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One Big Idea: Branding for a Better World

November 4, 2015

| Bill Gullan |

We’ve noticed increased interest among non-profits in branding as a discipline. In this week’s One Big Idea, Bill explores why that is and provides insight into the challenges and opportunities these organizations face — and how service providers should adapt processes to support the unique rhythms of non-profits. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. This week’s edition is about Branding for a Better World, a focus on nonprofits and some of the unique rhythms of brand development, brand management, and managing processes aimed at enhancing nonprofit brands.

We at Finch, about eighteen years old, we started with two retail executives who were very eager to apply the lessons learned in the retail world, the unique pace and intensity of retail depending on the size of the business and the brand, as many are put to the test hundreds of thousands of times a day. Our founders were seeking to apply those lessons across categories and that led us into a decent amount of nonprofit work. But that said, we are proud generalists and I know there are some who are dedicated to serving nonprofits only and exclusively. We are not one of those firms and so it’s been very interesting to see the rhythms of branding in the nonprofit sector and how they’ve changed over time. In fact in the last two to three years we’ve seen a real increase in interest, it seems, in what we do among non-profits and I think there’s kind of three reasons for that, we’ve observed I mean.

The first is, coming out of the recession, we have seen and heard a lot of non-profit organizations that were seeking to make the transition from agency to philanthropy. What I mean by that is if you are a social services agency that was overwhelmingly public sector supported, the austerity or at the very least unpredictability of public sector support has made it important to find sources of earned income or donation and support from high net worth individuals, or private foundations, or corporations and etc. And thus the transition from sort of sleepy social services agency where the focus of effort was on service delivery and on excellence within that continuum of care and mission delivery, now as a philanthropist there’s a much greater emphasis on the need to be strong storytellers, strong marketers, strong relationship builders, and so that transition from agency to philanthropy is something that we’ve seen a lot and it seems largely to be based upon that changing role or at least the lack of predictability in terms of public sector support for nonprofit initiatives.

The second thing that we’ve seen and experienced is a lot of generational transfer happening both in the governance or board level but also among staff members at non-profits. What that means is more Gen Xers and even millennials are entering decision-making positions at non-profits as well as on the philanthropist and donation side. [This sets] different expectations in terms of how that interaction takes place, how the experience is choreographed both for board and staff, but also on the donor side there’s a strong desire to use digital tools, there’s a strong desire on the part of low expense ratios, there’s a strong desire in the direction of greater depth and texture to understanding impact.

So, generational transfer has had an impact as well and then thirdly, I think of a general appreciation for brand storytelling and the role of brand in helping shape an organization’s narrative, its sense of distinctiveness, and sense of purpose. As this manifests, there are new avenues of storytelling like social media that have replaced your annual report, or whatever the major reporting milestones used to be. There is a day in day out expectation of stories of impact, stories of mission, and this greater appreciation for the need to be great storytellers has increased interest in our sector.

So those are three things that seem to lead to [increased desire for branding in the nonprofit sector]. I’ve never been down on the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets waving the banners saying ‘hey nonprofits, you know come to Finch Brands.’ Again, we have a pretty general practice but at the same time this sort of greater intensity of the interest in what we do, and common threads, and what we hear as we meet some of these organizations has had an impact on how we think and what the world looks like for nonprofits.

When it comes to serving our nonprofit clients and building engagements, there are nine things that are different in the nonprofit sector versus your traditional kind of private sector client.

The first is that organizations are mission driven by definition. We have many private sector clients where we did need to do a little bit of education on the role and importance of vision, mission, and values to get to the ‘why’ of an organization, to get beyond product features and functionality. We do not have that educational need in the nonprofit sector, but one of the consequences of that mission and passion being dominant and being so in evident in everyone you interact with is, we do find a need to educate a little more on the other end in terms of organizational infrastructure and strategic planning and other elements that may not come as naturally to folks in the nonprofit realm or may not have been overriding features of their business education either practically or academically.

So that’s one, I lump two and three together which is a more collaborative workflow and more consensus oriented decision-making process. When we build, let’s just say it’s a re-branding project for a non-profit that’s seeking to energize or reconsider fundamental brand premises (which may rise all the way up to nomenclature, certainly logo, and other elements of brand expression), the collaborative workflow and the consensus oriented mode of making decisions is important as we design the structure of an engagement. It is essential on the front end to think very deeply about who and how in terms of involvement and providing insight to our team. And it’s also very important throughout and certainly on the back end for how to enroll folks in a powerful and consistent way in the emergent artifacts of that brand development/brand expression process.

For us it’s always about content and process in the private sector where decision paths tend to be more hierarchical. You really need to nail the content, and the process, to a degree, takes care of itself; you have to be smart about obviously unrolling it. We’ve talked about this on a previous podcast, about unrolling internal teams in terms of living the brand and modeling the brand. But there are training pathways that exist to get that done. In the nonprofit sector we find that content always matters. What we develop needs to be great, but process matters just as much because the success of an overall re-branding endeavor, just to use one example of the work scope, is going to be based upon not just what comes out of it, but how people feel before, during, and after.

The fourth and fifth unique considerations in working with nonprofits are as follows, and I lump them together. The fourth is that stakeholder webs are so complex and individualistic and the fifth is that the customer is not the funder. So often nonprofits are dealing with very complex webs of stakeholders from obviously board, staff, and donors on the internal side, but the recipients of services or whatever it is that the nonprofit yields and in pursuance of its mission. Often you have partner agencies, often you have the public sector – state, local, federal – you may have the media, you may have neighbors if a non-profit’s facilities were involved, etc. So these webs are really complicated. You need to figure out in a process, how it’s important to collect insight as well as ensure that messaging is, at the highest level, consistent, but then there’s a map in terms of how different groups with different agendas and different objectives need to receive the brand message of an organization.

And then the fifth that I lump into that, is that the customer is not the funder. If I’m making detergent, what I need to do is to obviously sell to retailers, but once I have sold my SKUs in, there’s a choice, ultimately, that the consumer makes: this detergent or that detergent. That’s fairly linear, it isn’t easy but it’s simple. When it comes to nonprofits, where often the funding sources are very different from the recipients of services, you find that the agendas don’t always line up. The modes of persuading, the modes of galvanizing in motivating don’t always line up so you need to think about that extra layer that is created by the customer often having a different identity than the funder.

The sixth consideration is that the marketplace often features what I guess we can call co-ompetition – a hybrid of cooperation and competition. Most of our nonprofit clients know that, on some level, they’re competing. They’re not competing in the kind of knife fight that often the private sector in the retail world certainly becomes, where you’re driving traffic and eyeballs, but our nonprofit clients are competing for attention, they’re competing for space in the media, they are competing for dollars, they’re competing, often, for what we call ‘clients’. They are competing and folks tend to know that intuitively, even if it isn’t always the most comfortable thing to think about, but often they work in an ecosystem where there’s a ton of cooperation required – either partner organizations, or governmental resources, or whatever the case may be. There’s an uneasy, sometimes uneasy, but constant reality of needing to compete but also to cooperate. That is often challenging when it comes to how you build brand and marketing programs for nonprofits.

The seventh is that the donor and volunteer market is highly fickle. That kind of speaks for itself, but you certainly find a need to choreograph the donor experience. People are generally very passionate about the causes in which they involve themselves, but at the same time they want to often drive, not only obtain the satisfaction from supporting an organization they believe in to help people in need, but they also want to choreograph their own experience whether it’s serving as a volunteer, having some visibility or line of sight to impact, potentially being in a board or governance role. The desire and sort of the care and feeding of donor base and volunteer base is an extra layer of complexity for this.

Eight is that the operating model is even more primary to success. The reason for that is that you may be dealing, on the staff side or even on the board side, with folks whose general advancement in the nonprofit career has been passion and mission driven, and while they’re very savvy, there are variable levels of functional training. So the model for nonprofits really needs to be cohesive and coherent, and to provide very smart breadcrumbs for often a very wild and woolly organization, in the best possible way, to stay focused on strategic planning objectives, to stay focused on organizational objectives, to not say yes to everything, to not take on everything.

And that relates to the ninth and final consideration which is that brand clarity is often really difficult to come by in the nonprofit sector. You would think with mission being so primary, you would think with everyone believing so firmly in a cause, that it might be easier to get to clarity. On the contrary we’ve experienced the process of getting to clarity often is clouded by these webs of stakeholders, it’s often clouded by many different programs, it’s clouded by always saying yes, in the impulse always being to help even if it doesn’t fit within an organizational structure, and thus boiling down into a simple statement of self from a brand perspective [can be very difficult]. Adding on top of that the consensus and collaborative nature of decision-making makes the process of doing that, maybe not as much the content, but certainly the process a bit more challenging than again in that kind of linear hierarchical sort of private sector alignment.

So those are nine things that we find that are often different when serving nonprofit clients and the net impact of that is that we need to build engagements, work scopes, and work plans in a way that is informed by these differences, and you need to be expecting to operate within a different environment and with a different set of key issues, different agendas, different emotional and rational factors in characteristics of these of these different organizations.

So that’s it for now, but Branding for a Better World, often, is about common elements within the marketer’s and the brand and business developer’s tool kit, but also distinctive elements. Whether it’s the reasons why brand storytelling seems to be of particular importance in the nonprofit sector right now or whether it’s how service providers and agencies like us can be aware of and get ahead of some of the differences, hopefully this One Big Idea provides some degree of food for thought or at least some nods of agreement if that’s what you’ve also experienced.

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About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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