Creative and Branding Nonprofits

Why Branding for Nonprofits Matters Now More Than Ever

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Words by Sarah Waldman
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An effective brand strategy is crucial for both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, but ensuring strong branding for nonprofits can bring about huge success in 2018 — and beyond.

“Branding” has become a buzzword in marketing circles. It’s lost its meaning, and is often placed on the back burner in favor of other, perhaps more tangible, marketing initiatives. But don’t count branding for nonprofits out yet; the potential that brand development presents for the growth of organizations is tremendous.

What’s really a brand?

A brand moves beyond a name, logo, and color scheme. In fact, a brand is a continually evolving concept, becoming more complex and tailored to reflect the organization’s ongoing development. Essentially, it boils down to vibes: how does the consumer feel about that organization, about their interactions, their voice, their perspective.

Those “vibes” are, believe it or not, how organizations find success. By appealing to consumers, corporate partners, and internal stakeholders, a clear brand can be a huge player in a company’s growth. It’s time for marketers to stop discounting branding and place some well-deserved emphasis on brand management. Branding for nonprofits in 2018, presents a huge opportunity for growth. It’s time to make brand management a priority.

The evolution of branding

Advertising and branding have been around for some time. Beginning in the 1950’s, as highlighted in Mad Men, the theory and practice of brand management developed into a cohesive marketing theory. With the birth of new products, companies sought for creative ways to differentiate themselves and solidify their role in the marketplace, and large organizations found themselves at the forefront of a culture shift. Through both branding and mass-media advertising, “titans of industry” found a cadence to their branding strategy that lasted for several decades.

Core Tenets of Branding

During the late 20th century, the theory of branding became refined and standardized as for-profit enterprises recognized its necessary application in business.

Some common goals of traditional branding theory include:

  • Increased consumer recognition
  • Emotional connection with consumers
  • Consistency of messaging and experience at all touch points
  • Sharing a common value system between business and customers
  • Enabling stakeholders to be brand ambassadors

This standardization came about with for-profits as the main focuses. However, branding isn’t one-size-fits-all. While it’s good practice to leverage proven marketing theory, it’s equally important for marketers to recognize and understand different dynamics in the market.

A New Era of Brand Marketing

Branding is changing rapidly, and the importance of a distinct brand is more vital than ever. With the advent of the Internet and social media, a shrewder customer base, and a saturated competitive environment, branding has become a do-or-die situation.

Develop a strong brand, or risk organizational failure.

With this environmental change, traditional brand theory doesn’t cut it anymore. Sure, the classic emphasis on color schemes and logos are still an important part of branding. However, the methods are changing. The biggest shift we’re seeing in brand marketing is towards effective storytelling. Rather than interruptive advertising, a good story captivates consumers and makes them invested in your work. For-profit brands are already starting to incorporate this approach; AirBnB and Budweiser have executed phenomenal campaigns using storytelling.

However, nonprofits are in an even better position to use storytelling in their branding to drive success. Their feel-good work provides incredible fodder for branding initiatives — when used strategically.

Where Nonprofit Branding Strategy Is Headed (And Why)

In some ways, nonprofits aren’t that different from for-profit enterprises. They share a lot of the same marketing principles, and both rely on strong brand marketing to differentiate themselves from competitors. But at the same time, nonprofits have different goals, cultures, and organizational structures.

What’s so special about nonprofits is the relationships and emotional connections that donors, partners, and internal stakeholders form with the mission. Purpose-driven approaches don’t always work in the for-profit sphere; savvy consumers can tell a gimmick from genuine passion. On the contrary, nonprofits thrive because of their mission. Marketers developing branding for nonprofits can use this principle to their advantage. By using a storytelling approach that speaks to the core differentiator — the mission and ultimate impact — brand strategy could yield an unprecedented level of success for nonprofits in 2018.

Great Storytelling

For pretty much all companies, success is defined by revenue. But without a tangible product to sell, nonprofits rely on donations to fund their impact-driven work. This means that they have to convince the consumer of their worth without necessarily providing any incentive for the donor (besides a warm fuzzy feeling feeling). This is where strong branding, highlighting the impact of the nonprofit’s work, can come in to drive engagement and funding. By using a strong narrative that effectively targets people’s emotions, people become invested in your work — and want to be further connected to the impact.

Heifer International is an organization that employs great storytelling. Check out one of their videos looking at their impact on an individual level. It’s one of those videos that makes you want to cry happy tears — and then give money to Heifer so that they can continue changing lives. That’s effective nonprofit branding.

Partnerships With Nonprofit and For-Profit Brands

While nonprofits are often in competition with one another for grants and other funding opportunities, the overlap in missions can also provide a new opportunity for growth. By partnering with other nonprofits, similar missions can support one another, drive traffic and awareness to one another, and ultimately make an even bigger impact.

Nonprofits can also partner with for-profit companies. It’s a win-win; for-profits companies get some points for social responsibility, and nonprofits often receive a percent of profits and a new advertising platform. Warby Parker’s partnership with VisionSpring is a great example of this approach.

No matter what approach you choose, a brand strategy is a key part of making your nonprofit more appealing to potential partners. Using strategic branding can lead to more partnerships, visibility, and impact.

Developing a Culture of Philanthropy

Branding can be an incredibly powerful tool in setting out a strong corporate culture code, one that attracts top talent, reduces employee turnover, and ensures that everyone is working towards the same goals.

People don’t go to the nonprofit sector to get rich; they do it because they care about the issues at hand. Internal stakeholders, like employees, are moved to do their best work because the values and actions of the organization are ones that speak to their own. It’s exciting, meaningful, and powerful.

Check out Possible Health’s “Culture Code,” who took a page out of the for-profit playbook and developed this presentation that exemplifies what they do, what they care about, and how they operate. Strong branding can strengthen internal cohesion and ensure a cohesive value system — and this step in brand management is one that other nonprofits can, and should, emulate.

Why Branding Is So Crucial For Nonprofits Right Now

As marketing changes, so do consumers’ expectations and priorities. People are looking to find meaning. If nonprofits want to succeed in this new era of marketing, they’ll need to emphasize defining and promoting their brand. The current changing landscape identifies three reasons nonprofits should take advantage of branding to succeed in 2018 and beyond.

1. Digital Marketing Provides New Opportunities

The Internet has been around for awhile now, but it’s always changing — providing both new challenges and new opportunities. Each wave of technology has a new application to marketing and brand development. Whether it’s hopping on the Snapchat craze to add a personal touch to storytelling or performing an “AMA” on Reddit to increase your brand recognition, these new platforms provide a great opportunity for nonprofits to develop and solidify their brand.

Finally, using a storytelling approach in your social media strategy can drive home your impact. Check out Women For Women International’s post (part of a regular series!) telling the story of one of their program graduates.

2. Rebranding Can Translate To Revenue

Rebranding your organization, while risky, can be worthwhile. A study of over 350 nonprofits who performed a recent rebrand concluded that the majority received an increase in donations following this effort.

However, whether you stick to your current branding or switch it up, consistency is the name of the game. Use company branding — your logo, color scheme, and unique “voice” — often. Studies show that online donation pages that includes company branding receive 38% larger gifts and leave donors 68% more likely to give again.

3. Nonprofits Are Trusted More Than For-Profits

Research shows that consumers no longer trust for-profit companies as much as they once did, part of an ongoing trend across America. Corporations — commercial, political, and governmental — are regarded with higher levels of suspicion; people aren’t buying into their rhetoric anymore. Comparatively, nonprofits are still seen as moral, trusted institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer has consistently ranked NGOs as more trustworthy than both business and government.

In this new landscape, nonprofits are positioned to take the reins. For-profit companies are struggling to redefine themselves and earn back the trust of consumers. Nonprofits, however, are ahead of the game; they’ve maintained trust, proven their importance, and are ready to lead the next era of social enterprises.

As businesses in the for-profit world struggle to regain consumers’ trust, nonprofits have a unique opportunity to thrive with proper brand management.

Final Thoughts

Brand management doesn’t just mean using a unique color scheme anymore. It speaks to the core of the company, communicating through visuals and language the company’s voice, mission, and values. When executed thoughtfully, strong branding means a stronger organization, a more defined mission, and a more invested public.

Branding is essential to the health of nonprofits, and (if done well) can usher in a new era of growth. A strong brand story appeals to consumers, driving revenue and brand loyalty. A clear mission and vision speaks to other brands, yielding powerful partnerships with other nonprofits and for-profit companies alike. And, deliberate brand strategy drives cohesion within the organization, streamlining workflow and engaging internal stakeholders.

This new era of branding for nonprofits relies on storytelling. It’s what gets consumers invested and engaged, looking up from their phones and paying attention to their own personal impact. By using a storytelling approach to their digital marketing campaigns and taking advantage of all platforms available, nonprofits can see huge growth. In today’s climate, nonprofits have a running start against for-profit brands. With strategic brand management at the helm, they’re guaranteed success.

Special thanks to Michael Hayes of Darby Hayes Consulting for his input in this article.