NONPROFIT BRANDING: Betrayed By My Hero – Burke’s Tale Of Childhood Angst

Planning on using imprinted branding products in your marketing and fundraising programs? This simple childhood occurrence asserts the most important thing you need to keep in mind. (My wife, Janice, thinks the story is funny. She doesn’t realize how ticked off I still am almost 70 years later!)

In March of 1947 my companions and I inhabited a world composed of inescapable realities. Parents. Bedtime. Catching fireflies. Snowball fights. Fights over Lima beans. A world enriched by loads of fantasy and highlighted by cowboy movies each Saturday. (A double-feature, plus cartoons, was 12¢. A bag of popcorn, with real butter, was another 3¢.)

Within that happy world I encountered a disaster which brought me to my psychic knees. It is a lesson for today’s constituent-dependent nonprofits.

By common agreement the cornerstone of our little world was Gene Autry.  (Apologies to readers of later generations. Autry was a movie cowboy/singer.) At the time he was in trouble. An upstart named Roy Rogers was beginning to eclipse Autry’s hold on youngsters. Worse – Rogers assumed the overheated title “King of the Cowboys.”

We scoffed at the royal overtones of Roy Roger’s self-investiture. Our disdain was rooted in the American mindset during and right after World War II. Even little kids knew America was created by righteous colonists who had thwarted an evil king and his invading army. More persuasive, we lived at the edge of adult conversation focused on tragedy in foreign lands, tragedy that somehow affected the family down the street – or even our own family. We were raised as rabid nationalists in a red, white and blue sea of wartime fear and subsequent post-war euphoria.

Roy Rogers called himself “King.” KING? To us that meant royalty.  Royalty meant Europe. Europe meant a horrible war that made our mothers cry and our fathers get all stiff-faced. We were American kids. Our fathers and uncles had just finished kicking Hitler’s ass. We knew Gene Autry could do the same to the impostor – the alleged King of the Cowboys.


One day in 1947 the world turned upside down. Affinity was challenged. Affinity lost the fight.  I renounced my commitment to Good Old Gene. And crossed over to the growing Roy Rogers constituency. Therein lies a lesson for nonprofit marketers.

My new Gene Autry cap pistol (birthday gift that March) was my greatest possession. It was better and more realistic than the toy guns owned by any of my friends.  Its white plastic handles, the fringed holster and even the box it came in all carried Gene Autry’s official signature. The box also had a color photo of Autry and Champion, the Wonder Horse.

To me – and to others in our little world – that cap gun symbolized the affinity Gene and I had developed for each other. Possessing it made me Top Dog in our little gang.

Then I dropped the pistol. The barrel broke off. Without the barrel my Gene Autry pistol was useless.

My pal Gary looked at the broken toy and labeled it a “crap gun.” CRAP GUN!

I should have been a 7-year old pirate. They have sturdy pistols.

Now the owner of a crap gun, I began to cry. Without that beautiful pistol my relentless slide down the social hierarchy had begun.  Faith in Gene Autry evaporated. My hero had let me down. I owned a crap gun.


Therein lies a critical lesson for constituent-dependent nonprofits. Pride of association had turned to disappointment. I lost faith in the Autry brand. Could any example of cause and effect be more natural. Or more easily avoided? 

This story is not just the recollection of a minor event that occurred to a little kid in 1947. It is an insight into how affinity relationships work. Like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, your organization built a constituency. That’s your prime market. The source of your financial support.

To encourage affinity, and to provide constituents with badges of their affinity, nearly all nonprofits distribute logo-imprinted branding products to supporters.

Do this properly and you enhance the brand.

Do it carelessly and the product will work against you. The barrel might fall off.  That’s when you betray the brand.

SIMPLE PREMISE: because constituent affinity is so fragile, you can’t afford to associate your brand with products that might disappoint their owners!

BOTTOM LINE: Be mindful – quality issues are the source of a unique vulnerability for nonprofits. There is a lot involved here. Othere posts in the Nonprofit Branding Blog help you understand this issue and present some techniques to help you to guard against the risk. Having supplied over 21,000 nonprofit marketing and fundraising campaigns with products and guidance, we have a lot to say on this subject. We’ll try to make it fun to read and worth sharing with your colleagues.

7 thoughts on “NONPROFIT BRANDING: Betrayed By My Hero – Burke’s Tale Of Childhood Angst

  1. Well communicated and the bottom paragraphs sums it all up! Any business owner should spend time contemplating these details.
    Great Great Great..

    Can’t wait for the flaming tire story to come out!!!

  2. Janice & John,
    I have learned so much from you guys over the years and I am so excited knowing that I will now be able to learn even more from you in the future through your Blog. Thank you and good luck in your new adventures…

    • This needs to be explained. If you are from the public broadcasting industry, you surely know who Neil Best is. What you may not know is that we have been friends since worked together at the university 30 years ago. When Neil’s younger brother was not available, my parents hired Neil to babysit for me.

  3. This analogy is genius. How were you betrayed? Because your prized cap gun broke. And, for you, that broke Gene Autrey’s reputation. Well, I hope your blog readers ask around about your competition. And then compares reputations. Clearly, VisAbility takes the time to know fund-drives, imprinting, broadcasting, product quality, manufacturing and delivery reliability, and a dozen other invisible areas of specialization required for true customer satisfaction. Bravo.

  4. Pingback: FUNDRAISING PREMIUMS: How & Why | nonprofit branding blog

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