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Designing Brand Experiences for Social Impact

January 19, 2017

Brand-experienceFocus and clarity are critical if brands hope to stand out in our message-saturated world. And for social change organizations, the challenge is even greater. When the message is about a better future, somewhere down the road, mission-driven brands must figure out ways to create a sense of urgency among their supporters to act now. Often, this means explaining concepts and ideas that can be difficult for people to understand. And even when the lift is big, organizations have to figure out ways to demonstrate tangible results and progress if they hope to sustain our engagement.

Fortunately, changes over the last few decades have provided brand designers with both an environment and the insights necessary to meet these challenges. The rise of networked technologies and digital communications, the maturation of the design field, and a recent awakening within many nonprofits about the value of their brand have combined to provide new opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the social change sector.

The challenge, then, is to understand the environment in which social change brands exist and apply this understanding to design solutions that offer the best chance to maximize your organization's impact.

The Rise of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector

It's no secret that the concept of brand has had a rough go of it in the nonprofit sector. Fortunately, more nonprofits are getting past their skepticism (if not outright resistance) to the idea and have been re-examining their relationship to "the B-word." By making smart adaptations to traditional business-centric principles, organizations like the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Communications Network are helping to change the way people in the nonprofit sector think about the role of brand.

This new way of thinking, spelled out in Nathalie Laider-Kylander's and Julia Shephard Stenzel’s book The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity, is summarized in the book's introduction by Open Society Foundations president Christopher Stone: "A brand is a powerful expression of an organization's mission and value that can help engineer collaborations and partnerships that better enable it to fulfill its mission and deepen impact, and [is] a strategic asset essential to the success of the organization itself."


Understood this way, a social change organization's brand is far more than just compelling messages and visuals. It's the ideas, expertise, relationships, resources, and experiences embedded in the organization's DNA, and as such it shapes organizational culture by bringing people together around a shared vision to create shared value.

If you accept this idea — and you should — then you should also consider how social change organizations can translate the nuances of their brand into something more tangible. How does an organization create real experiences that make it easier for staff to participate in creating shared value? And more important, how can it ensure that the design solutions developed in response to that question maintain the integrity of the brand and deliver meaningful experiences that lead to sustained audience engagement?

Translating Organizational Strategy

It can be hard to fully understand what some nonprofits do — not just for outsiders, but sometimes even for those who work inside an organization! In large nonprofits, countless activities and moving pieces all come together in service to a mission. But how they relate to one another, and to what ends, isn't always clear. Brand strategy long has been a useful tool for helping organizations sharpen their focus and better understand themselves and their audiences. Done right, it provides an important foundation for expressing, with greater clarity and consistency, an organization's mission, vision, values, and key messages.

But for social change organizations, many of which are working to address complex, systemic challenges, brand strategy has an even bigger role to play, in that it educates people about the nature of the challenge and connects them more deeply to how change actually happens.

So how do brands make these abstract concepts and processes more tangible, meaningful, and valuable to a nonprofit's audiences? Well, as branding expert Marty Neuimeir likes to say, "You gotta design."

Design, Value, and Meaning

Think about how much of our existence is "designed." There's a reason humans live in such a thoroughly designed world: we're highly visual creatures, and design is how we make sense of it. Every day, countless designed experiences, many of which we are barely aware of, create context for our activities and help connect us to our emotions, greatly affecting our associations and perceptions of value.

Brands themselves are one of these designed constructs. Dating as far back as the use of heraldry to signify membership in a tribe or clan, brands throughout history have been powerful concepts that give greater meaning to our lives. And because the design discipline is all about context, for modern brands to deliver experiences that connect with these deeper feelings of value and meaning, the people who contribute to them must first understand the many contexts in which a particular brand exists.

An effective design process accomplishes this by making sure that stakeholders in the process are absolutely clear and in agreement as to the values their brand should convey. But what kind of value, exactly, am I referring to?

Modern brand theory organizes brand value into three categories, which every brand exhibits a mix of, to greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of brand:

Tangible value is the easiest to understand: Things we can see, touch, or empirically measure;

Intangible value is…less tangible: How a brand makes us feel or the meaning it adds to our lives; and

Aspirational value is the most abstract: Projections of who we hope to become or what we’d like to make possible as a result of our engagement with a brand.


As the theory goes, the more tangible a brand's value, the easier it is to grasp that value. Conversely, the more intangible a brand's value, the harder it is to define and control. For social change brands, which often deal in large amounts of intangible and aspirational value, the challenge is to use the power of design to consistently deliver value on all fronts and create tangible experiences that deepen audiences' engagement with the brand.

Designing Better Experiences

Design has often been described as "strategy made visible." It's what enables the value in a brand to be experienced — online, in print, and in person. And because brands are not static things, these experiences occur over time, which means that to consistently deliver value across the lifetime of a person's relationship with a brand requires us to fully understand where, how, and why value is created — as well as the context, physically and conceptually, in which those experiences happen.

Which is exactly where a well-articulated brand strategy can provide benefits.

For social change organizations to consistently design experiences that bridge the gap between their mission and their audiences' motivation, a well-articulated brand strategy is not just a starting point to think about brand, it's also an essential through-line of the design process. Because design is the product of a collaborative, co-created process, brand strategy greatly improves the ability of designers and non-designers to more effectively frame challenges, opportunities, and outputs. And by translating the mission and work of an organization into a clearly articulated positioning and messaging framework, brand strategy helps stakeholders make better decisions that serve to advance the strategy throughout the process — and beyond.

Nowhere is this more important than in digital communications, where all of an individual's interactions with a brand are mediated by a screen. To create compelling experiences delivered by screens, cross-functional teams of content strategists and creators, UX and visual designers, and technologists must all work together to translate a brand's value through things like system architecture, interfaces, and content taxonomies. By adhering to a clearly-defined brand strategy that spells out the kinds of experiences we're trying to create, people with different perspectives are able to have productive conversations in a shared language about what constitutes such experiences and are likely to be more collaborative in applying their collective experience, expertise, and opinions to create them.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Ultimately, every organization engaged in helping to bring about social, economic, and environmental change has its own beliefs, culture, tactics, and goals. And their brands stand for something bigger than the organization itself, something that conveys different meaning and value depending on who is on the receiving end.

When brand strategy and the design process are united, the result is a powerful lens through which to understand the complexity and nuances of  your organization's unique dynamics and, ultimately, communicate them with greater clarity, purpose, and impact to your audiences. Together, they help an organization better understand itself so that its efforts are more focused and aligned, and make it easier to translate ideas, concepts, and value into tangible experiences with which audiences can engage and respond to. In the final analysis, they are what make it possible for a brand to stand up, stand out, and stand for something.

Headshot_matt_schwartzMatt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact.

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