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Brand Plans vs. Strategic Plans: The Basics

Posted by on April 23rd, 2012
Posted in Blog   

We’ve noticed a trend lately in the calls we receive from nonprofits asking for help with the way they communicate about their work. While more and more nonprofit professionals are eager to embrace branding, more and more also seem unclear about the difference between establishing a brand and establishing a strategic plan.

A strategic plan is quite different from a brand plan. And although we counsel our clients to complete any strategy planning (or at least get a good head start) before embarking on a branding effort, we also believe that the brand plan ultimately transcends the strategic plan. Why? Because a strategic plan is an articulation of what you intend to do and how you intend to do it over a set period of time. A brand plan is a codification of the values, personality, attributes and promise the organization embodies – elements that are unlikely to change significantly, even if the way you do the work does change.

A strategic plan should set the direction of your organization. It summarizes how you will fulfill your mission, and is therefore focused on programs and resource allocation.

A brand plan, on the other hand, articulates the desired reputation you want your organization to have – so that you can fulfill your mission using the strategies set out in the strategic plan. A strong brand supports an organization reaching its goals.

If the strategic plan articulates the how of your work, your brand articulates the why. Why does your organization matter? And most importantly, why should it matter to others like the donors, volunteers and advocates you need in order to do your work?

A strong brand makes a big promise to the public. It boldly proclaims what you mean to do and what the public (your public) can expect from you. Beyond just a mission statement, your brand helps you lay claim to all of the attributes that will distinguish you from other worthy causes.

A strategic plan doesn’t do that. And in fact, a good nonprofit brand can and will remain powerful in the face of changes in strategic direction. Brand transcends programmatic details.

Think of the iPod. Maybe it’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Apple was in the business of computers – just computers. But because their brand was so strong, they were able to expand into music distribution. We consumers loved their music players as much as their desktop and laptop computers, so the iPod was a hit. Then, Apple went into the telephone business. Is anyone reading this on an iPhone screen?

These new products represent changes in strategy. Apple moved from making money from computer hardware to also making money on music distribution and phone manufacturing. But their brand never changed – innovation, design and usability stayed steady.

For your nonprofit, the computers, music and phones of Apple are the programs, services, and geographic reach. We know a college-access organization that moved from serving one county exclusively to serving two. Their brand didn’t change, but their strategic priorities did; they increased their service area in order to help more kids get to college.

An education-focused nonprofit we know moved from facilitating a coalition of groups who all wanted equity-based public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area to one that counsels school districts around the country on how to make equitable schools a reality now. Same mission, but a totally new programmatic way of going about achieving it. And while some of their marketing language needed updating to accurately represent their new strategic approach, their brand – expertise in equity education – remained the same.

In fact, the stronger your brand, the more useful it will be during times of strategic change. If your public knows and trusts you to do the right thing – because you’ve convinced them why you matter – they will be more likely to remain steadfast supporters if you change how you go about meeting your mission. I would venture to say that most of your organization’s supporters don’t have a particular interest in the details of how you get the work done – they want you to be the experts and just do it.

Both branding and strategic planning take up a lot of your board’s time, and at some point, you’ll have to decide which to do first. Which forces the question: If brand transcends programmatic details, and strategic plans focus on programs, why would we recommend our nonprofit clients set strategic plans before starting a branding project?

A board who has recommitted to an organization’s mission and established new strategic priorities for meeting it is often primed and enthusiastic about how branding can help them succeed.

Very often, a strategic plan review leads the board to the recognition that investing in their brand should be a strategic priority. This makes any branding effort stronger. When brand is linked to strategic priorities at the highest level of the organization, rather than being viewed in a silo, the brand is owned by everyone – staff, board, volunteers and your public – and has the greatest chance of positively impacting the organization’s ability to achieve its mission. Without this commitment to creating and leveraging the strongest brand possible, a branding effort can easily be a waste of time and money.

A strategic plan and a brand plan are both essential to the health of your organization. Know the difference, and get started.


Sandra Fernandez is a Mission Minded Strategist. She applies her creative and editorial skills, and her passion for socially-conscious causes, to assist organizations with social media development, copyediting, writing, research, and more.

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