Case Study: Nothing

Rhode Island Community Food Bank
Project Title
September–December 2011 (campaign later ran in New Hampshire, Vermont and Ohio)

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments.

Project brief

The Rhode Island Community Food Bank asked us to recruit younger, educated, tech-savvy and wealthy donors to replace their check-writing, once-a-year, older and poorer existing base. The challenge of getting through to this new audience was summarized by their perception that nothing could end hunger in Rhode Island. With some smart thinking and an intellectual about-face, this problem was redefined as the solution, which empowered us to act on it.


Following the Great Recession of 2008, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank was facing its most challenging set of circumstances since opening its doors in 1982. The worst economic downturn in generations resulted in unprecedented demand at their pantries, and a cynical, results-oriented donor base saw hunger prevention as a never-ending 24-hour battle against which their donations would have little impact.


People across America have become great at ignoring charity appeals. And who can blame them? The formula is staid and worn. There are too many organizations pleading for dollars that Americans can’t afford to give. And Americans, led by the standard set by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, want tangible results that they feel they contributed to achieving.

In 2011, Americans faced an especially challenging set of circumstances: high unemployment, falling house prices and little sign of an improved economy. These issues were magnified for the people of Rhode Island, who at that time had just experienced the worst flood in the state’s history. Large swaths of Rhode Island had been declared national disaster zones.

It was to this very audience that we were asked to present an appeal for the Rhode Island Food Bank. But how would we effectively present hunger to the people of the world’s richest economy who, quite frankly, struggle with the notion of hunger in Africa, let alone hunger on their own doorstep? And how would we address the fact that hunger, like the proverbial boomerang, always comes back? How would we make potential donors feel that they were making a meaningful contribution to solving this problem? Finally, in such a noisy media environment, how would we give a project with a tiny budget a loud and booming voice?

These challenges were not insignificant, and we knew the solution had to be elegant. So we utilized four simple ideas:

  • To demonstrate the scale of the problem and highlight the concept that food is the solution, behave like a food brand.
  • To overcome the intangible nature of solving hunger (in comparison with building a new wing of a hospital or a school playground, for example), provide a simple and tangible way to opt in.
  • To help dramatize the message, find a way to put the problem near the solution. (How could we put “hunger” near “food?”)
  • Given our small budget, could our concept also be a media channel and/or message delivery system?


From meetings with senior management to qualitative interviews with donors, from tours of the food bank warehouse to briefing the creative team during a meal at a soup kitchen, we immersed ourselves in the issues around hunger in the local community before digging in.

Our research uncovered the fact that target donors didn’t want more guilt; they wanted to feel empowered. The typical “tear-jerker” pro-bono TV spot that stations run in whatever slots their paying customers didn’t want wasn’t going to turn these potential donors around to the food bank’s plight.

Design solution

The inspiration to turn “nothing” into a “food brand” was clarifying, and it instantly put several assignments in front of us:

  • Nothing needs a logo
  • Nothing needs packaging
  • Nothing needs in-store marketing
  • Nothing needs advertising
  • Nothing needs distribution
  • Nothing needs to be launched
  • Nothing needs some money to get going

We hit the road with our client and made our case to potential corporate donors. Not only did we ask donors to give money to buy food, we also asked them to “give money for Nothing.” Somewhat surprisingly, Citizens Bank Foundation seemed to like this inherently un-bank-like idea, and they gave our client $100,000. Our client gave that money to us, and we got down to the business of building a brand called Nothing, which was launched in September 2011.


Our concept created several unique challenges. From a communications standpoint, what was the appropriate tone? Funny? Serious? Wacky? Thought-provoking? Traditionally, a food brand has to look yummy. It has to present “tastiness.” And yet our food brand had to do exactly the opposite, conveying the stark reality that our little state of Rhode Island was facing.

Even more challenging was the fact that the client had come to us asking for a marketing campaign that they could simply put out there and then sit back and reap the benefits. We were essentially asking them to become brand managers, with all the workload that comes with it.


The Nothing campaign was transformative for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, a well-respected but staid and low-key operation. The campaign was, and continues to be, a conversation-starter, generating unprecedented buzz and awareness of the issue and the organization. It also helped define the food bank as innovators in the non-profit community. This perception has opened doors to new donors who have proven themselves to be immensely helpful through a period of sustained need.

Our goal of recruiting wealthier, results-oriented donors was evidenced in the increase in online donations received during the campaign: 40 percent more than what was received during the same period in the previous year. And there were more than 14,000 can sales across the duration of the campaign, generating $39,900 in donations and an additional $16,000 in cash that was collected in cans and returned directly to the food bank.

Nothing was everywhere: The New York Times, TV news shows, NPR and the front page of The Providence Journal. It made our client and the issue of hunger the main agenda for our state, something that never would have happened if we had used traditional solutions.

To date, we have received 14 television and radio spots including interviews, news stories and features. We’ve received 11 print placements (including articles, features and editorials) and 24 online placements. Our broadcast media investment was $20,000, and the value of broadcast media generated was more than $370,000. The campaign was recognized with several awards, including the Jay Chiat Award for Strategic Excellence, the Hatch Awards, One Show and the Effie Awards.

Substantial growth in the food bank’s presence on social media platforms was emblematic of our ambition to recruit a younger, more tech-savvy audience. The food bank saw a 66 percent increase in Facebook fans and a 47 percent increase in Twitter followers.

The Nothing campaign has now been licensed by three other states—Ohio, Vermont and New Hampshire—which has created another revenue stream for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the campaign has been seeing the food bank’s status dramatically elevated in Rhode Island while also watching the idea of “Nothing” spread into other communities around the United States.

Additional information

To learn more about the campaign, watch the video.