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Why Is Rebranding So Hard?

January 24, 2014

(Sarah Durham is the president of Big Duck, a communications firm that helps nonprofits connect with supporters, build awareness, and raise money. This post originally appeared on the Philanthropy Front and Center - Washington, D.C., blog.)

Headshot_sarah_durhamRebranding processes can be miraculously transformative or deeply unproductive; I've seen several examples of both. In a few (rare) cases, I've even heard stories about rebrands that set an organization back — usually by alienating donors, clients, and staff people. Perhaps the worst story I've heard was shared by a participant in a workshop I gave years ago: her organization had changed its name, logo, and tagline abruptly, losing most of its donors and clients. The rebranding had alienated them by leaving them out of the process, changing something that wasn't broken, and failing to explain any of the reasons why they did what they did.

Of course, every nonprofit wants its rebrand to happen as quickly, painlessly, and inexpensively as possible. They want the work to be excellent, and to have it stick, delivering the results the organization hoped to achieve at the outset.

In truth, rebranding is very much like renovating your home — while you and your large family are living in it. Sometimes, doing it right can mean it takes longer, costs more, and is more messy or disruptive than you might have imagined.

Because Big Duck takes nonprofits through rebranding processes all the time, we're always looking out for ways to avoid disaster and ensure success for our clients.

Here are three of the key ingredients we've noticed exist at the nonprofits that sail through the process largely unscathed:

1. They have one smart, well-liked, empowered staff person leading the process internally. Whether you work with outside experts or not, someone on staff has to help coordinate, facilitate, and help staff make decisions. A well-respected communications director, development director, or excecutive director is usually the best person to play this role because they are already respected for their seniority and leadership, which will come in handy. Depending on who's doing the work with you, it's less important that they are experienced with branding and more important that they understand how to move a project forward, get decisions made, and do so with buy-in and support from the right people.

2. They prioritize doing the work right — not a deadline — to move things forward. Rather than rushing to get through a rebrand in time for a big event or busy time of year, they let the process dictate the timing. In the end, the time for reflection that this allows for usually proves valuable. If nothing else, it gives people a chance to "sleep on it," which helps them feel comfortable with the changes to come.

3. They think carefully about who, how, and when stakeholders are involved. Where is the staff involved? Where is the board involved? Should we do research into our clients or members' perceptions? Should we find out what our peers think? What materials should we test? The "right" answer to these questions varies from nonprofit to nonprofit. Sure, there are "best practices," but budgets, culture, and tolerance for process vary enormously. The organizations that suffer less are able to involve their key stakeholders and do the necessary research at the right moments. That's trickier than it sounds: for some organizations, that means forming a working committee that's involved in everything — and a long process. For others, it's a low-touch approach with only a few people involved at key decision-making moments relying heavily on an individual's expertise.

If your organization is going to be rebranding any time soon, you might benefit from participating in some (or all!) of a webinar series, "Managing the Brandraising Process Like a Pro," I'll be doing with the Foundation Center in February. You can learn more about each webinar  — and the all-day brandraising workshop I'll be leading here at Big Duck — on our workshops page.

Rock on, brandraisers!

-- Sarah Durham

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