Updated: October 25, 2012
You'll run into nonprofit branding in the form of television appeals, letter campaigns and charity muggers in shopping centers but new research says charities are going about their branding the wrong way.
While nonprofits have launched into the branding world with energy and some success (Habitat for Humanity, Oxfam, Amnesty International), many have borrowed a for-profit model that doesn't meet their needs.
Why is branding vital for nonprofits?
Nonprofit marketing consultant Simon Mainwaring says branding creates a point of difference among nonprofits in the same field and helps them become the center of the communities they serve.
"Like most marketers today, many non-profits still tell their story in a way that positions themselves as the focus or destination," Simon Mainwaring wrote in a guest article for Beth's Blog. "Instead, every brand must shift from being the celebrity of their community to being its chief celebrant."
When done well, social branding can be incredibly powerful. Mainwaring puts forward the example of pilot Felix Baumgartner's death-defying plunge from space.
The Red Bull Stratos project, in which Baumgartner freefell from space, was successful in part because the action was aligned with the brand's message: "Red Bull gives you wings", he said.
Global brand consultant Diane Fusilli told Stanford Social Innovation Review researchers brand was critical when seeking funders and creating partnerships.
"A strong brand helps bring greater credibility and trust to a project quicker, and acts as a catalyst for people to want to come to the table," she was quoted as saying.
Brands are often imposed on an organization without proper strategic planning or participation, meaning the branding does not reflect the goals of the organization and is usually only adopted by the marketing team.
Russ Reid CEO Tom Harrison said nonprofits have to be careful that their brand doesn't get too far away from the front line of service.
"A wildlife group's branding (can't) focus on the science of global warming instead of saving fuzzy animals. Donors care about those things - they just don't care enough to give."
Harrison said the brand should show prospective donors exactly what the organization does.
"People can't give to you until they know you're there and they won't give to you unless they're persuaded of the importance of your work. No one wakes up and thinks: I'm going to give my money away today."
However, he said fundraising must be a keystone of an organization's brand or they would simply cease to exist.
"I suspect there are some people at nonprofits who secretly feel contemptuous of fundraising so brand marketing can seem like a high-minded departure from that tawdry, icky business of asking for money," he said.
In my experience, nonprofits often develop a brand with only fundraising or only marketing in mind; which means staff are flying blind trying to reverse-engineer their work into a new brand platform.
Many nonprofits are also wary about branding taking over the organization's aims, creating a style-over-substance paradigm which women's rights leader Mahnaz Afkhami described as "selling ideas the way you sell cereal".
Nonprofit researchers at Stanford and Harvard think they have the solution - but it takes the responsibility for branding out of marketing and fundraising hands and into the upper echelons of the organization.
The joint university project has developed a framework called brand IDEA, which stands for integrity, democracy, ethics and affinity, and aims to guide organizations to rethink the way they used branding.
Researcher Nathalie Kylander said branding was developing from a fundraising tool into something "fundamentally anchored in the mission and values of an organization".
Civic nonprofit leader Ingrid Srinath told researchers organizations needed to take ownership of their brand.
"You are a brand whether you like it or not. You’re going to leave some impression in a person’s mind [and] it’s your choice whether you want to actively manage that impression or whether you want them to come to their own conclusions of what they think about you," Ingrid Srinath said in the report.
Leading UK nonprofit advocate CharityComms released a report last week which shows charities how best to use branding, including the following tips:
- Brand is about perception, trust, personality and impact.
- Charities invest in their brands as a precursor to the rewards of rising awareness and income.
- Brand starts with whole-of-organization strategy.
- Robust research evidence helps build the business case.
- Your top-level management must be on board.
- Your brand should encapsulate your mission, vision and values.
- You must have clear objective and understand your audience.
- Integrate the brand with other functions.
- Future-proof your brand.
"Whichever way your brand is developed, it should enable you to deliver your corporate strategy, not stand in its way," the report reads.
"It should run through everything - from services to policy, from campaigns to fundraising - and should include securing financial stability and growth."
Who cares about your cause?
The Children's Nature Institute development director Joleen Deatherage said the key to nonprofit branding success was to "embed a gut feeling" in audiences.
Nonprofits should borrow from the for-profit branding goals: value proposition, personality and messaging, Joleen Deatherage wrote on Philanthropy.com.
"When a person thinks about a nonprofit's brand, they make the connection to the organization's cause, which becomes the main identifier," she said.
"Bottom line, if a person doesn't care about the cause, they will not give to it."
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