6 min Read
May 17, 2012

A Brand Update that Jumps off the Page

Guest Blogger

Sarah Durham’s book Brandraising has been finding its way onto the shelves of nonprofits for more than two years now. Part of the impetus for writing the book was to give organizations with little or no budgets for branding projects a foundation to work from, in case they wanted to do it on their own.

Well, one brave soul, Julia Smith, Communications Manager at Idealist, has agreed to share her experience with us. In this interview, she explains how she was able to use the concepts from the book, including the Brandraising pyramid, to help take Idealist through a brand refresh.

What were some of the challenges you were facing at Idealist that you were hoping Brandraising could help with? 

By early 2011, I had transitioned into a full-time communications role after serving in other positions for several years. At the time, our “style guide”–mainly a glossary of key terms and a list of grammar rules–was in need of updates, so my managers and I agreed that I would tackle that as one of my first projects.

We knew there were bigger fish to fry, though. Idealist is best known as a nonprofit careers website, and while we take that very seriously, the site is just one component of our larger mission and vision. I knew that some members of our team found it easy to talk about the site but much more challenging to talk about our broader goals. 

Around that time I learned that NTEN was hosting the Big Duck team for a series of webinars around the launch of Brandraising, and that anyone who attended got a free copy of the book. I liked the Big Duck blog and was curious about the book, so I signed up. 

I found the Brandraising pyramid concept very useful and began the way we begin so many things here: I made a Google doc. I included the name of each level of the pyramid and left blank space beneath each. I wrote to my managers, our Executive Director and our Chief of Staff, to explain that while I was continuing to update our grammar and glossary guide, I’d also like to use Brandraising as a framework for a larger communications guide for all staff. The doc piqued their interest and they were game for a meeting. Thus began our Brandraising adventure! 

How were you able to use the pyramid when implementing the Brandraising process? 

The three of us met several times in the weeks that followed to fill in the top third of the pyramid. We didn’t change our mission and vision, but this gave us a chance to look at the slight variations in phrasing we had used over the years. We laid out values and objectives all in one place for the first time, and agreed that they were works in progress and we would use them to spark ongoing conversations with the staff, rather than setting them in stone from “on high.” 

Meanwhile, I worked on an inventory of everything we had that fit into the second and third levels. We weren’t starting from scratch with the Identity level; in addition to the style guide I mentioned above, we had a guide to our colors and logos that a design firm had created for us the year before. And our team is small enough that I was able to outline our various communications channels myself – everything from “the impression someone gets when they walk into a Grad Fair, are greeted by our volunteers, and receive a nametag with our logo” to the “Good thing passwords don’t have feelings!” lost password error message on our site. But I knew that I would eventually use that third level as a starting point when meeting with staff: “Can we go through the list of channels, and will you help me brainstorm any that appear in your daily work that I might have left out?” 

How did you prepare your staff for change and include them in the process?

My managers had originally asked me to finalize the Brandraising guide and distribute it at a weekly staff meeting. Soon, though, I proposed a different sort of rollout, one that would include more stakeholders earlier on in the process. Everyone on staff knew I was working on “updates to the style guide,” and I didn’t want them to be surprised and put off by a much more robust resource that they were suddenly just expected to absorb and implement, particularly since we hadn’t seen our Values and Objectives laid out like this before. 

The timeline looked like this: 

  • April 2011: I held that series of meetings with senior managers.
  • May and June 2011: I met with the managers of every team, explained how the project was evolving, and discussed how best to structure meetings with their teams. Meanwhile, I conducted an anonymous staff survey to figure out how we were doing with communications in general. How comfortable were my colleagues when representing our brand over the phone, on a panel, or at the Thanksgiving dinner table? How hard was it for them to adopt our tone in written correspondence, or doing “elevator pitches” about different programs or products? I also posed some fun questions inspired by the positioning and personality sections of Brandraising (“if Idealist had a theme song, what would it be?”), which yielded some particularly funny and cheesy responses.
  • July 2011: I met with each team (starting with the ones who tend to have the most face time with our audiences or produce the most written material) to talk about how “simple updates to the style guide” had grown into a much bigger communications inventory and project, to find out which Values and Objectives resonated and where they spotted disconnects, to discuss the survey results, and to ask for their help in compiling the inventory of Channels.

What has been successful and have you seen any internal or external changes or improvements?

Since last summer, here are a few things that have happened:

  • The Brandraising Google doc and related resources are now part of the standard orientation for every new hire.
  • We’ve used the docs to help make some decisions related to the materials we produce for Idealist Network meetings, the Graduate Degree Fairs, etc. 
  • Last summer we also tried working with a traditional PR firm for a few months. I’m convinced that having the Brandraising conversation so fresh in our mind helped us to see that the firm simply wasn’t interested in “speaking our language.”
  • The results of our internal survey helped me to plan a Communications unconference session during our winter staff retreat. I’m currently working on a “one year later” survey and a refresher training for our upcoming summer retreat.
  • We had an all-staff conversation at a staff retreat during which we collectively re-wrote our organizational objectives. Now we can tie pretty much any action we take to one of the three objectives, which makes it easier to manage our time but also to tell our story to the outside world. Pretty exciting stuff!

Did you do something similar at your organization? Think Julia’s approach was totally off-the-wall? We’d love to hear your thoughts – please leave a comment or tweet @idealist or @bigduck to share your experiences.