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Behind the Brand: The New Look and Feel of Canal Alliance

Posted by on March 7th, 2019
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Design, Nonprofit Web   

Julie Grawe is a senior brand strategist at Mission Minded and our director of digital. I asked her to give you an inside look at one of our recent projects for Canal Alliance. We helped them develop a new brand strategy, key messages, new visual identity design and website. – Jennie Winton


Canal Alliance is a nonprofit champion of immigrants who are challenged by a lack of resources and an unfamiliar environment.

They believe that everyone has the right to achieve their dreams.

Every day, they educate, empower, support, and partner with motivated immigrants to best meet all their unique needs—from putting food on the table, to becoming American citizens, to learning English, to graduating from college. Because when they support immigrants, Marin becomes a place where everyone can live, work, and succeed.


Their Brand Promise is: Because everyone has the right to achieve their dreams. What makes this brand special?

One thing that made this project special is the timing. We got to work after Trump had been elected, and people were feeling uncertain about what would happen to the hard-working immigrants living in our communities. Canal Alliance doubled down on their efforts to partner with them to help them achieve their dreams. Working with an organization so committed to people who make our country more diverse felt really good.


What’s the brand strategy behind the brand promise: Because everyone has a right to achieve their dreams?

We wanted to help set them apart from other nonprofits who help immigrants by removing the “us/them” framework. Some other organizations really approach immigrant services with a handout mentality, putting themselves above those they serve. Not unkindly, but in the way they think about and deliver services.

Canal Alliance sees things differently. They partner with immigrants because they believe everyone has a right to achieve their dreams, not just the white or privileged. So rather than a “charity” positioning, the “we together” positioning helps differentiate them and frame their programs — like education, career counseling and mental health support — through the lens of a hardworking immigrant achieving success on his or her terms, however he or she choose to define it. Canal Alliance’s brand values root them in striving for social justice, and this brand promise powerfully reflects that.


How else does this brand strategy help differentiate Canal Alliance from other similar organizations?

It radiates a sense of optimism. They really are optimistic about what’s possible for the hardworking immigrants they serve. They don’t see their clients as needy, but full of promise. They don’t give them something to fill a void. At Canal Alliance it’s not a transaction, it’s a transformational relationship.

Why did Canal Alliance want to rebrand?

With the political climate being what it is sending clear and powerful messages about their work and why it matters is critical. But there was a lack of clarity, and even some disagreement internally among staff, about their focus and priorities. This naturally resulted in a lack of clear communications externally.

One thing our methodology at Mission Minded does really well is get all the ideas out on the table, and then guide our clients to narrow in on the big, bold idea that will set them apart. So the work to set a clear brand strategy helped align staff with each other and with the board. And now all of their stakeholders, from clients to donors and partners, has a clear sense of who Canal Alliance really is, which better helps attract their interest and support.


How has their new brand strategy helped Canal Alliance advance their mission?

They reported a big increase in financial donations right away. They got more attention because of so many people wanting to support immigrants, and they were ready with their powerful new brand and key messages, to take advantage of the increased visibility, and to show up strong in fundraising and other appeals.

I also follow them on social media and can really see how they communicate now more quickly and with a clear brand voice. They have used their brand as a guide for how to rise up as a leader, and have showed donors how to be part of their work.


What can nonprofit professionals reading this learn from Canal Alliance’s rebranding project?

Four things: First, if rebranding sounds like a big draw on your time and budget, remember that you don’t have to do everything at once. Canal Alliance is not a large organization, but they budgeted time and money for the work in phases. They started with the brand strategy and key message development. That alone served them really well. Then they came back to us a year later to redesign their logo and create a new website.

Second being a brand ambassador is a daily job. They have done a great job of reinforcing their brand at every opportunity and not watering it down.

Third, a smart brand strategy can really take a well-intentioned organization to the next level. If your organization is doing good work, but not getting the attention or support you need, chances are it’s the lack of a clear brand and messaging strategy holding you back.

Finally, make the brand bigger than one person. Their executive director, Omar Carrera, was super strategic in re-thinking how their brand needed to stand for itself, separate from its leadership. When he became executive director he knew the brand needed to be built on the promise they make to the community, not on the power and personality of himself or any one person leading their work.


What was your favorite moment working on the project?

So many! Canal Alliance is just such an awesome client. When we reconnected to begin work on their website, and learned how much their brand had helped them in the past year, that was a highlight.

There was another moment I remember, too. We presented the visual identity to the board, and it had already been approved by the Omar and his staff. At some other organizations the board might have questioned every little detail, but not this one. The brand strategy work is so clear and imbedded that it was easy for the board to appreciate why the design we’d created was aligned. In short, we could see that having the brand strategy was helping the board and staff make more strategic decisions – more easily – throughout the organization.


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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