The basics of nonprofit brand assets
When you’ve been working with a logo that’s problematic or no messaging at all, you can get a bit frustrated. How can we attract the right people? How will they engage with us if we don’t put our best foot forward? Like Ray Kinsella in the 1980s hit movie “Field of Dreams,” you start to believe that if you build it, they will come. But in truth, creating a new logo, tagline, messaging, or another brand asset won’t bring them to you. It simply gives you better tools to work with.
There are three key brand assets that form the building blocks of consistent communications: brand strategy, visuals, and messaging.
A vision statement articulates what a nonprofit organization is working toward and its mission defines how it will get there. A brand strategy translates that vision and mission into how the organization wants to be understood by its target audiences. There are many models for brand strategy (“brand purpose,” “brand promise,” “value proposition,” etc.), which can be useful. Brand strategy models reduce complex notions about your organization to a simple expression of who you are, providing a road map your team can consistently use to express your organization’s voice.
In my book, Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications (Jossey-Bass, 2010), I outlined a process of developing a clear and cohesive organizational identity and communications system that supports the organization’s mission (called “brandraising”- the backbone of what we do here at BIg Duck). Nonprofits should define their unique positioning (the single idea they want to be known for in the minds of their target audiences) and their personality (the tone and style they will use to communicate). Positioning and personality together create a powerful brand strategy that nonprofits can use to create more consistent communications that help them speak with a clearer voice.
A brand strategy defines how everyone should communicate when they write, speak, or design on behalf of your organization. It helps your staff and board objectively answer questions such as “Does this speech reflect our organization’s voice?” “Which new website design best communicates our organization’s brand?” “Is the design and copy in our year-end fundraising on strategy?”
Most people will simply skim through a website, email, newsletter, or other communication they receive from your nonprofit, so how your materials look can be just as important as what they say. Consistent use of the same logo, colors, fonts, and types of images helps your communications feel cohesive — presenting a unified appearance for the organization.
Developing a new identity is typically a fun creative process. It’s an opportunity to capture through design what people love most about the mission and to work with creative professionals that most nonprofit staff people rarely get to collaborate with. Afterward, most staff are delighted to abandon a stale visual identity in favor of something that feels fresh, relevant, and future-focused — especially when they had a hand in crafting it. Big Duck’s 2013 study of the impact of rebranding on nonprofits, “The Rebrand Effect,” showed that providing staff with a more compelling suite of visual elements to work with quickly improved their morale and correlated with other positive outcomes.
At the end of a rebrand, most designers create a style guide or brand guide, which defines rules for using the new visual identity correctly. It includes details such as how the logo should and should not be used, what colors, fonts, photos, and other images should be used, and more. A thorough guide makes it easy for anyone producing materials on your behalf to design consistently on brand. It’s shared with any staff, freelancers, or other partners who create communications materials.
While only a handful of staff within a nonprofit will design materials, just about everyone will write and speak on behalf of the organization at some point. Giving them clear messaging will help ensure that your organization’s voice is clear and consistent.
Messaging is an overused term that means many different things in the nonprofit sector — and has no one-size-fits-all definition. Most importantly, messaging should be scaled appropriately for your organization’s capacity and fully integrated into your team’s workflow so they routinely write and speak from the script.
The Chinese-American Planning Council (www.cpc-nyc.org) is the largest Asian American social services agency in the United States. In 2017, it employed more than 5,000 people, yet it didn’t have a single dedicated person responsible for communications. Without a guide to help them speak with a consistent voice, most people in the organization could explain their program’s or department’s work, but they struggled to tell a larger, more comprehensive story about the agency overall.
When CPC received a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation (www.robinhood.org) to develop messaging, it started at the beginning: with a clear brand strategy and a straightforward and comprehensive way to explain the organization’s work. The messaging was structured simply so all staff could learn and remember it without significant effort.
In other organizations, comprehensive messaging can be less useful than persuasive messaging, which is designed to help an important and specific audience (donors, clients, policymakers, perhaps even a specific segment or mindset) understand the work and take action.
A nonprofit organization’s messaging assets might include:
- A tagline that works well with its name
- Compelling vision, mission, and values statements
- Comprehensive messaging: boilerplate language and/or an “elevator pitch” that provides a high-level overview
- Persuasive messaging targeting specific audiences (e.g., donors, clients, members, advocates)
- Fundraising case for support
- A stirring manifesto that can be used as a general rallying cry
- A powerful narrative
Along with visual assets, compile messaging elements into a brand guide that you use both as a training tool and an ongoing reference manual for all employees. To further build support and stickiness, consider empowering a “brand coach” who can advocate for the brand internally.
The key is to pick one approach or model that feels appropriate for your organization and implement it consistently. Next, use your new brand assets to get out there and engage people. Want more on this topic? Check out my new book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, and Big Duck’s many examples. It’s time to play ball!