Building a brand for social change
The days of “branding is only for corporations” are in the past. Today, even the most progressive nonprofits committed to social change are investing in their brands. They know that doing the critical organizing and programs work behind the scenes—while central to the mission—isn’t enough. In fact, siloing program, advocacy, and communications work could hold them back from making real progress on the issues and building the relationships needed to win.
At its most basic, a brand is a nonprofit’s voice. It’s what people hear, see, think, and feel when they interact with an organization—and the impressions and beliefs that are formed leading people to take action. Every nonprofit has an opportunity to be strategic with its voice—using compelling communications, messaging and storytelling, and visuals in service of its mission.. While “brand” as a word could still make some people working in social justice pause because it has corporate connotations (Corporate Accountability referred to their process as an “organizational identity campaign”), the concept behind it—developing a clear and powerful voice that defines the organization—is taking hold. Here are a few reasons why organizations committed to social change are starting to take branding more seriously…
- A strong brand elevates a vision for social justice. The brand can be an asset expressing the long-term vision of the organization—including a vision of racial, gender, environmental, or economic justice. Between the current administration’s endless assaults on social justice and countless distractions—the 24/7 news cycle, social media, and more—individuals and organizations alike are increasingly pushed to message reactively, about the short-term implications of their fights. A thoughtful brand should be grounded in a change vision and the big picture justice outcomes the organization is fighting for.
- A strong brand clarifies and simplifies complex ideas. Communicating effectively about social justice, inequality, and systems of oppression and power is complicated work. How do you balance the desire to be accurate with a need to be brief? How much context is useful for your audiences? What framing is most effective? So many social justice organizations unintentionally make their work less accessible by being overly wordy, using jargon, and failing to express their message with focus, clarity, and emotion. Existing and prospective stakeholders, participants, and supporters should know exactly who you are, your values, and what you’re fighting for. A strong brand should clearly express who you are to key audiences, making it easier—not harder—for them to connect with you.
- A strong brand is a unifying force. At the start of rebranding processes, there is typically some misalignment about how communicators are talking about the work and why it matters. A strong brand is a starting point for cohesion among all communicators—whether “communications” is in their job title (similiarly to development and marketing staff) or not (like programs staff)—and can reinforce a shared narrative about why the organization exists and the progress it’s working towards.
- A strong brand directs the narrative. Investing in a brand means investing in the core story you tell about your organization. When the opposition is actively working to undermine your cause by sending contradictory and harmful messages, that story is critical. It can serve as a line of defense, a steadying voice, or a compelling narrative that inspires people to see the issues differently—and moves them to take action.
- A strong brand is a magnet for action. Social justice organizations rely on the mobilization of people to effect change. A brand gives the people core to your mission—your partners, donors, participants, members—a reason to choose you as a destination to direct their values, passion, and support. A strong brand is a wayfinding tool—it can send clear and consistent signals to people inspiring them to to sign up, act, give, and join the fight.
While there are a lot of reasons why nonprofit brands are being seen as an asset, it’s important to be clear about the limitations of branding. Strong nonprofit brands provide a solid foundation for effective communications and social justice campaigns. But a brand on its own is not going to win campaigns, raise money, or build a base of supporters—it must work hand in hand with organizing, programmatic work, and fundraising. The brand is an asset to leverage and one tool in the larger communications arsenal that social justice organizations need to change lives.