The Daily Heller: A Vision for Branding Nonprofits

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Deroy Peraza and Julia Zeltser are co-founders and principals of Hyperakt, a Brooklyn-based design and branding studio that has predominantly worked with nonprofits focused on social justice, education and cultural participation. Both principals are immigrants—Peraza from Cuba and Zeltser from Ukraine—and this plays a significant role in their practice and philosophy (read their origin story here).

Peraza is also editor of Hyperakt’s email newsletter Insights, which is one of many missives that I receive from design firms around the world, but one of only a few that I read regularly with interest. Many of its stories focus directly on the differentiation in the branding process for nonprofit groups and organizations. You can subscribe here, but to encapsulate his ideas I asked Peraza to provide us with a quick summary of the studio’s vision (and show a few of the projects Hyperakt has worked on, including 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s brand).

Girls Who Code

What is the distinction between effective brands for commercial companies vs. nonprofit entities?
There are several important ones. Companies use their brand to compete with each other and gain more market share. Their primary goal is to convert customers.

For nonprofits it’s not about competition—the goal is to develop an engaged community. They use their brand to build trust and collaboration with their peers and allies; their success is married to the success of the larger field.

Marketing a product that attracts buyers, often by impulse, is a very different challenge than building a community based on shared values and visions of the world. In order to get people to invest time in or advocate for something they can’t necessarily buy, they have to connect with it both emotionally and intellectually. Building this kind of relationship with audiences is no small challenge.

Generator Z

Brands are expected to distinguish products in the same or related fields. But are there specific languages for different nonprofits?
Beyond reflecting the values and tone of an organization, the “products” nonprofits need to distinguish is their particular purpose and role in the social impact ecology, their approach to doing so, and the particular expertise of their team. 

Nonprofits usually aren’t selling a tangible, easily marketable product—a thing. They’re shedding light on an important injustice or problem and they’re unveiling the world they wish to create through their work over the long term—ideas. The focus of all language is on the people involved in that idea (the people who will benefit from your work, and the people doing the work) and the behaviors that need to change for us to accomplish them.

Let’s assume that there are two entities that require brand strategies. How do you define the needs of profit over nonprofit? And what tools do you need to accomplish your goals?
Nonprofits need clarity of mission and internal cohesion, which then translates to greater organizational capacity and impact. 

Nonprofits need to inspire trust (in their capabilities) and belief (in the mission to eradicate a particular injustice). A clarifying and compelling brand presence can help attract talent, rally allies and collaborators, and inspire donors and investors.

Because nonprofits require a lot of inside-out work, it’s important to spend time taking a pulse of the team, the culture, the history, the present state, the future trajectory, etc.

Pete for America

Who does the nonprofit need to appeal to through its branding?
Commercial brands are hyperfocused on consumers, a broad audience group that can be segmented infinitely into smaller and smaller groups, but who are united in motivation by their desire or potential desire to buy the product or service. A nonprofit, on the other hand, usually has multiple audiences (not just one audience that can be divided into multiple segments) who each have fundamentally different motivations and needs: donors, clients, employees, partners and collaborators, lawmakers and government officials, and segments of the general public that are attuned to the particular issues they focus on. To different degrees, nonprofits need to prioritize and connect with many or all of these audiences, catch their attention, and engage their hearts and minds.

Why does the nonprofit need to be distinct from the profit entity?
Because they serve vastly different audiences (community, not customers), goals (people, not profits), beliefs (values, not lifestyle), products (complex ideas, not simple products), and functions (systemic change, not instant gratification)—all of which should be reflected in different solutions. Given the time and resources to consider the best solution for different problems, it doesn’t make sense to offer the same solution for both.

What is the best practice for the nonprofit? Or is such a thing dependent on various individual needs?
We believe that brand is deeply rooted in the work, purpose and people of your organization. Our job as their branding process is to facilitate a process by which we can collaboratively unearth these roots, meaningfully wrestle with the insights and tensions at the heart of the organization’s work, and arrive at a core idea we can build their brand around. The goal of this process of branding “from the inside out” is to build brand resonance that reflects inner clarity, external confidence and a singular voice that makes people feel something when they connect with the brand. The resulting internal cohesion around the brand unlocks the organization’s ability to better leverage its resources, facilitates the execution of its mission and leads to increased impact.