We strongly believe that great branding takes time—both time to clarify and develop a clear brand positioning, as well as the time to build recognition for your brand.

Yet, if you work in a nonprofit you’re pressed for time, for staff resources, and for money. With so many competing priorities, branding may fall by the wayside.

Rather than see branding as an all or nothing equation, we believe that some strategic thinking toward your brand is better than none at all. With that in mind, we’ve highlighted the 6 steps that we believe are most critical to establishing your brand.

1. Define your audiences – Demographically then psychographically. Who are the people most critical to your organization’s success? We often define them as the people without whose engagement you cannot achieve your mission. Identify the top two, and no more than five, audience categories. Then develop a character profile for each one. Pick one person in each category. Give her a name, imagine what really matters to her in the world. Then build your brand to appeal from her point of view.

2. List your values – They’re already there, and you don’t need to create them. Though you might not already have a neat list of the 4-6 values that truly define your nonprofit, the way to unearth what’s already there is to look at your mission statement. If that doesn’t help you enumerate them, think back to your organization’s founding. What values drove the founders to create your organization? Values shouldn’t change over time, when new staff or board members arrive, or when your programs change.

3. Devise a persona – What are the 4-6 personality attributes your brand must cultivate to appeal to your audiences? (See #1.) While your values don’t change, the personality of your organization can. Think about the personality attributes your audiences might attach to you now. Friendly? Stodgy? Caring? Quirky? Are these the right traits? If not, get aspirational about how you’d like to be perceived so that those you need to attract will be magnetized toward you. You have a lot of control over your personality. You can project your personality traits clearly if you know what traits you mean to portray.

If you’ve ever shopped at the online retailer Zappos you know what we mean by personality. Theirs is friendly, warm, and helpful. One of the many ways they show this is with the tone of the language they use. While shopping on their site you might see this: Your shopping cart is empty, and that’s kind of sad. Because they are clear on the personality they want to convey, they know how to write good copy. You will too. Get clear on your personality and then let it infiltrate everything you do and say.

4. Understand what’s in it for your target audiences – We call this the value proposition. Strong brands know that what people want is a sense of how they feel about themselves when they interact with a brand. It’s a deeper, more emotional exchange of value than what appears on the surface. When we spend money on a Volvo we don’t do it just to get a safe car. We do it to feel like good parents who take good care of our family. Use this exercise to help determine the value proposition you can offer each of your audiences.

Fill in the blank. When I engage with (your organization), I FEEL ___ because I KNOW ____.

Now look at what each proposition has in common so you can create one overall value proposition to guide your brand. Keeping the what’s-in-it-for-me statement top of mind will help you create and sustain a brand that really connects you to your audiences.

5. Declare how you’re different – The biggest challenge you’re likely to have with your brand is making it different enough from other nonprofits. There are thousands of great organizations out there doing impressive work. Think about the ones your audiences are most likely to compare you with. Now look for the opportunity. Where is the hole that your brand can fill? Nike and Brooks both make athletic shoes. The shoes are pretty much the same. Nike is the brand for authentic athletic performance. So Brooks sets itself apart by being the happy shoe company for people who love running. If Brooks had positioned itself as the authentic athletic shoe company, too, it wouldn’t have survived competing with Nike. Promote what’s different about your organization and you’ll find people to support you that care about you precisely because of that difference.

6. Create your brand promise – Your values plus your personality plus your value proposition plus your defining difference is your brand. Now sum it up in one word or a short phrase. The reason to create a great brand promise is not to have a catchy tagline. None of the words used to describe your brand strategy are meant as external marketing language, and neither is your brand promise. Instead they are there to focus and drive everyone who works and volunteers with you. Your brand promise should be an internal rallying cry. It’s shortcut language, a knowing nod, a wink at what you all know to be the brand you’re trying to cultivate so you can do so every day. Here are some great brand promises from nonprofits we know:

The powerful balance of rigor and joy (An independent primary and middle school whose brand is aimed primarily at prospective parents).

The power to save the local land that sustains us (A land conservancy whose brand aims to attract wealthy individuals to give generously to an expensive cause).

No guts, no story (A repertory theater company that breaks away from the pack in its material, aimed at attracting arts patrons who want to think, not just be entertained).

Achieve (A community college aimed at attracting students for whom a degree is a step on the road toward a better life).

Together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality (A national nonprofit that shows people with disabilities that their lives can and should be as full as anyone’s).

If you’re an organization wondering how to chart the course to a new brand, consider how to carve out time with the right people to discuss each of the steps above. Maybe you can block out a 6-hour retreat. If not, dedicate one hour per board meeting until you’ve covered it all.

Good luck!


About the Author

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


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