Photo by Leanne Jean on Unsplash.
January 8, 2020

How can your communications team apply inclusive branding?

Chris Tuttle

Big Duck’s Farra Trompeter and communications professional Chris Tuttle discuss the importance of captions and alt tags, how to use color palettes, creating an inclusive team, and specializing your communications. Listen in to learn how your communications can be more inclusive.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Farra Trompeter, Vice President at Big Duck and today I’m joined by Chris Tuttle. He is a close friend and nonprofit communications rock star. He has over 20 years of experience and I’m really excited to have him here with us today. He recently wrote a blog about inclusive branding and we definitely passed it around a lot on our Slack channel. We were all reading it here at Big Duck. We posted it on our website and so I was excited that he accepted our invitation to join us and talk to us about this topic today. But before we dive in, Chris, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Chris Tuttle: Thank you so much Farra, and thank you for having me here. I am a communications professional, has been working in nonprofits for over 20 years now focusing on training and consulting with organizations from small local nonprofits in communities around the country to global foundations and helping them advance and develop digital engagement strategies to further their mission.

Farra Trompeter: One of the many things I loved about your piece on inclusive branding is you start off by asking you a very important question. Who are we not reaching or serving? And I often hear people ask that from a programmatic perspective, they’re thinking about where should we go? Should we expand? How are we not getting enough people to participate? But less often from a communications perspective. So I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about where that question was coming from you and why you started off a branding piece asking that.

Chris Tuttle: Absolutely. Well, it often is a programmatic question and it’s often rooted in whether or not our resources or programs and offerings are reaching the right constituents and everybody it needs to reach. And the question came from a communications lens or through our communications lens when I was as the former Director of Communications for GLSEN, a leading education organization creating safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ youth and thinking about the accessibility needs from a comms perspective. And I think like many communications professionals, my brain instantly goes to our visual brand and representation in our photos and those are easy things to talk about, getting easier to work, and fix. There are ways that we can work on those issues, but we knew that that wasn’t all, we knew there was more, and so we started thinking through, well, who are all the different audiences that we’re trying to reach even within the constituents that we’ve already identified and that we already work with? Who we may not be reaching today.

Chris Tuttle: And it brought us to think about, of course, some of the things that quickly come to mind, MiC communities that might have hearing impairments or visual impairments and how they access our communications across email, social, and web. And then it got to starting thinking about things like colorblindness and how people who experience different types of colorblindness might be able to see or access or not access the information that we’re sharing in infographics, in reports, and our website online. And so it’s something that I’ve actually been working on now with a variety of organizations. And so this blog post was trying to really document some of those thoughts, those things that we’re thinking about and considering beyond the visual logo and brand color palette that we use and even beyond colorblindness to all the various ways in which our brand might be limited and not reaching who we really need to reach in order to fully achieve our mission.

Farra Trompeter: As you can imagine, branding as a topic here at Big Duck, we’re really passionate about Sarah, our famed CEO, wrote a book called Brandraising over 10 years ago. It’s something we think about every day. And at Big Duck we think about branding in a few different ways. One way we think about it is that it is your organization’s voice and it is the sort of culmination of experiences people have. It’s how people, what they think about you, how they feel about you, what they see, what they hear, whether that’s when they come to your website or an event they get your business card after meeting you. It is your visual representation and so much more. And I’m curious how you think about or define branding.

Chris Tuttle: I agree with all of that and I like the definition that branding is the overall experience a constituent has with your organization that makes your organization different than others. It is the look, the feel. It’s the things people think about your organization when they see it, but it is also the experiences and the interactions they have with your organization. It’s whether or not their questions were answered on social media. It’s whether or not their emails were replied to. It’s whether or not they even feel the impact of the donation they make.

Farra Trompeter: Exactly. And I think there’s so many different elements of the brand we can manage and control and others we can’t. No one, as far as I know, has figured out a way to control what people think and feel about an organization. I can’t control what you think about me or what you think about Big Duck, but what I can do is be clear about what I hope I want you to think about me and how I hope this next thing will make you feel and use that to shape how I communicate. But let’s talk a little bit about what people should have in mind when they’re thinking about their brand and this idea of inclusive branding from, you already mentioned some things, visuals, texts. Let’s talk about the considerations.

Chris Tuttle: Well, there’s a lot of them. And my blog posts by no means is an exhaustive list of all of the ways that we can be inclusive. And in fact, I think I in the post and talking about how inclusivity is a practice, not a destination, and it’s something that we have to constantly do, which is why that question of who are we not serving or reaching is one that we should be asking consistently and constantly throughout our work. I think the considerations that we all can think about from a communications perspective include the visual elements. It’s the captioning that we’re using for photos. And the way that we actually teach other staff who might be uploading or utilizing content on our websites or blogs or other platforms about how to create meaningful captions and alt titles and image descriptions that are going to enable people to understand what’s happening in a photo if they have visual impairments or a video if they have visual or hearing impairments.

Chris Tuttle: It’s things our color palette and logos, especially if we’re utilizing our color palettes in ways in which the difference between certain colors is necessary to distinguish in order to understand the meaning of the design or the product. We can think of this with research. You might think of this with a high end design piece that’s using kind of a monochrome design of one type of green on a darker type of green to have like big text that’s going to be inaccessible to certain people and if our brand is inaccessible to certain people then we’re limiting the ability for them to either connect, understand, or utilize our work.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I like thinking about accessibility in so many different ways. One of the other things that you talk about in your post that I thought it was really interesting was the phrase “brand diversity,” which I hadn’t quite seen before and I want you to talk about that. But you know, one of the things that I think is hard is thinking about, with branding to me at the heart of it is being clear, compelling, and consistent. We often talk about that, right? Being really intentional about what I hope people will think and feel about us. Making sure that that has been crystallized both visually and verbally and messaging and then using that time and time again because we know it takes people six to seven times to hear a message before they even kind of connect with it. So there’s a sort of hammer. We often kind of hit a lot of times with branding around being consistent and saying things and doing things the same way so that you can get recognition. But I think your article raises a good question about how do you do that while also making sure you’re tuned into the different members of your communities and constituencies so that it doesn’t sound tone deaf. So can you talk a little bit more about that and this idea of brand diversity.

Chris Tuttle: Brand diversity may not be the best term. I’m open to suggestions if folks have it, but it is thinking about how your brand can be accessible to the different people who need to utilize it as well. If we can agree that not every audience is going to respond to the exact same type of communication or need to hear things or be treated the same way, then we can also probably agree that we can have a unified system of values and messaging and wording and language that we use that can be customized for specific audiences to best reach that need. I might be in front of an audience of older, primarily college educated researchers, and I’m going to talk about our work in in one way that’s going to be very specific, probably be considered a bit more, quote unquote “professional.” Probably gonna use certain language that’s a bit less personal, a less fun maybe and get to the point and get to the stats, get to the research and make my argument, make my case.

Chris Tuttle: Whereas if I’m talking to a young group of queer people of color in high school, that’s not going to resonate with them, but we can have the same message, the same message that’s going across to the researchers about the importance of ending homelessness that is going to LGBTQ youth of color in a school that are organizing to end homelessness in their community can have slight variances that allow them to communicate in the ways that’s going to be most comfortable and natural for them and probably more effective for the audiences they’re speaking with. Visually, I thought a lot about this and we see this, I think in a lot of corporate brands nowadays that we do have to think about how our brand can be applied across different communities, different programs, different regions, and sometimes that means developing a brand identity, a visual brand identity that allows for some adjustments in difference.

Chris Tuttle: I’ve seen organizations do this with business cards. Something as simple as business cards. We can have the exact same design that could be in different brand primary colors to allow people to choose a color that best represents them or they feel is more aligned with their work. Maybe if they’re of an executive team, they want something that’s a little bit more sterile and simple, like a, a solid black or gray or a dark color where if they’re working in the community and outreach, they want something that’s a little bit more fun and exciting and a brighter color.

Farra Trompeter: Like purple. My favorite color.

Chris Tuttle: Purple. Yes, like purple.

Farra Trompeter: So, I’m still bitter that purple’s not in the Big Duck brand palette now, I’m just kidding. I love our brand palette, but you know.

Chris Tuttle: It goes well with gold.

Farra Trompeter: It really does. So let’s go back to the idea of audiences. You and I are both fans of creating audience profiles or personas. We talk about that a lot when we discuss collaboration and getting teams to stop fighting like cats and dogs. And that audiences are kind of the answer to that dilemma. But audience personas certainly also can be very helpful, but they can also be problematic I think in some of the ways that they can be designed and used. What do you think about audience personas and how are they helpful and how are they problematic?

Chris Tuttle: You know love them and hate them. As we’ve said, their audiences are helpful and that they help us segment and identify communications to specific targeted groups of our constituents and the way we may speak to a certain audience members might be different than the way we’re going to communicate our message to others and so understanding the audience profiles, not just the identities but also the interests and other potential criteria around different audiences is going to help us create better communications and help us understand better how to cultivate relationships. There’s also challenges, we’re making a lot of assumptions often when developing these personas and profiles, which, side note: one of the things we can do is look at research and data and look at what we actually have available to see if we can find some more concrete data that tells us who folks are and what their interests are. Instead of just guessing. That could include asking them and then I think the other problem is that they’re also what we call key audiences is that we’re also usually looking at those that we’re most trying to reach and that’s often going to be an audience that were either already largely connected with or already doing really well in communicating with in various ways. So I worry by doing this that we’re also limiting often our ability to reach those who most need to be served by our organization’s work. A couple of things we can do when thinking about how to create audience profiles that will be more representative inclusive of everybody is two things. One is to think about sub audiences and so when we’re thinking about primary audiences, maybe average donor who’s female between the ages of 25 and 50 and lives in North Carolina, blah, blah, blah.

Chris Tuttle: But we also think of the sub-audiences of that group, both of different sub-audiences. We may not know that we need to reach or may not be reaching yet. Maybe black women 25 to 45 in a neighboring community who are also served by organizations work. We can also think about the different generalizations we might be making around those audiences and allow for differences. Allow room to understand that not every woman is going to think the exact same way. Not every trans woman of color has the exact same experiences. Not every person with a disability has the exact same challenges throughout life and so we can start thinking through what those different challenges or different experiences might be. We can also understand that an audience and sub audience categories could also have different examples utilized different people’s experiences represented to ensure we’re reaching more people who have the variety of experiences and identities.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. One of the things we’ve been starting to play with is to move beyond personas and think about mindsets, so it’s less about somebody as this certain demographic, but more there are students who are looking for their first job, or they are people who are empty nesters and their kids have just gone off to school, so now they have their empty house, they might have new time to volunteer in different ways, so let’s think about them. So instead of saying volunteers, we’re thinking about empty-nesters and people who are looking for a meaningful experience. So shifting beyond just those demographics and into kind of more a stage of life or mindset has been helpful.

Chris Tuttle: Absolutely, and I would also add shared values as well as what questions folks seek answers for. I think one of the best things our organizations can be doing right now is to figure out what are the questions our constituents need answers for and how do we answer those questions. And those may overlap multiple audiences and segments of our communications.

Farra Trompeter: I wanted to mention earlier when we were talking about this idea of brand diversity is how did that also connect to what we call brand architecture, which is the definition of your programs and initiatives and the relationships to your master brand. And where is it okay, you know, for example, in pride month we see lots of organizations create rainbow versions of their visual identity or create an anniversary logo or have different colors for different departments. To your point about the business cards, when does it make sense? How do you play that off in a way that still makes sure there’s a clear connection to your brand and again, that often comes down to your audiences and how many different audiences are you talking to? How important is it for those audiences to know and recognize who’s speaking to them? So before we wrap up, Chris, we’ve given I think folks a lot of things to think about and personas and looking at things like alt text and how we caption images. What are other things that people can do right away if they want to start working on this issue of inclusive branding?

Chris Tuttle: I think the first thing that any organization that wants to tackle this issue should be doing is to organize a team of staff across the organization to start talking about it. Start figuring out what are the things that your organization is already doing effectively and where are there opportunities or gaps in what we should be doing. I think we can tackle some of the easiest things to be doing and some of the most necessary by looking at some of the accessibility standards for digital communications, especially websites. And there are some just basic standards that we should all be applying and utilizing today like including alt titles and image descriptions on every single image on our websites. We should be utilizing captions in every single video that goes out on our website or social media, whether those are inline captions or overlay captions using a captioning device on the software like YouTube or Facebook, which have auto captioning options.

Chris Tuttle: I think if we start with some of these easy steps and then keep that team going with some regular meetings, we can both celebrate kind of the differences in the advancements we’re making, but we can also identify the other things that are going to need to be done. And so the third thing I would leave here is document what you expect your staff to do. If we expect staff to use image titles or all tags and image descriptions accurately or to understand how to create captioning easily because sometimes it can be tedious and difficult. Then we have to help. We have to teach them and provide them the resources or teach them how to do it themselves.

Farra Trompeter: And maybe, to your point, instead of having that be a separate accessibility document, it’s actually part of your brand guide. So it’s the kind of thing we’re looking at all the time.

Chris Tuttle: Absolutely. One of the things I did at GLSEN while I was there was we worked at actually including some of the emphasis of branding standards that we’ve discussed here, like the colorblindness specifically and also the requirement for accurate representation of young people in photos was we put it right in our style guide. It was something that we expected our communications team to know when developing and implementing our brand, but it was also something we wanted our external designers and our partners and others who were using our style guide to understand and see and to utilize themselves.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Well, Chris, thanks again for being here. If you want to learn more about this topic, you can check out Chris’s post on inclusive branding, which is in the insights section of our website. He kindly let us repost it. You can also see what he’s up to at Chris, thanks again for joining us.

Chris Tuttle: Thanks so much for having me.