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Case Study By
Nail Communications

September–December 2011 (campaign later ran in New Hampshire, Vermont and Ohio)


Rhode Island Community Food Bank

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Rhode Island Community Food Bank

  • CEO: Andrew Schiff
  • Chief philanthropy officer: Lisa Roth Blackman

Nail Communications

  • Creative partners: Alec Beckett and Brian Gross
  • Senior designer: Myles Dumas
  • Designer: Collin Gillespie
  • Art director: Laura Crigler
  • Copywriter: Mark Habke
  • Web designer: Sam Holland

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. 


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.

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Outdoor advertising created broad awareness for the Nothing “food brand.” (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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We marketed in the vernacular of food brands. The intentional irony added some emotional poignancy to our message. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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In-store shippers were a surprising and disruptive presence in the aisles of grocery stores. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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While we were working to develop the campaign, we realized that the moment when individuals fill their shopping carts with food for themselves and their families offered the best chance to connect them with the reality of hunger. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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We also created a virtual Nothing Store so that people could buy cans of Nothing anywhere in the world and share their purchase on social media. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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A robust website offered visitors many ways to help. A store locator showed them where they could buy Nothing nearby, and information was provided about how to volunteer at or advocate on behalf of a local food bank. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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In-store signage was a potent way to connect with people while they were thinking about food for their own families. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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We opened a standalone Nothing Store—complete with free samples of Nothing—during the holidays, which attracted media and politicians and sold hundreds of cans. (Photo: Myles Dumas)

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The success of Nothing in Rhode Island enabled the food bank to license the campaign to other states. (Photo: Myles Dumas)


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.


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.

Juror Comments

"The Nothing campaign thoughtfully accesses its audience in an appropriate and appealing way. There’s a fine line with this type of call to action—how to engage people without being overly sentimental, clever or pedantic. The campaign is pure in its message. It provides simplicity and drama, all wrapped up in a creative provocation that relies on an unexpected twist to capture attention. The design team was able to execute the Nothing campaign across multiple points of engagement without incurring fatigue around the central message. Its extensibility, through licensing to other states, was another compelling data point that the jury considered as we weighed the campaign’s merits with its sustainability as a platform. Nothing is a great role model." —Valerie Casey

"Great project, great visuals, great writing! I love the Nothing submission; it’s just so smart." —Jessica Hische

"This is a very smart, inventive way to catalyze action around an important problem. Through the use of real physical props—empty cans in a grocery store context—the reality of hunger is made more immediate and actionable to those who might help address the problem. Great concept." —Brad Johnson

"Game changer. Moved the needle. Inspirational. Simple, elegant and smart. A strong concept carried and executed with integrity and resolve." —Clement Mok

"This campaign has the sophistication and engagement typically executed by big brands with big budgets. It grabs the viewer before they realize what it’s about and educates them before they realize what’s happened. In this case, it’s for the greater good." —Josh Rubin

"Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this project. I admire the clever and provocative concept, but have difficulty appreciating the execution. The visual language intentionally (and successfully) mimics that of “traditional” food packaging and advertising, but it so faithfully apes that bland and uninspiring language that I have a difficult time connecting with the parody. On the other hand, it did increase food donations and generated considerable media exposure, the positive results of which are difficult to measure but probably benefit the client over the long-term." —Christopher Simmons

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