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The 6 Most Important Steps in Nonprofit Branding

Posted by on February 24th, 2020
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding   

Great branding takes time—a commodity that you’ve likely got in short supply. Nonprofit leaders are constantly pressed for time, staff resources, and money. And, with so many competing priorities, it’s no surprise that branding struggles to make it to the top of the list.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Branding is important, and it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing equation. You can kick off your strategic brand thinking without overwhelming your workday.

Here are the six most important steps you can take right now to establish a foundation for your brand and set you up for mission success.

1. Understand your audiences

Which groups of people are most critical to your organization? Major donors? Parents of incoming high school freshmen? Community activists?

Step one is to pick the most important two to five audience groups and develop a character profile to stand in for each one. Give each profile a name, demographic details, and then the psychographic details: what really matters to them, what motivates them, what they fear, what they dream about.

As you go on to build your brand, imagine how everything you’re doing appears from the point of view of these audience representatives. Remember: what your audiences need to hear is more important than what you want to say.

2. Define your values

Though you might not have a neat list in hand of the four to six values that motivate your nonprofit, these shouldn’t be things you need to make up from scratch. Look at your mission statement and think back to your organization’s founding; what values spurred its creation? Don’t stretch too far, though. You only want to include those things on which you wouldn’t compromise. Draw the distinction between important things and most important things to your organization.

Values, unlike some other brand elements, shouldn’t change over time. When there’s staff or board turnover, when programs change, and even through major shifts, your organizational values should anchor you.

3. Establish your personality

If your organization was a person, how would you describe it? Those personality attributes—friendly stodgy, quirky, steadfast, etc.—help your brand establish and cultivate a consistent tone and a consistent appeal.

You want to end up with a list of four to six traits that are either authentic or realistically aspirational. Your audiences will be able to tell if you’re faking it and that will be counterproductive. Surely you can think of an example of a brand that tried to be cool—but wasn’t really. How did that make you feel?

For an example of how brand personality can work well, look at online retailer Zappos. Their brand personality is friendly, warm, and helpful and this comes through in the language they use. Shopping on Zappos.com, you might see: “Your shopping cart is empty, and that’s kind of sad.” That same friendly tone permeates all of Zappos communications—how it looks, what it says, and more—to build a consistent expectation and reputation.

4. Know what you offer

What’s in it for your audiences? What do they get in exchange for engaging with you—not as in, “pay for services, receive services,” but as in emotional return on investment? We call this exchange your value proposition.

Strong brands know that what people want is to feel something 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 solely to get a high-quality car; we do it to feel like good parents who care for the safety of their families. Nike may sell shoes, but it offers a sense of achievement with every pair.

Use this fill-in-the-blank exercise to help determine the value proposition you offer each of the audiences you identified in #1 above:

When I engage with (your organization), I FEEL ___ because I KNOW ____.

Now, look for the commonalities between each value proposition you’ve written to create one overarching value proposition for your brand as a whole. Keeping this value proposition in mind will help you sustain a brand that draws your audiences in close.

5. Be unique

The biggest branding challenge you’re likely to face is distinguishing your organization from other nonprofits.

There are thousands of great organizations out there doing impressive work. To start, think about the ones your audiences will most often compare you to. Then, look for the unclaimed ground your brand can fill in that landscape.

For example, Uber and Lyft both sell nearly identical rideshare services. Uber is a sleek brand for tech lovers. It’s all shiny and black. So Lyft chose hot pink and set itself apart by being the brand for casual, sit-in-the-front-seat types. If Lyft had positioned itself as sleek, it wouldn’t have survived competing with Uber—because Uber already owned that ground.

When you find what’s different about your organization, you’ll also find people who champion you precisely because of that difference.

6. Live up to your promise

{Values} + {Personality} + {Value proposition} + {Positioning} = your brand.

And we like to sum up a brand with one short phrase, called a Brand Promise.

A great brand promise isn’t a catchy tagline, although those are good, too. It is instead, like all the pieces of your brand strategy, meant to be used internally—to focus everyone who works and volunteers alongside you and what you stand for.

Your brand promise should be an internal rallying cry. It’s a shortcut for what you’re trying to cultivate every day. Here are some examples:

  • Power the People (a nonprofit encouraging donors to give the gift of warmth and helping everyone afford the energy they need for the chance they deserve.)
  • Engine for Good (a community foundation aiming to engage major donors in investments that benefit people at every income level.)
  • The search starts here (A college access and youth development program whose brand is focused on students and donors.)
  • 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).

Can you summarize your brand so succinctly? Writing a resonant brand promise is one of the more challenging aspects of branding. Remember; it’s just for you—not to go on a t-shirt or a billboard. What it needs to do is remind you of what brings you to work every morning and of what you hope to achieve.

If you’re an organization wondering how to chart your course to a new brand, consider carving out some time with the right people to discuss each of the steps above. While great branding takes time, if you spent an hour on each of the above exercises, you’d be well on your way.

Good luck!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2014 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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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