Have you ever walked into a store, a party, a restaurant, looked around, and immediately just got the vibe that you didn’t belong? Maybe people are looking at you curiously, or the playlist doesn’t fit the mood, or you overhear an obnoxious comment. Maybe you just have an allergic reaction to how sterile the lighting is or how uncomfortable the space looks and feels. We’ve all experienced this at some point, and have surely turned around and hightailed it out of there.
That’s exactly how people react to brands. If they don’t like the vibe your brand is giving off, they’re gonna close that browser window faster than you can say the words social impact.
If your organization were to throw a party, who would you want to attend? Who wouldn’t you want to attend? How would you want them to feel?
Why First (Visual & Verbal) Impressions Matter
Most people who ultimately engage with your brand— or choose not to— encounter it for the first time in a very superficial way. They’ll see one of your events promoted in their social media feed. A friend will mention that they’ve heard good things about you. A colleague might talk about volunteering for your organization. And those interactions might prompt them to check out your website.
So they’ve walked into the party. What do they see and hear?
A nonprofit’s look and feel, its visual design and brand tone and voice, provokes a gut reaction in people who then determine whether they’ll invest more time in digging deeper and getting to know the organization more substantially. Neglecting or ignoring design will only grow brand dissonance, the gap between who you truly are and how you’re perceived from the outside, and will rob you of opportunities to connect with and grow an authentic audience who deeply understands who you are and what you do.
Being a mission-driven organization does not relieve you from striving for good design. You are competing for attention and engagement with commercial brands that understand the value of design and capitalize on immediate reactions in order to drive the transactional nature of their business model.
When it comes to visual design in brand, websites, and other marketing materials, production value in the nonprofit space tends to be low for a variety of reasons: limited funds, limited time to focus on something that feels non-critical, a fundamental belief that branding and design are “off-mission,” or a sincere desire to avoid looking fancy. Sometimes the low investment is driven by outright cynicism. You might think “why should I care about branding if well designed brands are so often just providing cover for questionable work or products, lack of experience, and nonexistent rigor. After all, just because someone’s wearing a nice outfit doesn’t make them smarter or kinder, right?”
There is no doubt that, like any tool, branding can be used for both noble and dubious reasons. Branding should not be used as a substitute for a truly meaningful purpose or good work. From our experience working with nonprofits, the substance is never what’s missing. What is often lacking is a brand that does your amazing work justice. Don’t let the fakers turn you off from branding— that’s not who you are. By letting them do that, you’re denying yourself an incredibly powerful tool that can take your work to the next level. You’re just trying to have your brand be an authentic representation of who you are rather than an obstacle that diminishes the importance of your work and your ability to scale. A strong brand presence built on top of substantive work is hard to argue with.
Fortunately, nonprofit leaders are increasingly starting to recognize the power of design to create engagement with their brand. It’s not about looking flashy, but about looking relevant, attracting the right kind of attention, and inviting more people to the party. When your organization’s brand looks well-tended-to, it conveys confidence that you’re paying attention to the work— the stuff that really matters. And it’s important that you look put together when you meet with and persuade funders who are well-versed in the relationship between strong branding and success in business.
Hyperakt’s Design Director Ritesh Gupta has experienced this first hand after leading multiple successful rebrands on the client side. “Good design leads to better outcomes. If fact, in the business world, those with good design outperform their competitors by up to 2 to 1.”
Impressions Don’t Matter if They’re Not Anchored in Strategy
What’s worse than making a poor first impression? Wowing people out of the gate and then letting them down in your subsequent interactions with them.
[A quick note: Our next article will address those subsequent human interactions.]
It’s like in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy pulls back the curtain to reveal that the fearsome and powerful wizard is just a humbug magician.
When people pull back the curtain on your organization, does what they find match their first impression of you?
A solid brand strategy ensures that it does. The branding process is engineered to reveal and elevate the singular idea that animates your people and infuses your work. This core idea supports every aspect of how the organization presents itself to the world, including visual and verbal expression.
Gupta reminds us that “A strong creative brief with a clear and thoughtful ‘big idea’ helps the design team create a meaningful design system that resonates with everyone.”
Brand strategy is the DNA of the visual and verbal identity: You can’t quite see it, but it’s encoded into every decision that determines how the brand shows up. It reflects the mission and vision of the organization, and also the needs and interests of the audiences you’re speaking to.
Because you’ve put in the work to build a tight framework, a strong brand makes every choice easier: which programs to offer, which grants to apply for, which typefaces and colors and language to use.
Just as important, brand strategy gives your team a roadmap for evaluating design, whether you’re updating your website or developing a new multi-channel donor campaign. Your people likely don’t have design training and don’t understand the forms of design, and brand strategy provides common language and context that frame conversations about creative direction. It helps you focus on the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve, rather than the specifics of whether someone likes this particular shade of blue. It’s like the difference between asking, “What do you think about this shirt?” and “Does this shirt feel consistent with the rest of my wardrobe and, more importantly, my personality?”
Longer term, it’s easier for your internal team to take over the visual execution; they feel like they can step into it and wear it comfortably. The brand should be practical enough for your (probably understaffed and overworked) design staff to implement ongoing.
Design is Essential to Your Work
As an agency, we have our roots in design and it remains a cornerstone of our work. Our work today is about more than crafting an appropriate visual representation for nonprofit organizations; it’s about partnering with clients to uncover a strategic true north for the brand, and then building the design expression that flows logically from that.
For nonprofits, design isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have tool that enables your work. If you feel your organization isn’t making quite the right first impression, let’s talk.