What the nonprofit brand means and what it doesn’t

Nonprofits talk about brand differently from our for-profit brethren and sistern.  For-profits often talk about brand as the totality of the impressions that customers and potential customers have of a company and its products.  This is its more correct usage.

In the hands of some at nonprofits, however, brand becomes a cudgel, something to wield against those who, in the brand person’s mind, have fallen from the path of right and virtue.  For them, the only difference between brand and the Spanish Inquisition was that the latter did not care about typefaces or Pantone shades. 

This leads to statements like “[insert channel here, most often face-to-face, DRTV, or telemarketing] isn’t in keeping with our brand”, “it’s against our brand to show the problem that donors need to solve,” or “making our fonts legible violates our brand standards.”  (They may not say this explicitly, but it’s implicit.)

Faced with such brand police, I personally took the extreme contrary position: that the brand book was good only if one went camping and ran out of paper for personal hygiene.

(This is not to say that our for-profit cousins are immune from brand hijinks.  If you have not seen the brand strategy used for the 2009 Pepsi logo redesign and need a laugh, it is here.  A couple of I-swear-I’m-not-making-these-up images from it:)



The greatest challenge of this direct marketing versus brand Hatfields and McCoys is that these should be natural allies.  Except for Super Bowl ads, all marketing now is at least somewhat direct marketing.  (I was going to say except for outdoor advertising also, but even they have tested placements for digital programmatic advertising that can be targeted.)  And who is a greater purveyor of the brand than the people who buy ink by the barrelful and electrons by the… I don’t know, Avogadro’s constant or something.  A lot.  We send a lot of letters, make a lot of phone calls, put up a lot of ads.  And so most people’s impressions of our organizations will be shaped by what direct marketers do.

In short, brand people are direct marketers; direct marketers are brand people.

The challenge is removing the cudgel and falling back to what the true purpose of the nonprofit brand is.  That purpose is threefold:

1. To guard the values of the organization.  These are the things that you would not do for all the metaphorical tea in China.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving will not call a drunk driving crash an “accident.”  To do so would equate “oops, I spilled my cup again; I’m such a klutz” with a violent crime.  You would not say the person who hit you with a baseball bat committed “a giant oopsie-doodle.”  You could offer MADD $50 million right now and (hopefully) they would not call a crash an accident.

If you would do it for money, then it’s not a brand issue.  Then we’re just negotiating over price.

2. To communicate the urgent why of the organization.  The Branding and Great Fundraising:  Help or Hindrance? from last year by Professors Sergeant and Shang found that brand expenditures had almost no impact on funds raised or, ironically, on brand.  They did, however, find:

“that brands could play a powerful role in making an organization ‘fundraisable’.  …  Our outstanding fundraising organizations had been able to use the branding process to harness the passion the whole organization had for the ‘why’ and thus lay the groundwork for everyone to understand why fundraising was so important and to get fully behind it.”

This is what a great brand team as part of a great fundraising organization will do: help find the urgent why and help make it the through-line in communications.

3. There is no third thing.  It’s only those two.

Note the absence of fonts or colors or logos or cudgels.  But even with those two things, it’s a meaty, valuable role when approached with vigor and in the right direction.

In short, in many organizations, the brand team needs to decide whether they want to look good or do good.  If they want to look good, I hear Pepsi is hiring (or, if you stand there long enough, you will be pulled into their gravitational field).

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