MSDS is now Constructive!

After 15 years of partnering with nonprofits and academic institutions to develop more effective brand strategy and design, we’ve used everything we’ve learned to write the next chapter in our story. Read More

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.

If you’re a nonprofit or educational institution who’s looking to build support or project thought leadership, then an inconsistent brand is a self-inflicted wound that undermines your cause and reduces social impact. Your mission is your brand—the values that guide you, the roles you play, the many relationships and interactions you have, and ultimately, your social impact. And your brand is a promise that your actions will be aligned with its values.

The trust you build and the reputation you have based on how well you keep this promise.

Consistent brands typically succeed in this regard because they meet (and the great ones exceed) our expectations by making sure that the experiences they deliver are closely aligned with their organizational strategies. Design (whether it be visual, user experience, or even organizational design), is the primary process through which we bring brands to life to be experienced. It’s where problems are solved, and strategy is executed in the real world. A well-planned, well-designed brand ensures that once we’ve spent time identifying the strategy for our brand, the experiences we deliver—online, in print, and in person are aligned with this strategy for the long-term. Design consistency transforms your brand from a mission and the ideas you stand for into a great experience that repeatedly meets needs and expectations, and which continuously enriches your audience.

So how to create consistency?

First, it takes focus, commitment, and a willingness to commit resources. The single biggest reason organizations fail to turn their strategy into exceptional brands is a lack of commitment to prioritize and value their brand. This commitment starts at the top and works its way down. There are no “accidental” great brands.

Second, it takes a design system and tools like Brand Strategy Handbooks and Brand Identity Guidelines that make staying “on-brand” easy—with rules of the road that help your people and partners understand what your brand looks and sounds like, and what the brand experience should feel like for everyone they interact with.

If we agree that design consistency is critical to sustaining brand success, what are 5 top benefits it can bring to your organization?

Benefit #1: Increase Engagement & Strengthen Loyalty

Strong brands attract the right kinds of people to help the brand succeed. Consistent brand experiences that express why you matter in ways that resonate with meaning are a magnet for anyone attracted to the ideas they stand for: talented employees looking to be a part of something for more than just money, passionate supporters who spread the word, committed donors who feel a brand’s promise and potential in their gut, and partner organizations who want to collaborate to advance the cause.

By identifying the needs and interests of each audience and understanding how your brand is meaningful to them, you’ll be able to better design and deliver experiences that gain their loyalty. And when your brand consistently reminds each audience why they were attracted to you in the first place, your organization is that much more likely to remain relevant for the long run. Once you establish this bond,  inconsistency can torpedo your audience’s expectations of you, while consistency strengthens the gravitational pull of brand loyalty, continuously reinforcing the magnetic characteristics of your brand.

Benefit #2: Create a Barrier to Entry

Nonprofits (and to a lesser degree, educational institutions) can be uncomfortable discussing things like competition and market share. The pinnacle of brand excellence is what’s known as “the charismatic brand,” a brand for which there is no substitute. Once you’ve deepened engagement and created loyalty to your brand, design consistency is essential to creating a charismatic brand because the experience must be immersive, with no detail left unattended.

While Apple may be the most overused example of a charismatic band, it’s also one of the best. Every single part of the experience, from product design & packaging to advertising, marketing, and even the online & in-store experience reinforce what Apple means to us. This sort of attention to designing great brand experiences makes it incredibly difficult for competitors to step in and steal your mojo—even if they may offer a better service or product at a lower price. Nonprofits and educational institutions can apply these same principles—aligning organizational strategy with incredibly well-designed experiences—to make their brands recognized and remembered for the issues they focus on; making it more difficult for other organizations to step in and take their place.

Benefit #3: Strengthen Fundraising

By always delivering on expectations down to the smallest details, strong brands deliver experiences that people want to be a part of. Charity Water is an excellent example of an organization that’s really focused on how their brand is experiences. As a result, their fundraising has been exceptional, in particular through social donations. People’s willingness to spread the word and donate more of their time, money and effort to your cause is directly correlated to how consistently positive their experiences with your brand are. This of course means more revenue 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 so many experiences with brands occurs online, developing a website that is a strong extension of your brand strategy—consistently executed through “on-brand” messaging, design, and technology is essential if organizations are to reinforce why audiences care deeply about them in the first place. Done right, your brand becomes an important part of who your audiences is, not just a place they give money to. We explored this idea for CARE international, designing a prototype for an online social fundraising platform that’s built around the idea of making supporters’ experiences with nonprofit brands part of their daily routine.

Benefit #4 Optimize Outreach & Marketing

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 user experience online. 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.

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 your overtures, whether they’re calls for support, invitations to participate, or asks to put their name behind your brand. Achieving 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. In return, they have enjoyed enormous opportunities to get their brand out there—and increase social impact as a result. 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 legendary Planned Parenthood kerfuffle, which we wrote about when it happened was an embarrassing, costly, and trust-eroding example of inconsistent brand messaging and action. And their inexplicable willingness to visually brand hydraulic fracturing drill bits with Komen’s ubiquitous pink and logo (not to mention their willingness to co-brand many other questionable products) may be one of the most embarrassing misalignments of brand values, audience trust, and visual design in recent memory.