The value of a brand is directly proportionate to the success of the organization behind it. So, given its importance, why do so many nonprofits find it hard to focus on developing a strong brand?
The stronger the brand, the greater the appeal, the greater the barrier to competition, and ultimately the more people are willing to be associated with it. We’ve all heard the consumer sector successes and failures: Apple went from a near-bankrupt also-ran to become the most richly valued company in the world—all on the back of an uncompromising alignment of brand and business strategy. Netflix erased billions of dollars in market capitalization in a matter of weeks by ignoring what their brand stood for with their most loyal fans and placing their business model in direct conflict with why they were loved.
For nonprofit organizations, a focus on brand may not always translate directly into traditional business metrics like “increased margins” or “market capitalization.” But the strength and stature of nonprofits—their reputation—is of course directly affected by how focused their brand is. And like their for-profit counterparts, the benefits to nonprofits that come along with the credibility and loyalty a strong brand delivers are felt everywhere—from partners, members, and donors to employees, volunteers and the media.
So why is it that so many organizations struggle to craft a high quality and consistent brand? And more importantly, what can be done to change how nonprofits think about the organizational value of their brand and to place it in direct service of advancing their missions?
While maximizing budget is always a primary consideration, I think it’s a myth that branding for nonprofits suffers because nonprofits work with tighter budgets. It’s easy to see that The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation effectively applies its considerable resources towards developing a globally respected brand that truly reflects what they stand for. But this kind of brand credibility is not limited to the largest nonprofits.
For years we partnered with what was, at the time, a relatively new venture capital philanthropy, Acumen Fund. We helped them tell their story and share their impact by developing a consistent brand experience for a wide range of audiences across everything from their website to their 990 statements. In the 6 years since we first partnered with them, the effort they put into activating the potential in their brand has created a positive return cycle, with greater recognition, success and impact. And there are countless niche and smaller nonprofits that do an outstanding job creating a focused brand to support their organization.
Big or small, deep-pocketed or not, what successful nonprofit organizations like these share is simple: an understanding that their brand is a valuable asset worth investing in. All it takes is an eagerness to focus on brand as a strategic endeavor that is then tactically executed with precision across every touch-point with consistency. But why does it matter?
Without a credible brand that audiences passionately believe in, successful fundraising, grass roots support, or a sympathetic ear in government are a lot more difficult to attract. When you’re competing for the same pool of partners, members, donors, volunteers or legislative attention, a weak brand reduces appeal and chokes off access.
If your audience believes that their involvement with your brand will create a world in which they want to live, then they are more likely to make a donation, volunteer their time, or champion your cause in the halls of power. Emotionally and credibly connecting with each audience and then maintaining this connection is crucial when offering something as abstract as the hope for a better future, or immediate impact—just in a place far removed. The strong and differentiated brand, the brand people unequivocally trust and the one they most identify with is the one that thrives, and is therefore the one that is more likely to have greater impact in the world.
So, why do so many nonprofits find it hard to focus on brand development given the importance of its value? One reason is that nonprofits understandably prioritize budget for things like programs, research and fundraising ahead of misperceived “luxuries” like developing their brand. With good reason, senior leadership often is tilted towards respected experts in fields like grant making, policy or specific programs, not disciplines like design, copywriting and marketing. As a result, organizational culture can reflect this bias. Serious brand problems are expressed only when the related tactical issues have become so glaring they can no longer be ignored (e.g. “our website is a mess”).
Unfortunately, in situations like this, the approach taken to solving something as significant as how a website can better engage multiple audiences and connect them to an organization is often viewed as a visual and technical design problem. Things like taking a comprehensive look at how messaging and content strategy align with a broader brand strategy barely get a nod. The result is, as one veteran nonprofit marketer we’ve worked with once said to me, “same picture, different frame.”
For any nonprofit facing systemic problems with their branding, the first step towards success is a willingness to embrace the value of approaching their brand like any other mission-critical strategic initiative: comprehensively, with a consistent sustained effort and with a long-term perspective as clear as your cause.
This means going beyond the surface of visual design to understand what effective branding is and how it impacts the effectiveness of your organization. It takes time and commitment, but, whether you’re selling widgets or the promise for a better tomorrow, effective branding aligns your people with your purpose, helps you communicate with clarity to key constituents, and ultimately, attracts more support—in all its forms—to helping your organization achieve its mission.
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