A lot of people think that brands are logos, products, or websites. These are common identifiers because they’re the artifacts we see.
Visual assets are important, because they have the power to make a great first impression. But a nonprofit brand is so much more than that. In fact, these elements are just the tip of the iceberg. When done right, they are the result of a ton of work that happens under the surface— work the average person will never get to see.
So what is the brand if not these easily recognizable touch points?
Below the Surface
Think of your organization as a person. Your logo and visual design would be the person’s appearance: their physical attributes, their choice of dress. Sure, wardrobe and hairstyle are a reflection of their personality, but those superficial attributes don’t fully represent who they are, what they think, what they feel, and how they act?
Appearance is a facsimile of reality, never a complete picture. Reality is much more nuanced and surprising than what you can perceive in a few seconds.
To really get to know a person, you need to talk to them, listen, understand how they think, and observe how they behave in the world. You need to get to know what is below the surface.
Now let’s get back to your organization. In 20+ years of doing this work, we’ve yet to encounter a nonprofit without a compelling mission, values, work, or people. Nonprofits are usually blessed with the depth and substance many commercial entities need to manufacture, so it is in your best interest to open the door so people can discover the richness that lies within. Branding, which is about communicating your organization’s essence, is the invitation.
Once people are attracted by your brand’s great first impression, they’ll start looking for the hallmarks of all great interpersonal relationships. Is there substance behind your initial impression? Do you communicate clearly and honestly? Are you consistent? Do you do what you say you’ll do? Do you live your values? Do you care? Do you make others feel welcome?
In other words, can people trust you— with their friendship, time, dollars, attention?
Trust can only be earned, and it is best earned through authenticity and consistency.
Becoming More You
Superficial branding — new colors, a flashy website or heart-tugging social media campaign — will only get you so far. For newer organizations, without a lot of history and limited funding, it can help spark much needed momentum to get started. For more established organizations, this approach is a wasted opportunity and might cause more harm than good.
If your organization is going through the effort of rebranding, the character of your organization— the mission and values, the people you employ and the people you serve— have to be the basis for your brand strategy. That strategy has to come before the visual execution, and it has to inform and be informed by how you show up in the world. It has to be authentically and unmistakably you.
Once you’ve identified the “real” you, it’s time to communicate consistently. Whether through your branding or through the marketing material that will evolve from it, the more disciplined you are with your visual and verbal branding the clearer your promise and progress will be. In a world full of distractions, there is great power in simplicity and repetition.
Now here’s the cool part: The practice of looking deep and reflecting on who you are, and then projecting that to the outside world through your brand, will actually reinforce and sharpen the character traits you discovered about your organization. It will help your people commit to making you more you.
When a nonprofit brand behaves in a way that doesn’t sync with the first impression it makes through its branding, it’s probably because the brand strategy process was short circuited. These mixed signals sow confusion— what we call brand dissonance. If someone behaves in one way one day and the next day they act in a completely different way then, you don’t know what to expect from that person and interactions become anxiety-producing. The same is true for organizations.
In a world that’s risk-averse, reputation-based, and focused on generating good faith and financial investment, trust and reliability are essential. Donors have to trust that your organization will apply dollars they give to the work you say you will do. Volunteers need to trust that you’ll make productive use of their time. The people you serve deserve to trust that you’ll do what you promise them and always have their best interest in mind. Consistency is the cure.
Living Into Your Brand
When we talk about a nonprofit brand’s behavior, we’re really talking about your people. So it’s essential to have your team’s contributions to a new brand strategy because they’re the ones that will live it.
In their day-to-day work, your people don’t sit around talking about the mission of the organization; that big-picture view is typically communicated in a memo or presentation from leadership. Few people in your organization are privileged to have these conversations. But it doesn’t have to be this way if you’re intentional about it.
Involve people from across your organization in big-picture, existential questions like: What’s happening in the world and how does our work fit into that? How do our values play into that? Who else is doing what we’re doing and how do we relate to them? What has been left on the table that we can pick up on? What new pathways are opening before us?
Being part of those conversations will build stronger affinity and empower your team to use visionary language to describe your work. It will also begin to create a clearer picture of what it means for them to be a part of the brand. Tension, belonging, confusion, alignment, doubt, affirmation, empathy— your team will feel a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the branding process. But the shear depth of their reflection is exactly what will build the muscle to more consistently embody the character of your organization.
One of our clients recently told us, “we don’t even call it ‘brand,’ we call it ‘reputation.’”
Let’s be honest: A new brand won’t automatically change your organization’s behavior. Instead, it’s a mutually reinforcing process. It sharpens and focuses behavior that’s naturally occurring within the team. Branding is a pathway for conversation about behavior, then clarifies and codifies that behavior in strategy, language, and visual identity.
If a brand were simply a typeface and color scheme, there wouldn’t really be a need to do the hard work of building a strategy. And it is hard work. Is it all worth it? In the words of one of our clients: “Yes and yes, and again yes.” Let’s talk about how we can get you to yes.