Cockroaches. They make us nervous, we don’t know what to expect from them, we stand semi-frozen waiting to see what direction they’ll dart off in next. But what do cockroaches have to do with design and branding? To me, inconsistent brands are like cockroaches. Because when brands present themselves inconsistently, we don’t know what to expect from them. And when we don’t know what to expect, our trust is eroded.
Your brand is the values that guide you, the roles you play, the relationships and interactions you have, and your impact. Your brand is a promise that your actions will always be aligned with your values. The trust you build and the reputation you have based on how well you keep this promise. And this means that inconsistent branding is a self-inflicted wound that undermines your cause and reduces social impact.
Consistent brands succeed because they meet (or exceed) expectations by aligning the experiences they deliver with organizational strategy. Design is the process through which we make these brand experiences tangible so that they create deeper meaning for audiences. And when driven by well-defined brand strategy, consistent design creates cohesive experiences that effectively engage audiences with your organization’s mission.
So how to create design consistency for your brand? Of course, there’s no silver bullet, but here are two things you simply can’t do without:
First, you need a commitment and a willingness to commit resources. The biggest reason organizations fail to translate their strategy into an effective brand is failing to prioritize and value their brand. This commitment starts at the top and works its way down.
Second, you need a design system and Brand Guidelines that make staying “on-brand” easy, by providing rules of the road and tools that help everyone understand what your brand experiences should look, sound, and feel like.
So, if design consistency is critical to successful nonprofit brands, what are five benefits it creates for your organization?
Benefit #1: Earn Trust & Increase Loyalty
Social-change organizations need great people and partners to succeed. And strong brands attract the kinds of people needed to advance their missions by consistently expressing why they matter with meaning. Talented employees looking to be a part of something for more than just money. Passionate supporters who spread the word. Committed donors who believe deeply in an organization’s potential. Strategic partners who want to collaborate to advance the cause.
By understanding the motivations of your audiences and identifying how your organization is meaningful to them, you’ll be able to develop strategic design and messaging that helps earn their trust and loyalty. And by consistently reminding people why they were attracted to you in the first place, your organization is that much more likely to remain relevant for the long run.
Brand Benefit #2: Strengthen Leadership
In branding, the pinnacle of excellence is what’s known as “the charismatic brand“—a brand for which there is no substitute. Charismatic brands create meaningful value for audiences and earn their trust. And consistent, high-quality design is critical to delivering the meaningful value and maintaining the trust needed to lead.
Great design is about the details. And when the brand experiences your organization creates are cohesive and well-designed, they create the confidence in your leadership and mission needed to have an impact. The more aligned your branding is with your organization’s mission and message, the more recognized and remembered it is for the important issues you work on—and the greater its leadership as a result.
Brand Benefit #3: Strengthen Fundraising
People’s willingness to spread the word and give more of their time, passion, and money to your cause is directly related to how positive their experiences with your brand are. Charity Water is an excellent example of an organization that consistently delivers engaging brand is experiences. And as a result, their fundraising is exceptional, in particular through social donations. This of course means increased funds for nonprofits. It also means lower operating costs, as your organization doesn’t have to work as hard to maintain engagement—and others are willing to help do some heavy lifting for you.
Since many experiences with organizations occur online, when it comes to fundraising your nonprofit’s website must be an aligned with your brand strategy. This means making sure that your messaging, design, and technology are always working together to deliver user experiences that reinforce who you are, what you do, and why it matters. Done right, nonprofit digital branding makes an organization an important part of who your audiences is, not just a place they give money to.
Brand Benefit #4: Optimize Marketing Outreach
Having a strong brand concept with design systems and tools to support it speeds the execution of high-quality, on-brand communications. It creates consistency that increases brand recall and retention and makes the sum greater than the parts. Not only is marketing more effective, but budgets are also more efficient. With tools like brand guidelines and communications templates to “operationalize” your brand, marketing efforts become more nimble and responsive—without sacrificing quality.
This combination of quality and speed extends beyond just marketing communications and visual design. It translates equally to the online user experience. Deciding what kinds of features to add to your website or application (and more important, which ones to take a pass on) becomes a lot more clear when you from a consistent point of view that’s rooted in where your value really comes from. Features that add value rise to the top, extraneous ones fall by the wayside.
Brand Benefit #5: Facilitate New Opportunities
As I stated earlier, brand consistency is about building and maintaining trust. When you’ve earned the trust of your audience, they’re of course more likely to be open to calls for support, invitations to participate, or being asked to put their name behind your brand. This means making sure the actions of everyone in your organization are strongly aligned with your brand’s values—and that the words, images, and experiences they put out into the world reinforce them. Of course, failures to consistently stay “on brand” can have disasterous results—particularly for mission-driven organizations whose brands are so deeply rooted in values.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a perfect example is a strong brand that did everything right to raise awareness of, and engagement with, the issue of breast cancer because they committed themselves to designing a strong brand—so much so that they practically own the color pink. This, in turn, has opened up countless opportunities for strategic partnerships and new opportunities.
However, Komen also offers us a cautionary tale of how quickly brand equity can be destroyed when an organization veers off course, in words, action, and even application of design. Komen’s Planned Parenthood kerfuffle was an embarrassing, costly, and trust-eroding example of inconsistent brand messaging and action. As was their inexplicable willingness to visually brand hydraulic fracturing drill bits. So, while earning trust and creating opportunities to increase impact is hard work, they both can be quickly destroyed when social change organizations design and deliver brand experiences that are inconsistent with their values.