May 13, 2015
It used to be that nonprofits shied away from prioritizing their brands. After fifteen years of running MSDS, however, I've noticed that nonprofits are becoming more aware of the link between a brand's strategic value and organizational impact.
One reason for this shift, I suspect, is that competition — for funding, people's attention, human capital — has gotten stiffer. And nowhere is that more apparent than online. When a nonprofit's website is underwhelming, it is not only out there for the world to see, it also sends the wrong message and undercuts the organization's mission.
That said, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what brands and branding are. In this article and the one that follows, I'd like to provide some context regarding what a brand is and how it is experienced, then offer insights into how to think more strategically about the brand experiences your organization creates.
What Is a Brand?
Branding expert Marty Neumeier famously defines brand as "Who you are, what you do, and why you matter." For nonprofits, this translates to your brand being a combination of your mission, values, strategy, relationships, impact — and their value to the world. It's a gut feeling about the promises you make and your reputation for keeping (or breaking) them.
As Neumeier says: "It's not what you say you are, it's what they say you are."
If a brand is essentially what others think about your organization, then branding is the application of creative thinking, design, and technology in the service of your organization's brand strategy.
The Value of Nonprofit Brands
When it comes to driving engagement through branding, nonprofits typically face a tougher challenge than for-profits. Instead of delivering instant gratification or a useful product/service, nonprofits tend to appeal to our better angels — offering (usually) a vision of a better tomorrow for people and/or places removed from our daily routines. As a result, audiences can feel removed from the mission and may feel no urgency to act.
Because the strength of a brand is defined by the degree of trust and loyalty it elicits, this gap between action and impact places more of burden on a nonprofit's brand to generate the kind of sustained engagement necessary to tackle complex problems. Whether the audience is individual donors, volunteers, or strategic partners, a nonprofit's brand must convey the idea that the organization delivers on its promises — even if tangible results may be years down the road.
To do that, a nonprofit brand must be about more than the organization and its mission; it needs to address, at a deeper level, what is meaningful to an organization's audiences. Because when people strongly identify with a nonprofit's brand (rather than just its mission), their reasons for supporting the organization move beyond the rational to the emotional; the brand becomes part of who they are and what they value. It becomes a kind of shorthand for things about which they care deeply and reinforces their belief that they can become part of the solution through their active engagement with the organization.
Designing Effective Brand Experiences
Your brand is the sum total of all the experiences (direct and indirect) that others have with your organization. But while it lives in their hearts and minds, your organization can positively influence how your brand is perceived by combining brand strategy with creative design to deliver more meaningful and valuable experiences.
At MSDS we talk a lot about "bridging the gap between strategy and execution." As a design firm, it's our mission to design better brand experiences for clients that support their mission. To help our clients stand up, stand out, and stand for something, we work from the principle that there are three characteristics of the brand experience that must be present at all times:
- Strategically informed: Every choice must tie back to the organizational/brand strategy and the specific goals for whatever it is we are creating, be it a logo, a website, or collateral.
- Exceptionally crafted: We all know great work when we see it. It is the quality of craftsmanship in every word used and in every designed element that separates the exceptional from the merely okay.
- Consistently executed: People want to know what to expect from brands they support. Consistent branding signals commitment, builds trust, and delivers a host of other benefits.
6 Key Components of Nonprofit Brands
To build a strategic, exceptional, and consistent brand first requires understanding the many facets of an organization that contribute to the overall brand experience. In our view, there are six key components of a nonprofit organization that define its brand:
Brand Is Your Organizational Strategy: For mission-driven organizations, where you are aiming to go and how you plan to get there are the primary drivers of your brand (and, ideally, are well-defined through clear brand positioning).
Brand Is Your People. Brand ideas and values must be lived by your people and be fully integrated into your organization's culture. Strong nonprofit brands naturally attract people who will represent them well.
Brand Is Your Messages. What we say and the way we say it, both in writing and in person, say a lot about who we are. Every audience is interested in hearing different things — and depending on the audience, your brand likely has different things it would like to share.
Brand Is Your Interactions. Both in person (whether at the point of service or an event) andonline, interactions with your audiences should be crafted to deliver on your promises and reinforce the value of their relationship with you.
Brand Is Your Visual Design. People interpret much of the world through what they see. These days, especially, the quality of a nonprofit's visual design elements greatly determines how much attention the organization receives, people's willingness to engage with it, and, ultimately, the strength of the bonds it forges with supporters.
Brand Is Your Communications Tools: To a significant degree, brand experiences are delivered through communications tools and vehicles. Because brand consistency builds trust, a cohesive design system with clear brand guidelines helps ensure that you meet audience expectations on a consistent basis.
So there you have it, the basic elements of nonprofit brands and branding, and why they matter. Check back next month for part two of this mini-series, in which I'll dive deeper into the process of developing an integrated brand strategy and delivering brand experiences that help strengthen audience engagement and increase impact.
Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at MSDS, a New York City-based design and brand strategy firm specializing in nonprofits and education. His new column for PND, Cause-Driven Design®, explores the nexus between design and mission-driven work and explains how nonprofits can use design to engage and speak more meaningfully to the needs, goals, and motivations of their audiences