Illinois Policy Institute: Transforming a NonProfit Brand
Case Study
The Results

Three major legislative victories for Illinois families
Giving increased 30%
Five brand awards for marketing content including a prestigious Peter Lisagor Award

“AE Marketing Group’s rare ability to align both operational process with marketing strategy fueled our transformation to a consumer-centric brand.”

John Tillman
Chief Executive Officer at Illinois Policy Institute


Often consumers don’t realize that every day they are impacted by public policy.

  • The pothole on your street? Public Policy.
  • Hailing an Uber? Public Policy.
  • Eating a food truck snack? Public Policy.
  • Overcrowded school? Public Policy.
  • Starting a small business? Public Policy.

For years, the Illinois Policy Institute had made good public policy their mission. Property taxes high? They had a solution. Healthcare choice? They had a solution. Municipal pension debt? Yes, they had a solution. But was anyone listening?

A small, dedicated audience was indeed listening, but that audience wasn’t large enough to cut through the clutter and make a major impact for the people of Illinois. Public policy was lost amidst politicians, media, consumer apathy and the Institute’s own messaging.

Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman recognized, “We had a great product (in our people, policy and research), but needed to market the Institute like a consumer brand.”


Tillman and team looked to AE Marketing Group to transform the Institute into a marketing-centric organization and allow for more dramatic penetration of its policy solutions with core audiences. Said AE Marketing Group CEO Brian Walker, “I was impressed by the talent inside the Institute. They were some of the smartest people I had ever met, and passionate too. But we had two major hurdles from day one – operationalize the brand to become a holistic marketing machine and a culture war.”

A strong brand is only as good as its internal and external forces aligned with data and design. The Institute had to shift its internal forces and design away from just policy wonk and toward stories that real people could relate to and more easily understand.

Since relationships cultivate over time and the Institute corporate culture was embedded in legacy thinking, this approach required a sustained effort. However by working together through staff retreats, fostering department collaboration and promoting 1-on-1 coaching, the operational process was slowly reengineered, solving the internal brand challenges.

Noted Jonathan Greenberg, Vice President of External Relations at the Institute, “To witness AE Marketing Group chip away at our old habits and force us to think differently was really special.”


As the Institute’s internal tide began to change, the focus then shifted to marketing strategy. It was absolutely critical for the Institute to curate a series of real stories about real people that defined policy in new light. For this series, message was everything: simple, emotional and authentic.

The halo effect of this strategy was that it demonstrated to Institute staff that people and not policy was actually at the heart of their work every day.

For example:

  • James Nuccio and Gabriel Wiese launched their food truck and were simply following their dreams until local government said, “not so fast.”
  • Jailyn Baker was a young girl at a bad school in a bad neighborhood who just wanted a chance at a better education.
  • Pam Harris did what any mom would do – take care of her child – until unions tried to get in the way.

john tillman ceo illinois policy

“AE Marketing Group aligned our purpose with people,” Tillman said. “It became clear how we educate and engage citizens and lawmakers to ensure all Illinoisans can benefit from a free market.”


Over a period of just 90 days:

  • Research heads became campaign marketing managers
  • Editorial processes were aligned to maximize reach and content impact
  • Storytellers were tapped to recruit and document real people around the state
  • Those stories were layered on an integrated media and grassroots plan

What happened next was truly transformational:

3 major victories against legislation impacting Illinois families through effective
messaging micro-targeted media and grassroots efforts

Development enjoyed strong retention and acquisition increase of 30% new donors including key demographic penetration

Gained national attention both in traditional and non-traditional media for “No Cronies” marketing campaign, highlighting corruption in government. Brand amplified across Reddit, Huffington Post, Built in Chicago and more.

Triple digit increases in website visitors (250%), Facebook fans (254%}, YouTube views (654%) and Twitter followers grew (15%)

5 brand awards for marketing campaigns and content in 2014


For years, the Illinois Policy Institute had made good public policy their mission. Property taxes high? They had a solution. Healthcare choice? They had a solution. Municipal pension debt? Yes, they had a solution. But was anyone listening? Learn how AE Marketing Group transformed this nonprofit brand to think and act like a for-profit consumer marketing brand.

Devise a comprehensive brand strategy that fosters holistic marketing campaigns.
Key Challenge
How can the Institute move beyond public policy to become more marketing-centric and consumer relevant?
As an independent government watchdog fighting for hardworking taxpayers, the Illinois Policy Institute – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization generates marketable policy solutions to unleash Illinois’ talent and entrepreneurial ability. To learn more, visit

Get In Touch With Us