August 22, 2018

Should nonprofits rebrand when overhauling their websites?

Should nonprofits squeeze in a full rebrand when their website needs an update? In this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast, Sarah Durham, CEO of Big Duck, outlines the basic order of operations for a successful rebrand process—from the strategic plan to the website overhaul.


Hey, this is Sarah Durham. I’m the CEO of Big Duck. There’s a question I get asked a lot that I thought I would talk a little bit about today, very briefly, which comes from a sense of urgency that a lot of nonprofits feel to upgrade their websites and the question we get asked is, “We gotta do our website upgrade, so can we rebrand at the same time or can we squeeze the rebrand into the web development process?” And that usually for us sparks a lengthy conversation about the order of operations, the optimal order of operations when you go through a rebrand. So that’s what I’m going to talk about a little bit today.

The most effective time to begin a rebranding process is as well upstream of when you need that new website or really any other tangible thing and ideally it’s right after you’ve been through strategic planning or you’ve got a significant change in your leadership.
So right after that new Executive Director starts, for instance, we did a study a few years ago called the rebrand effect and we looked at what else was going on in organizations who achieved the results they were striving for when they rebranded, and those were the two most likely to be related factors, either a new strategic plan or a new change in leadership. So ideally if you know you’re going to go through a strategic plan or you know you’ve got somebody new coming in at the c suite level, wait for that, do that first. And then the next step is to start with brand strategy. So there are lots of models for brand strategy. We should probably do a separate podcast just about that. We have found over our 20 something years of helping nonprofits rebrand that the most important tools in any brand strategy is clear positioning and clear personality.

So positioning is the single idea you want people to think of when they think of your organization and personalities, the tone and style you aim to communicate. So the five or six most differentiating and useful adjectives that describe your tone and style, we have found that if you’ve got positioning and personality, they form a really useful bridge from that strategic plan or your vision and mission which drives everything you do into communications, not just the rebrand, but all kinds of communications, how you might manage social media event or your news, anything you’re doing, so strategic planning, first change of leadership. Then brand strategy and the linchpins to those we believe are positioning and personality, but there are other models out there. Then the next step is to think about your identity in a couple of different ways. First on the messaging side, and in parallel with that on the visual side, so we often begin with names, taglines, logos, visual systems, kind of as one unit because they very much modify other or relate to each other, and in parallel with that or maybe after that messaging, how does your vision get expressed or mission get expressed?

Particularly for strategic plan was written in kind of wonky terms with messaging. Oftentimes the vision or the mission statement has been written by a board by people haven’t really been thinking about it’s external expression. They have just been thinking about capturing the idea and it’s not always written in the most communicative or engaging way. So as you think about your messaging, you might think of it in a lot of different ways. You might think about the core ideas or key messages you have to communicate how to express that vision and mission and compelling terms that use your personality and reflect your positioning, not just the fundamental idea and you might think about having a boilerplate or elevator pitch. Some language that can be used verbatim. When people write and speak about your organization. Usually in our experience, the best time to tackle the website is once the visual identity and the messagings far enough along that you know where it’s heading and you can begin to think about the user experience, the architecture or the design, the copy, the structure of your website as being informed by those things.
And so that is often in our experience several months into the process, but not necessarily.

At the very end of the process, certainly the website is a critical component in a rebrand because it is the first piece, the sort of gateway to your organization and it reflects all of the assets you are tinkering with and a rebrand, so the website is going to be a heavy lift and it’s a project that usually can start technically before the rebrand gets too far. You can start to think about what platforms and tools you’re going to be using, who’s going to build it for you, who’s going to design it, but we strongly encourage organizations not to use the website as an opportunity to rebrand because in our experience when they do, they’re mostly focused just on visuals on what it’s gonna look like, and particularly on visuals in a way that is unique to the website.

So sometimes they end up finding that the visuals they’ve created that look great on the website really don’t work in social media or email or other digital communications. Or they really don’t work in wayfinding in your program spaces or in print pieces. When you start to produce in-person collateral. So ideally the pressure that the website is going to put on you should not be the variable that pushes you into a rebrand or forces you to make decisions about design and messaging. We used to say that the best time to budget for a website overhaul was every three years or so. Mostly because technology changes very quickly and organizations sometimes evolve, you know, strategic plans on that kind of schedule. Generally these days what we recommend is you have a cycle of strategic planning in your organization. Maybe every three years or five years. More and more we’re seeing organizations who do strategic planning and dynamic constant ways, so whatever the cycle is of strategic planning in your organization, make space to revisit the brand conversations, starting with brand strategy, then getting into visuals and messaging right after strategic planning or a change in leadership. Then make space to think about the implications for that on your website, in other digital formats, in person, in print, and let it all roll out of that strategic planning process.

Think of it as a whole. It’s all about the voice of your organization. The website is a really important channel that you use to express that voice, but it’s not in and of itself where the voice resides.

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