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Is Your Board Too Busy for Branding?

Posted by on April 23rd, 2014
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Your organization is considering investing in strengthening its brand. Maybe your reputation needs updating. Maybe your messages need freshening. Maybe you need big changes like a new name, tagline, or logo to get the attention and support you deserve. As you discuss the road ahead with colleagues, someone says this:

We can’t ask our board to come to yet another meeting.

Which prompts the question: how much involvement should your board of directors have in this work? On the one hand, their job is to direct the organization’s strategic and fiscal priorities, not to make day-to-day tactical decisions. On the other, brand is everybody’s responsibility. And, if you don’t work together to decide what you want the brand of your organization to be, you won’t all be equipped to successfully and consistently bring the brand to life. The bottom line: branding is a team effort, and that includes your board.

In our experience, a brand strategy process that doesn’t involve your board at every step of the way is doomed to failure. From decision-making during the planning phase to bringing the brand to life after decisions are made, branding should be considered a primary responsibility of your board. The more enthusiastic your board becomes about your brand, the more powerful your brand itself will be.

What is Brand?
Brand isn’t your logo, your name, or your tagline. It’s not your mission statement or your website either. Your brand lives in the minds of your target audience – the people you most need to attract to help you achieve your mission. The set of thoughts and emotions that pop into your audience’s mind when they hear your name or see your logo is the brand your organization has for them. You can’t fully control it. What you can control are all of the signals you send that draw them to make the most positive conclusions.

Before you can send the right signals, staff and board have to be in agreement about what those signals are meant to convey. What you agree to try to convey is your brand strategy. What your brand really is will be decided by the people who interact with it. So living it as fully as possible is a requirement of great brands.

Start With Brand Strategy
For most of our clients, the brand planning work we do together centers on helping them understand the signals they’ve been sending, the way those signals are interpreted by those most important to their success, and then making decisions about the new signals they want to send in the future. Before they know what signals they want to send they have to think deeply about whom they want to attract and what their nonprofit can promise in order to attract them.

It’s an exercise of focus. The first step to a strong brand, one that that helps you stand out from the hundreds of others like you, is getting clear about what the most important idea is for your organization to convey. Just as you would never initiate a strategic planning process without your board, smart nonprofits don’t begin strategic brand planning without them either.

If the board doesn’t grapple with the hard questions – Who’s support must we attract to ensure our future success? How should we focus relative to our competition? What are we willing not to say so we can have a singular message and clear point of differentiation? – they won’t appreciate brand strategy decisions made by others.

In our experience, branding turns out to be a lot more fun and inspiring for board members than staff predict.

Reporting to your board throughout the brand-development process isn’t enough. Invite them to roll up their sleeves and get dirty as you evaluate the messy brand questions.

  • Should you be targeting your brand to the people you serve? Or is it most important that your brand speak to your financial donors? Maybe your brand must appeal to both.
  • Are you innovative? Or is your track record of employing an age-old solution what makes you special?
  • What are the attributes for which you want your work to be known?
  • How can you appear truly different from other organizations when so many are doing similar work?
  • What’s the one thing that really makes you the best choice for your target audience among a sea of choices?

Asking and answering these kinds of questions helps create the strategy behind your new brand.

Perhaps not every single board member will participate. But invite each one anyway. Make sure there is solid board representation during the process and ask the board subcommittee that does join in to cheerlead the process to members who don’t. Getting everyone to convey the same thing when they talk, write, or otherwise represent you is required for a strong brand.

The Risks of Not Involving Your Board
We worked with an organization that insisted to us that they would not invite their board to the planning meetings where the big brand decisions were to be made – including what its new name would be. They’re too busy, we were told. They’re too technical to care about this.

When it came time for the CEO to present the new brand and its new name to his board, what do you think he heard? Rousing enthusiasm, including passionate, unwavering opinions about why the name chosen was all wrong. This board was neither too busy nor too technical to contribute to creating the brand strategy for the organization to which they volunteer their time and talents. Once they were exposed to the idea of branding – and its potential to help support the mission – they cared deeply about it. As well they should, considering their role as leaders tasked with ensuring success.

For our client, not only was going back to the drawing board expensive and time-consuming, you can bet the CEO lost some credibility with his board. Once the trustees were properly engaged, and some additional conversations that squarely invited, considered and addressed their input were facilitated, they embraced the new brand. They even ultimately approved a new name – the very one they rejected upon hearing of it without the proper context to appreciate its power.

Living the Brand
Your nonprofit’s brand is something you will be striving to create every day. Deciding on the brand strategy is like finding a sign at the beginning of a trailhead: you still have a long path ahead of you.

Once you’ve determined the reputation you want your nonprofit and its impact to have, everyone who works and volunteers there should orient toward reinforcing it at every turn. If they don’t understand it they can’t do that. The more actively one participates in creating the brand strategy the more deeply they will understand, embrace, and promote it.

Even if your board does rubber-stamp your new brand strategy, your new brand will die on the vine if your trustees are not actively engaged in helping to bring the new brand to life for your constituents. Your board members are some of your most powerful, visible ambassadors. Embodying and reinforcing the brand should be one of their top priorities.

In fact, because brand is just another word for reputation, everything your board members do or say is a reflection on your brand. They make significant contributions to your brand whether they see themselves as brand ambassadors or not. Getting them to deeply understand the goals of your brand, so that they can do everything within their power to reinforce it, is a must. And there’s no better way to steep them in the brand than by involving them in creating the brand strategy itself.

Steps for Success
Involve your board early and often in your rebranding process. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Include them on the list of those to be interviewed about their opinions on the organization, its current reputation and its potential.
  • Invite them to brand planning meetings where brand strategy decisions will be considered.
  • Circle back with people unable to attend the meeting and fill them in (better yet, ask a fellow trustee to do so.)
  • Ask them for feedback on variations under consideration for your brand positioning, name, tagline, and logo.
  • Encourage them to read up on branding. You’ll find just the right blog topic for your needs in our archives.

For more information on how to involve your board in the branding process, visit our webpage for additional resources.

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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 impact coach.

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