbility as a whole. There is no cause website yet, but I would recommend building one with example artwork at the core and easy social media sharing built right in.

I would look at Kickstarter.com as a role model. Kickstarter funds and features creative projects with a similar aim of encouraging the artist. Kickstarter has never had to pay for advertising. Instead, it lets the creative projects they host do all the talking. Every time an artist shares their creative project with the world, it translates to increased awareness for Kickstarter. It’s a virtuous circle for all. CreateAbility can take a similar approach.

These personal referrals can help create awareness and break through the clutter with the CreateAbility audience.

To learn more about Tom visit http://tomfishburne.com/.

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