Branding for Non-Profits - Why It's Important

The essence of branding is developing a clear identity for the messenger -- as opposed to marketing, which merely focuses on the message. However, in the non-profit sector, branding frequently falls by the wayside. My theory is that when your messages are as serious as saving the planet, it's hard to look beyond them. (It should also be noted that many non-profit communications are the result pro-bono work, often completed by different agencies - which can make it hard to maintain consistency across campaigns.)

I've already removed myself from junk mail lists thanks to Green Dimes and the Center for a New American Dream – so the only solicitations I now receive are from the environmental, human rights and animal welfare organizations that I contribute to. And I'm always astonished at these organizations' apparent failure to realize that they are competing with one another for my attention and for my contributions (both in terms of whether or not and how much I contribute). But here's an example of good branding in the sector: Oxfam just launched a superb new potential brand campaign in the UK. (I say "potential," because it will only be a brand campaign if they stick with it). Its theme is "be humankind." These two words serve as a reminder to comply with the most basic behavioral expectation, namely kindness. By using the term "humankind," it also gently reminds us that we are all indeed of the same species, and that by helping one we help all -- extremely appropriate for an organization devoted to improving lives, from emergency relief to developing long-term sustainable livelihoods. And the organization is backing this branding up with striking TV ads and billboards that underline the myriad of interconnected challenges that Oxfam is working on. When matched against such issues as famine, disaster, international debt and unfair trade mechanisms that Oxfam fights against, the "Be Humankind" message underlines the extremes of unkindness, both intentional and unintentional, that are possible when people do not step up to the plate and take on the problems of the day.

Although it is serious, there is also a gentleness to the phrase -- making the "voice" of Oxfam feel less strident and more welcoming. If Oxfam sticks with this voice and tone, its messaging could stand out in the mix of other non-profits, and could also cut through the media clutter on the important issues hindering international development. Essentially, it would make Oxfam more effective at what it does.

What makes this an example of branding as opposed to just another communications campaign?

1. It goes beyond messaging to establish a distinctive "voice." Going back to this post's intro, it establishes an identity for the messenger.
2. It goes beyond making a specific request -- instead, it establishes a point of view that adds to the relevance of this and all future messages.
3. By addressing 1 and 2, it helps differentiate Oxfam from other organizations with overlapping missions.

These three criteria -- voice, point of view, and platform -- are the key elements of brand communication. They are valuable, because they are structural. They provide a common foundation for varying messages, so that brand equity can be accumulated. They enable an organization to "own" a consistent persona, so they can build enduring relationships with supporters and stakeholders.

Here are some suggestions for branding non-profits.

1. START WITH THE ESSENCE OF YOUR ORGANIZATION. The most common shortcoming of branding is making up stuff based on what you think will please your audience. What's more effective is to scrutinize your heritage and institutional strengths in order to define who you really are and make that the basis of your brand. For the Sierra Club, this might mean going to your roots as an expedition organization (it's much more charismatic and welcoming to protect the planet for adventures and experiences than because you're morally superior). For Greenpeace this might mean leveraging the organization's roots in brave and ballsy activism (if you're risking your life to save a whale or to scale a building, it gives you instant credibility and it makes you a real-life action hero).

2. FIND WAYS TO GET THE ESSENCE OF YOUR BRAND IN EVERY ELEMENT OF COMMUNICATION. If the essence of your organization is grassroots activism, then it might be worthwhile to use the voices of your members to convey your messages (first-person branding rather than third-person). If you're a marine conservation group with a surfing heritage, this might mean linking surf reports on your web site or listing the surfing sites where you have active membership on all your materials, from letterhead to email footers. The more time you spend integrating your brand into existing interactions with your audience, the less time and money you have to spend trying to make new connections.

3. BE CONSISTENT. The perception of integrity is a cumulative perception based on multiple impressions -- if you're not constant, then you're hard to identify and even harder to trust. Consistency also builds equity. To the extent that messages are clearly (and viscerally) conveyed from the same messenger, they build off one another. Al Gore's ambitious new global warming non-profit which aims to unify people in a positive, can-do sort of way, has a beautifully produced TV spot that does a wonderful job likening the fight against global warming to WWII -- yet the print communications from WE feel like they're from a different organization. This is a missed opportunity.

4. AUTHENTICITY MATTERS. Sneaker companies understand this. So too should non-profits. People are more likely to contribute their money, support and confidence to organizations who clearly live and breathe their mission. Authenticity comes from following tips 1-3 above. Find your essence, find a way to integrate it into your messaging and be consistent (see also our previous post on why authenticity is important). This isn't as easy at it may sound. It's always tempting to tactically shape communications toward the message at hand. For example, if you're the Sierra Club pushing higher fuel economy legislation, it's easy to ignore your expeditionary roots and focus on your policy wonk side. But the higher value would be to find a way to communicate the fact that your passion for the issue resides in your passion for climbing, hiking, fishing, hunting, and enjoying the outdoors. Senator John McCain is an extremely effective advocate against torture because he connects it to his own experiences. Al Gore is the planet's most effective advocate for combating climate change because his decades of speaking out on the issue demonstrate his genuine passion for it.

Branding is a big deal if you're selling blue jeans -- it's an even bigger deal if you're trying to save the planet. Non-profits owe it to their missions to be the best branders on the planet.

Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic. Jerry has written a series of guest posts on the ins and outs of green branding and marketing.

Tags: Activism | Advertising | Charities | United Kingdom

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