What’s So Special About You?

In my town, we have a coalition called Community Organizations Active in Disaster. It’s a group of nonprofit and government organizations that is incredibly helpful as we navigate earthquakes, wildfires and, sadly, shootings.

It works because each agency knows what makes them different from the others, so when disaster strikes they each have a specific part to play. Even though there are multiple healthcare organizations, multiple mental health services agencies, and multiple immigrant resource agencies, each one is clear on how they are different and why their unique contribution is needed. Their clarity helps the community understand their distinctiveness as well.

In brand parlance, we call that great brand positioning.

Steve Jobs famously reinforced the importance of great brand positioning when he said “It’s a noisy world out there…so we have to be really clear about what we want people to know about us.” He went on to explain that customer value is expressed as one big idea that transcends what you do every day, and instead focuses on the benefit of you doing it.

What’s your one big idea? For Apple, it’s the idea of constant, fresh, delightful innovation. It doesn’t matter which product or service; when we think of Apple we think of innovation, and we think of it because of the revolutionary products and services they deliver year after year.

They don’t market with an empty promise of innovation then supply clunky, complicated products. They are disciplined in showing us just how innovative they are. And that puts Apple in a category all its own, even though many other companies sell similar products and services.

That’s good brand positioning, and your organization will benefit from applying the same discipline in identifying and reinforcing what you uniquely deliver that your competitors can’t.

How is your one thing different from your peers?

Here are two questions to help you think about this:

1. Who do you get “lumped in” with when others discuss your nonprofit, foundation, or school?

You might think you’re different because you offer workforce development and English as a Second Language classes for newly arrived immigrants, but most stakeholders don’t think about the technicalities of your programs. Instead they want to understand the bigger idea behind your work. Nike, Adidas and Reebok all sell sneakers, but only Nike aligns its brand with the outstanding performance of legendary athletes, and that resonates with stakeholders who aspire to be their best athletic self.

So ask yourself who your peer agencies are, and what they stand for. This is the first step in determining what makes you meaningfully different. If you provide housing and wrap-around services while others provide only one or the other, resist the temptation to think it’s your duel programming that makes the difference. Dig deeper to uncover what the results of that means for people. Perhaps it’s a true sense of agency for your participants. Or maybe it’s the dignity your organization helps restore.

2. Why do your stakeholders choose you over similar organizations?

Is it because you’re tackling the problem at the root while others are plugging the holes in the leaky boat? Both need to be done, but if your goal is different, that could be a clue to your one thing. A community development financial institution with whom we work doesn’t just provide loans, they “spark the power of entrepreneurs” to co-create a more vibrant and just economy.

Think about your stakeholders and what’s relevant and exciting to them about your organization. What they value about your work is another clue to your positioning.

How do you know when you’ve found the right positioning?

A good brand positioning is a single idea, expressed briefly, and focused on outcomes rather than products or services. So our school client that excels at social emotional learning for its students and is known for how it incorporates outside spaces into its curriculum (which is neither a single idea nor brief) summarizes this big idea as “an outstanding education from the inside to the outside.

A mental health agency that offers crisis support through suicide prevention, foster care transitions, and other programs (again, not brief nor focused on outcomes) is clearer and more distinctive when it instead touts that it “accompanies families in their most critical moments.”

Though you likely run many high-impact programs and services, what do they really mean for the people, planet, animals, or community that benefit from them? How does your unique approach to addressing your mission elevate to a big, bold idea that can’t be copied by others?

Give your stakeholders the gift of one thing: a clear articulation of why your approach matters. This makes it easier for new audiences to find you, and generates enthusiasm and loyalty from all your stakeholders, from employees, to partners, to volunteers and donors.