Communicating with authenticity and aspiration
Does your organization want to be perceived as compassionate? Innovative? Experts on your issue? The impressions you make will determine peoples’ attitudes toward, their beliefs about, and ultimately their behavior with your organization moving forward.
Brand strategy is about proactively defining the desired ideas and feelings your organization wants to foster and then carrying out the hard work to actualize those perceptions through your work and your communications.
When building a brand strategy, or just communicating in the day-to-day, nonprofits must balance how they aspire to be perceived with what they can authentically claim. At Big Duck, we regularly use the tools positioning (the big idea you want others to associate with your organization) and personality (the tone and style you use to guide your communications) to craft brand strategy. Nonprofit brands that are exclusively aspirational, inauthentic, and not backed up by prior actions are ineffective and insincere. To strike the right balance between authenticity and aspiration with your brand strategy:
- Be prepared to walk the walk. If you strive to be perceived as an organization taking a bold approach, you have to be prepared to prove to your audiences—through your communications and your actions— that you are in fact bold. An image or message can convey boldness, but if they’re not backed up by real experiences and actions, you’re going to erode trust and alienate your audiences.
- Lean into your unique strengths. Every nonprofit has its own unique DNA. Stay firmly focused on the traits that make your organization different from others in your landscape. Stay away from trying to emulate or keep up with the identities of other organizations or trends in your space, and instead find and elevate the strengths that are firmly yours to own. Start by asking your colleagues a simple question: What attributes would you use to define our organization on its best day? See what kind of themes emerge.
- Know your weaknesses. While a strong brand strategy will elevate the strengths of your organization’s identity, it’s important to know the audience perceptions your organization may want to move away from or that are less than optimal. Acknowledging a baseline of any negative or problematic audience perceptions can help you set a brand strategy that’s more nuanced and achievable. For example, negative attention related to financial mismanagement can be hard to recover from, and it could take a while to be perceived as trustworthy. Striving for something more achievable in the short term with communications and your organization’s practices and actions like showing “transparency” or “learning” would be more realistic.
- Clarify, don’t compete. Developing a brand strategy is about clarifying your organization’s unique identity, not competing with others. A single nonprofit can be a force for good, but partnerships within and beyond the nonprofit sector often foster even more transformative changes. Nonprofits can articulate and activate their brand strategy with consideration for their peers and partners rather than taking credit for an idea or movement that’s not theirs alone to claim. (Learn more about how to set a brand strategy when it’s not that simple here.)
Brand strategy is one key part of developing your organizational identity and voice. It’s an ongoing practice and not a one-time effort. When doing this work, internal stakeholders should be conscious about how to be both authentic and aspirational with the brand. Your reputation depends on it.