Brand New World: Nonprofit Branding in a Changing Tech Landscape
This article is adapted from its original posting in the Nonprofit Quarterly.
With every new technology that emerges, there seems to be a corresponding slew of new recommendations on how best to re-engineer your brand. From social media to mobile to crowdsourcing to big data, technology trends place unrelenting demands on how resource-constrained nonprofits create branded experiences for their key stakeholders. And just when an organization catches up with the latest next big thing, the dominant technology paradigm shifts, and the organization is forced to revisit its approach to branding all over again. According to branding experts, however, the secret to establishing a strong brand is not to re-define your organization with every new technology trend, but rather to be consistent in your brand and to be flexible in how you use new technology to reinforce that brand.
Sarah Durham, principal and founder of New York City-based nonprofit communications firm Big Duck, asserts that good branding starts with a strategy that is flexible enough to absorb the dynamic nature of technological change. “We are living in an increasingly noisy world and are bombarded with messages,” says Durham. “All nonprofits need to be part of this communications stream. Because few nonprofits have the staff or communications capacity to negotiate all possible channels, nonprofits need to have a simple approach to communication across all media.”
According to Durham, the strength of a brand hinges on two factors: (1) being clear about the organization’s position, and (2) expressing the organization’s personality. Positioning is a term that often gets thrown about in discussions of an organization’s stance relative to competitors, but it also indicates the position that an organization occupies in the mind of those who come into contact with the organization, be it in person, in the media, or online. The personality of an organization is reflected in the tone and style it uses to communicate with audiences.
Jennie Winton, founding partner of the San Rafael, Calif.-based nonprofit marketing communications consulting firm Mission Minded states that “brand” is simply another way of saying “reputation.” Winton views social media, mobile devices, and other new technology paradigms as divorced from this bigger idea of brand. “Branding is really about the essence of the promise [that your organization delivers upon],” says Winton. “The tactical way that you reinforce that big idea or promise is through these new channels and technologies.”
Avoid Tech Bandwagon Branding
Establishing a strong brand requires consistency and clarity. For this reason, organizations are cautioned against jumping on the latest technology trend solely for its own sake. Winton calls this “a tactic in search of a strategy.” Responding to pressure to keep up with others in the field, organizations will sometimes throw financial resources or personnel at a new technology strictly to have a presence.
For example, an organization may believe that its employees should be blogging, so it will require staff to write blog posts on the organization’s website without providing a framework for how doing so should tie into the organization’s mission. In other instances, the nonprofit’s bloggers might be set loose without clear guidance as to how to write in a consistent tone and style that reflects the organization’s personality. So before an organization starts posting photos on Instagram or building mobile apps or redesigning its website for tablet devices, it should think twice about how these activities support the brand strategy.
“Being innovative means taking appropriate advantage of new branding channels and using them in innovative ways,” says Winton. “Don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Break the rules in a way that simultaneously is mission forward and that also reinforces your brand.” A think tank that has developed a brand that exudes a formal personality and a reputation for delivering measured, insightful analysis should not suddenly start tweeting brash, cheeky comments on Twitter. Likewise, an organization with a youthful, edgy personality should reflect this personality in their branding.
Brand for the Long Haul
One community-based organization that has developed a vibrant local brand is Spy Hop Productions, a youth media organization in Salt Lake City. “Creating a strong brand is critical to our mission of mentoring young people,” says Virginia Pearce, director of marketing and community programs at Spy Hop. “This is the crowd that gets when they are being marketed to, so it is critical that our brand is honest and speaks to them individually.”
Spy Hop has developed a consistent brand that is reflected in all of the ways that it appears to different audiences, including youth participants, donors, and foundations. “As we hone in on how we speak to our community as SpyHop, we find ourselves speaking in the same way and that is good for everybody,” says Pearce. “Obviously, when you’re writing a grant it is very different than when you’re talking to a teen, but there is a consistency in the personality of our brand as a cutting edge, creative, youthful, vibrant member of an arts community.”
For Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit environmental law organization, having a strong brand is critical to the organization’s success. “The most important thing for a nonprofit is to make sure its brand speaks to its mission,” says Earthjustice Marketing Director Nadine de Coteau. “For us, brand is everything. Litigation is the core of what we do. We fight for the right for a healthy environment for all. Our brand is a fighter brand. It reflects optimism, partnerships, excellence and tenacity.” Branding at Earthjustice is about positioning the organization in the mind of the public such that they want to join the fight for the long haul and won’t back down. “Brand consistency is about brand integrity and brand democracy,” says de Coteau. “If the brand is true to the mission, it doesn’t feel foreign to the organization. Our brand is not something separate and apart from what we are and what we do.”
While Earthjustice monitors new trends, it decides whether a new technology positions the organization strategically and whether their audience is there before embarking on a plan to use that technology. Maintaining consistency across the brand throughout new channels comes easy when the brand is activated throughout the organization. “We do believe it is important to have a consistent style and tone, but we don’t have a brand cop,” says de Coteau. “We have brand standards and templates, which is operational stuff. Our brand integrity is such that it’s true to the organization and true to the people in the organization, so our attorneys often speak to the brand without even trying. We know what the real assets of our brand are and we don’t mess with them too much.”
In many ways, technology has made branding more important than ever. Technology has enabled small organizations to be visible in places they couldn’t have been before, but it has also created a more crowded playing field that forces organizations to cut through more noise just to be heard. A local arts organization isn’t just competing with other local arts organizations. It’s also competing with other nonprofits that are vying for the attention of the same patrons, donors, and volunteers. Good branding is about having a single, clear big idea that people can understand and fall in love with.
“Brands are for a lifetime,” says Mission Minded’s Winton. “Your brand should not be changing with the developments with the technology. The brand has to be rock solid and not shifting. The way you communicate your brand is based on what comes along next.”