Too many nonprofits settle for warm fuzzy feelings. They want people to feel “good” about donating to their cause, and “good” about participating in events. Good is a nice warm feeling, but it’s vague. Effective communication is specific, and that includes how we make people feel. What does it take for donors to feel joyful? Empowered? Excited? Filled with a sense of belonging? Why aren’t more people passionate about the work nonprofits do? There are people who identify themselves as “Shopaholics”; why can’t we create Donate-aholics?
“Our brand is the single greatest asset that our network has, and it’s what keeps everyone together.” – Marcia Marsh, World Wildlife Fund
Literally a century after the concept of “branding” was introduced, some of the biggest nonprofit organizations in the world have finally embraced dynamic branding strategies that both enhance their fundraising capabilities and strengthen organizational cohesion among employees and volunteers. Branding, they’ve discovered, is one of their most powerful tools for bringing their mission to life.
Branding Improves Mission Focus
Mission statements are useful tools for defining an organization, and they’re essential for many grant applications. But they’re limited in their ability to create company culture, which affects an organization’s internal cohesion, their ability to attract and sustain volunteers, and raise funds. Mission statements tend to be devoid of emotion, energy, excitement… feeling. Take a look at this mission statement by major for-profit corporation:
“The mission of ___ is dedication to the highest quality of customer service, delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.”
It’s hard to believe this vague, lifeless mission statement belongs to one of the most successful—and quirky—airlines in the world: Southwest. It could just as easily have been penned by your corner tax accountant. Warmth, friendliness, and pride are generic terms that Southwest needed to translate into actions to be experienced.
And they did. In 2014, Southwest underwent a complete brand overhaul. They decided that their unique position was a focus on people. That decision wasn’t entirely arbitrary—the airline had already built a reputation for quirky personal safety announcements and casual boarding. The brand agency, Lippincott designed Southwest’s logo, a tri-colored heart, and chose a new, bright palette for the company. They encouraged playfulness over professional objectivity; they simplified pricing and disengaged from bulk booking agencies like Travelocity. And they created posters that emphasizing the people of Southwest. In the end, customers just felt better about flying with them. And profits grew by 125%.
In a very real sense, brand does what your mission statement was supposed to do, which is inspire, motivate, attract, and build community. Their brand wasn’t different than their mission statement, it was better. Brand gave Southwest a personal style and set of values that were consistent from booking to departing the plane. That consistency embodied their mission, and made it something every employee could act upon, and every “customer” could experience. It became structural.
Branding Deepens Employees’ Connection to the Organization
Finding the right people — people with the desired mix of skills, values, and personalities — is a never-ending challenge for many nonprofits. People who are passionate about their organization’s work are more likely to share that enthusiasm with others. This creates a magnetic force that keeps teams together for longer, increasing continuity, cohesion, and performance. A strong brand can make staff feel more connected to the values, attitudes, and beliefs your organization stands for. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, created the WWF Brand Book. While one might expect it was designed for their marketing department, it was created for new staff orientation. It shows off their style, brags about their accomplishments, and explores their values. What it doesn’t include is information about their fonts, color palette, or writing guidelines. And they credit their brand strategy for putting them in the top 50 nonprofits in the world, just below the World Bank.
Branding Forwards Your Social Change Goals
Historically, nonprofit executives believed that the purpose of branding is to increase their visibility and positioning in relation to competitors, and that this would translate into fundraising success. Branding was primarily a tool for their fundraising and marketing departments– if they were lucky enough to have them. Today, a growing number of organizations are reaching beyond fundraising to explore how branding helps drive their mission goals.
Brand can drive an organization’s goals because the fundamental purpose of branding is not about product, but rather about relationship. Nike may sell shoes, but their brand is about being a part of an athletic community; wear their sneakers and you’re a part of Michael Jordan’s team. Branding is designed to:
- Increase public recognition
- Build emotional connection
- Express a clear value system
- Create a sense of community
- Provide consistency of messaging and experience
The WWF has one of the most powerful and interesting branding campaigns in the nonprofit world. What’s unique about their campaign is the degree of faith they put in their brand. While their provocative images may appear risky to other nonprofits, in reality they’re implementing a focused, strategic approach to brand communication. They’ve identified how their mission translates first into their brand goals, and then into visual imagery.
The goal of the WWF is “to conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.” (www.worldwildlife.org/about)
It’s easy to see how these goals mesh with the goals of branding theory:
- Increased public recognition… of ecological issues
- Build emotional connection… with their members and the public
- Expressing a clear value system… to the public regarding nature
- Create a sense of community… increase public involvement in their efforts
While the WWF brand is filled with startling imagery, many of their photos highlight the simple beauty of nature. Their use of imagery stretches beyond any single visual style, color palette, or tone. It works not because the images adhere to a uniform graphic style, but because it adheres to their mission and branding goals. Every image is very clearly in alignment with their goal.
By now it should be clear that brand should be defined broadly. A brand is more than a visual identity: a logo, branded cup, or graphic design used by an organization. It’s more than an organization’s reputation. It’s not a product, nor is it strictly a marketing strategy. A brand is a psychological construct in the minds of those who are aware of the organization. Or to say it more clearly: brand is how people feel about the company… in a very specific, deliberative way.
Branding Creates Community
One of the least talked about goals of branding is the creation of community. The most successful brands have community as a centerpiece of their strategy. Apple computer owners are zealous about their product. Starbucks creates micro communities in every café, complete with their own language for beverages. If you run a nonprofit, you know that developing a sense of community is vital for survival.
A brand community is a group of people formed on the basis of attachment to a company or organization. It stresses the connection between organization, individual identity, and culture. It also leverages social marketing techniques that motivate behavior change through highlighting positive social norms.
“Brand becomes critical when you’re seeking to create partnerships, when you’re seeking other funders, and when you’re looking to associate yourself with people in the field.” – Diane Fusilli, former communications director at the Rockefeller Foundation.
Nonprofit organizations often view communities as a service area. Everyone in Baseline County benefits from clean air, for example. But engagement strategies need to be targeted to be effective, and this means creating sub communities. Donors are one sub community; volunteers may be another. A passionate, clear, and exciting brand helps to unify all of these sub communities under a single umbrella of identity.
For nonprofits, branding has the ability to:
Help raise awareness of your subject matter
Help recruit volunteers
Strengthen organizational cohesion
Help retain and energize staff
Drive individual donor memberships and recurring donations
Help raises corporate donation
The strongest brands are structural in nature, and that kind of change takes deep reflection. But in the end, maybe… just maybe, we can coin the term “Donate-aholic.”