A nonprofit view of the "B" word

Ah . . . BRAND, aka the "B” word—we are having a tough time in the nonprofit sector.

And I get it. As a brand and communication strategist for nonprofits, I'm well aware that the word branding is super annoying and a tough sell. It brings back awful memories: logo wars, brand policing, disgruntled staff; writing RFPs; and overpaid marketing agencies with toys meant to reinvigorate the creative process. 

Nonprofits function like an unstoppable treadmill–fundraise; recruit volunteers and board members; deliver programs; host events; produce annual report; plan year-end-giving campaign . . . rinse and repeat; rinse and repeat; rinse and repeat. Who has time for branding?

You do.

Before you tell me to take a long walk off a short pier, please hear me out:

  1. Nonprofit branding is not for-profit branding. It's not expensive, time consuming, manufactured, competitive, or crass. 
  2. You need to care about your brand. It's your biggest asset. It's who you are and why you are. Plus, you have a brand whether you like it or not. 
  3. Well-branded nonprofits run better. They reach more people, make more money, and bring more energy and joy to the work. You're likely to feel proud of yourself more consistently. And you should!

For-profit Branding

In the for-profit world, branding makes sense. Companies brand their products and services to differentiate themselves from their competition. For-profit marketers appeal to the needs, wants, and desires of the consumer. When done well, a company’s brand becomes part of a bigger story about a lifestyle that people want to be living. It’s manufactured. It's an illusion. 

A great example (demonstrated by Stefan Sagmeister at the HOW Design Conference) can be found in the automotive industry. Volkswagen, BMW, and Toyota are all car makers. Their logos are very similar and yet they evoke distinctly different lifestyles and values. 

Volkwagen  Free-spirited & Adventurous

& Adventurous

BMW  Affluent & Successful

Affluent &

Toyota  Responsible &  Practical

Responsible & 

By spending inconceivable amounts of money and time on branding, the automotive industry has successfully woven their brands into our collective psyches—turning cars into central fixtures in the lifestyle we want to be living.

Competitive. Manufactured. Expensive. 

Nonprofit branding is so fundamentally different from for-profit branding that it needs a new name. It's no wonder the “B” word has a bad reputation. It feels crass, aggressive, and even corrupt when applied to nonprofits. 

Nonprofit Branding

Nonprofit branding has nothing to manufacture but trust.

The only way to manufacture trust is by being yourself. A well-branded nonprofit is clear about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. They explain themselves precisely, honestly, and articulately. They stand out so they can get the attention of their natural supporters, partners, and collaborators. 

Collaborative. Authentic. Inexpensive.

Many nonprofits are beginning to look carefully at their brand as a part of the larger picture of their organization's strategy. 

A 2012 study of nonprofit branding published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review finds, “Although many nonprofits continue to take a narrow approach to brand management, using it as a tool for fundraising, a growing number are moving beyond that approach to explore the wider, strategic roles that brands can play: driving broad, long-term social goals, while strengthening internal identity, cohesion, and capacity." 

For nonprofits, "It’s what’s on the inside that counts." In the for-profit world what's on the inside makes little difference. For example: would you buy shoes from Amazonwho manage their staff through "ruthless intimidation," or Zappos, the advocates of the "happiness culture?" A conscious consumer might make a choice based on values but your average consumer doesn't care or know the difference.

Does your organization clearly articulate who you are, what you do, and why you do it? Do you need a better handle on your organization's message so you can connect with more supporters? Let's talk.

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Blogsusan hughesComment