Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
5 min Read
October 15, 2019

Three factors that can jeopardize your branding process

Every week, I talk with five to ten organizations that are considering rebranding. These calls and emails are with people at different points in the journey—from those just beginning to wonder if they need a change to others with a detailed summary of deliverables. These requests vary in timing and budget, but almost all share a few common concerns: 

No one understands what we do.

Everyone who knows us loves us… but not enough people know who we are.

We are the best-kept secret of ___ (programs) OR in ____ (region).

Our board thinks we should focus on XYZ, but our staff thinks we should highlight our ABC work.

Sound familiar?

Branding can help more people know you for the right things. But before you dive into the branding pool, make sure you don’t have these internal factors which can slow down or thwart a branding process.

Your strategic plan is obsolete, ignored, or non-existent

A good brand strategy is informed by an organization’s strategy and not the other way around. One of the first questions we ask when an organization is considering a rebrand connects to its strategic plan. Do you have one? When was it created and what time period does it cover? How “alive” is it? What are the big goals in your plan? And (for bonus points) do you have a theory of change or logic model?

Strategic plans can help establish a shared vision of where an organization is heading. Even if you don’t have a formal or written plan, having your staff and board aligned around what your organization is working toward is essential.  

Readers of Brandraising (or viewers of the webinar), will be familiar with how we think about branding. Before we redesign a logo, brainstorm new taglines, or work on shifting an organization’s look and feel, we want to be clear about where an organization is going, what its purpose is, what principles guide its decisions, and who are the most important people that need to take action with an organization—and what those actions are. From there we develop the brand strategy of positioning and personality, which then direct any changes to visuals and messaging, and ultimately how the brand is experienced across communications channels and campaigns. All of these elements emerge directly from a clear strategic plan. 

There will always be new (and perhaps better) ways to use words and images. If you can ground the need for change in strategy you’ll be clearer and more aligned on what to focus on and what changes to make. Branding for the sake of branding will only get you so far. But if you examine your brand in the context of a current understanding of what your organization is trying to do—the change it seeks to make in the world—you’ll have a more objective guide to the work and better results down the line.

Your leadership is in transition

Five years ago Big Duck partnered with a market research firm to conduct a study of 300+ nonprofit organizations that had made significant changes to how they communicated. The Rebrand Effect found a connection between organizational development and branding. In short, the organizations that benefited the most from rebranding were the ones who had recently gone through strategic planning (with a shared vision) and/or recently brought in a new leader. When a new CEO or executive director takes on a branding process, they are likely more open to change and will welcome suggestions that whatever is currently in place may no longer represent who the organization is now.

But the timing of that new leader coming in is key. If you are a CEO or Board Chair who is planning to leave their organization soon, or if your organization is in the midst of a search for new leadership (including a new director of communications or development), we recommend you put rebranding on hold. While there are exceptions to every rule, a new leader who joins in the middle of a branding process or right after one has been completed is less likely to buy into it. They may not understand what is driving change or want to put their own mark on what’s being created. 

Sometimes a change in leadership is unexpected. Pause the branding process to bring the new leader on the journey if possible. Share the research you did and the findings you reached. Review past presentations and summarize the feedback that was given at each stage in the process. Explain where you are, what decisions have been made, and what is coming next. Take time to also understand their vision for the organization and connect this work to what they care about. Be open to their questions and confident in your answers.

Your board is too hands-on

I’ve had the privilege of serving on three different nonprofit boards, including a three-year stint as chair for one of them. With each position, I’ve tried to be mindful of the line between governing and managing. While smaller, younger, more direct service nonprofits may look to their board as an extension of their staff, even in those situations, the board should be providing guidance vs. managing a project. 

Be clear about the role of the board, particularly as it relates to decision-making, early in the rebranding process. Selecting the right colors for your visual identity and picking the perfect phrase for your elevator pitch is fun, but this should really be the domain of professionals (staff, freelancers, or consultants). 

There are aspects of an organization’s identity where I do think the board should approve what’s been developed, such as a new name or shifts to the external-facing vision statement, for example. If your board wants to be consulted on which font or typeface should be in your logo or which image to feature on your homepage, you–and your rebranding process–may be in trouble. If you have communications strategists, writers, or designers on your board, engage these individuals (vs. the entire board) deliberately at key junctures in the process. These professionals can helpfully join a working group or review options while they are being created. 

A full board that requires approval for every element can lead to a longer, more expensive, and less effective process. If your board wants to approve every element, try to spark a conversation that gets to why. Is this an issue of trust? Is this symptomatic of a larger issue of the board’s role? Is it simply a matter of education where board members are confused about what their role should be? Try to get at the root of that and address it first.

We are in the clear

If you’ve made it this far and found yourself shaking your head because your organization is free of these issues, congratulations! Perhaps now is a good time for you to rebrand. With a clear vision, stable team, and strong board in place, your next step is to start the conversation and build buy-in among your team. Good luck.