As Emerson College Senior Nick Reynolds thinks back on the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, which occurred less than a mile from Emerson’s campus, he remembers two distinct feelings: eagerness to help—and uncertainty about what to do.
“We were, you know, looking for a way to do something,” Reynolds said, “because we were on campus, and everyone on campus didn’t really have an idea what they should be doing.”
So, Reynolds and his friend Chris Dobens hatched a plan. They looked for a phrase that would work as a rallying cry, and considered “Stay Strong Boston Strong” before settling on just “Boston Strong.” They designed a simple T-shirt, featuring those two words written in yellow on a bright blue background. And then they started selling: $20 a shirt, with $5 earmarked for production costs and the remaining $15 going to charity.
They thought they might sell around a thousand shirts. Instead, they’ve sold nearly 65,000—and donated nearly $1 million to the One Fund, the charity Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and then-Boston Mayor Tom Menino started the day after the bombings.
In retrospect, Reynolds and Dobens’ best move may have been picking a phrase that was ambiguous.
“I think we really liked the idea of Boston Strong because it could mean different things to different people” Reynolds says. “The victims in their recovery can be Boston Strong. The first responders can be Boston Strong. The people in the U.K. buying our T-shirts, can in their own way be Boston Strong.”
But if that vagueness helped the original shirt sell, it also left room for more specialized products. Hop onto Google Marketplace and you’ll find a dizzying array of options, from a vintage distressed “Southie Strong” shirt to a pink “Boston Strong / America Strong” organic baby bib.
With most of these products, there’s no sign that any of the proceeds go to charity. Instead of helping victims, they seem to be all about turning a profit. But not every case of Marathon-bombing branding is so ethically cut and dried.
Last year, in a video posted to L.L. Bean’s YouTube account, One Fund treasurer Mike Sheehan praised that company for creating a special One Fund tote bag, with all profits going to charity.
“You know,” Sheehan said at the time, “I was not surprised to see L.L. Bean give a call—first of all with a cash donation right off the bat, and then with the One Fund bag."
“I would bet this sells out instantly, because they want to help—people want to help,” Sheehan added. “The generosity, the good will of people in giving to the One Fund is unheard of.”
Of course, by harnessing that generosity, L.L. Bean also made itself look good. It’s a concept known as “cause marketing,” and it’s becoming the way many charities work today.
Mara Einstein is a professor at Queens College and the author of the book “Compassion, Inc.” She says cause marketing represents a huge change from the days when charity was considered more commendable if it was bestowed unobtrusively.
“It means we’ve fundamentally started to shift the idea of what charity is based on consumer principles,” Einstein says.
According to Einstein, cause marketing, has been gaining momentum for years, from the anti-AIDS “Red Campaign” to Avon’s pink-tinged crusade against breast cancer. As Einstein sees it cause marketing offers consumers two concrete benefits: it lets them show how charitable they’ve been while also helping manage their anxieties.
“Our sense of fear is so heightened that we’re trying to find a way to manage it,” Einstein says. “And an easy way for us to manage it is to act on it. And an easy way to act on it is to do something like contribute to a campaign or buy a T-shirt. And the T-shirts are really important because it becomes a talisman. It becomes something to hold on to and say, ‘OK, I did something.’”
The danger is that cause marketing can become more about the brand and less about the cause. But precisely if and when that happens can be difficult to say, Einstein says.
Take last year’s worst-to-first Boston Red Sox team, which embraced the “Boston Strong” concept with a vengeance. The Sox hosted bombing victims at Fenway Park, donated to the One Fund, and placed the World Series trophy at the marathon finish line. All of that probably bolstered the already-strong Red Sox brand. But it also offered psychological benefits to the city that are difficult to measure.
Those Emerson students may have provided a branding boost, too. In a commencement speech last year, Emerson alum and Will and Grace creator Max Mutchnik said Reynolds and Dobens were able to come up with “Boston Strong” because they were, as he put it, “Emerson Strong.”
That phrase isn’t on a T-shirt. Yet.
Watch the story on Greater Boston: