October 10, 2018

How can you get your new brand to stick?

In this episode of the Smart Communications Podcast, Ally Dommu, Big Duck’s Director of Strategy, shares the four core elements a nonprofit organization needs in place internally—culture, team, assets, and reflection—to ensure the hard work of a rebrand doesn’t go to waste.


Sarah: How come some organizations do a great job after a rebrand bringing that new brand to life, making it stick, living it, and kind of integrating it in everything they do, and some just don’t? That’s a question we’re going to dig into today. Ally, Big Duck’s Director of Strategy, is here with me today. Hi, Ally.

Ally: Hi, Sarah.

Sarah: This is a topic that Ally is really passionate about and has done some great thinking about. She and I are going to geek out on it today. We call this topic “brand stickiness.” I like to call it brand stickiness. I don’t know. Do you like that term, Ally?

Ally: I’m deciding whether or not it’s the right term, but I can work with it for now.

Sarah: You’re on the fence about brand stickiness.

Ally: Yeah, I am.

Sarah: So, the prompt for this, what got us thinking about this, is that at Big Duck we’ve been working with nonprofits on their communications for nearly 25 years. We’ve been rebranding organizations for much of that. We’ve noticed that sometimes, years after we’ve worked with an organization on some sort of rebrand or brand shift, that some of our clients have integrated the work beautifully and brought it to life. It’s kind of like a seed that flowered and bloomed, and they’re doing amazing things with it. Other organizations, not so much. It kind of gets used in some ways, not fully, and we wish in some instances that those organizations could just get more out of it, that they’d benefit more from using it in more holistic ways.

Sarah: It got us thinking, why is that? Why does the brand really take root or stick with some organizations, and why does it not? Ally embarked on this project last year. Ally, tell us a little bit about what you looked at and what you found.

Ally: So, just as you said, it really plays a role not just in branding and rebranding, but in any major change that an organization goes through. Sometimes you have work that stays, that endures, and sometimes things become projects that get filed away. So, what I was looking at was, well, what are some of the reasons underlying why our clients, in this case nonprofits, when they’re going through rebranding processes, why sometimes this work really does endure and sometimes why it doesn’t. Some of the pitfalls I would say, some of the reasons why some organizations are able to take hold of this work… I think it really does start internally.

Ally: So, that’s really the big finding is that rebranding processes, so much of the hard work is what happens within the organization, not what happens outside. You know, a great logo, a great tagline, great messaging, all of that work really matters, but until you have or unless you have the sort of internal structures, culture, and the people power behind the effort, the real motivation to do it well and to integrate it into your work, it’s just going to kind of live out in the world not necessarily in the most effective ways.

Sarah: So, we sometimes joke about that old Field of Dreams adage, “If we build it, they will come,” which if you’re under 40 maybe is a useless reference.

Ally: I got that one, and I’m under 40.

Sarah: But oftentimes, I think, in a big communications plan what all the mojo goes into is actually doing the thing, going through the rebrand, launching the campaign, doing the creative work. But I think what you’re really talking about is the capacity that it takes after the work is done, after the thing is launched, the brand management if it’s a rebrand or the campaign management if it’s a campaign. Is that right?

Ally: Yeah. Exactly. I think that kind of thinking should start early on in any big change process, right? Not just how are we going to do great work, but how can we design this process and start going through this change in a way that we know that this work is going to last months after, years after the actual change process is done?

Sarah: Yeah. So, oftentimes I think before a big project what organizations tend to budget for and to focus on is what’s it going to take to do the work, but maybe actually it’s more work or more thinking that has to happen in terms of how are we going to manage it? How are we going to make it stick? We have a visual we sometimes use in presentations of a highway on ramp, where the work itself that we might do is the on ramp, but actually the highway itself is the everyday keeping it alive. So, let’s talk about that. Ally, you’ve that there were four core elements of a brand that sticks. Tell us a little bit about those. What are they?

Ally: Yes. I would say the four big elements are brand culture, brand team, the people in the roles that really bring the brand to life, tools or the assets that an organization needs to manage the brand, and the last thing is evaluation, so feedback about the brand, learning about what’s working and what’s not.

Sarah: Okay. So, culture, team, tools, and evaluation. Let’s unpack those a little bit. What’s culture about?

Ally: Culture’s about beliefs, beliefs and manifesting and living out those beliefs.

Sarah: Okay. Team or people?

Ally: Team, I think about it in a few different categories. You need the right people in place in the right seats to be able to bring the brand to life. So, you need your decision makers, the people that are actually going to be involved in making major decisions about the brand, changes to the brand. You have your builders, the folks who are actually crafting messaging, who are designing logos, the people that are actually creating what we think of as the brand. We also have activators. Those are usually like your communications staff members who’s doing the tweeting, who’s writing your emails, who’s writing speeches or bringing that brand to life. Then you also have your ambassadors. Your ambassadors really are everyone that goes out and represents the organization.

Sarah: Board members, staff members.

Ally: Volunteers, supporters, you know, action takers. Those all could be ambassadors for the organization.

Sarah: So, that kind of team, I mean, you just described kind of a multifaceted team of people who can wear different hats. I think we’re in a more sophisticated place in terms of how we think about this now. Years ago there was a term that we occasionally used and is often used in the for profit world, which is brand policing. So, the brand maybe sticks in part because there’s a person on staff who’s kind of the policeman or policewoman of the brand, who’s kind of bring it to people’s attention if they’re in violation or all of that. I’ve actually moved away from terms like police person, czar, et cetera towards things like brand coach or something, but having people on the team be clear what their role is and what they’re working with, but also having a person who maybe is playing some sort of coaching or supportive role, that feels like that’s definitely an element that I’ve seen really nicely played out in some of the organizations we work with that have sticky brands.

Ally: Yeah. I think that distinction between brand police and brand coach is a really important one, and it could help a brand thrive if that isn’t just a word shift, but it’s actually a culture shift, because the type of enforcement narrative that you’re establishing with something like brand police is saying that there’s right ways, there’s wrong ways, and you’re going to actually be in violation. There’s serious consequences. That doesn’t really encourage someone to want to support the brand. It might mean that you want to do it correctly, but I think it sort of instills a sense of fear, but we want people to feel excited and encouraged to be effective brand ambassadors.

Sarah: Yeah. And to own it. To own it. One of the things that I’ve heard of some of our clients doing in the role of coaching that I’ve liked a lot and I often recommend is to try to sit down with different people on staff periodically, once a year, twice a year, depending on how much stuff they’re producing, and have just like a feedback session. Look at some of the materials they’re writing, designing, producing. Then the brand coach person can say, “What worked well? What was effective? How did you feel about it? What’s working? What’s not working?” That can be both an opportunity for the brand coach to tease out ways that they might use the brand more fully or more optimally, but also a way for them to get feedback on what is or isn’t working with the brand in the first place, because sometimes there are things … We find, for instance, messaging, it might need to evolve as people are using it. They may find that certain messages worked really well last year, aren’t resonating as much this year. So, that coaching can be also kind of a feedback loop, right?

Ally: Absolutely. I think that feeds too right into one of the key areas, which is was calling brand evaluations, is having systems in place for that feedback. That could come for your staff. That could come from doing more formal market research. That could come from evaluating your metrics in terms of communications, but having systems in place to be able to evaluate. Is this brand serving us? Do we have the right strategy in place? Are our messages working? How is our visual identity working? What needs to be refined? The fact is that any good brand will always be a work in progress. It’s an evolution. Once you’re done with any project, it’s not something that is final, final. It should be something that is alive and ever evolving.

Sarah: Yeah. Just like your organization’s alive and ever evolving. So, brand evaluation, it seems to me what you’re saying is that if you’re tracking the impact that your brand is having and what’s resonating with people, then that’s a way of kind of taking the pulse of the living thing that is your brand, and you can do that informally by I guess asking people in your target audiences for feedback. You can do it more formally in market research that you might already conduct or a tool like our Brand Raising Benchmark. How else do you recommend organizations evaluate the brand? Is there anything else we haven’t touched on that lives under that pillar?

Ally: I think just honestly speaking to staff members who are using the brand on a day to day basis and genuinely getting people’s feedback, people that are speaking about the organization in all its … communicating about the organization in all the different ways, program staff, advocacy staff. You know, obviously it depends organization to organization, but your staff are really your strongest brand ambassadors, so really hearing from them, listening, and making changes based on what they think is working well and not well.

Sarah: That makes a lot of sense. I think in some ways what you’re describing is that your organization’s brand strategy, its messaging, its visual identity, all of those elements almost become like clothes that people in the organization, staff and maybe board members too, put on and represent the organization in. When they start to become ill fitting, you want to hear it, and you want to be able to go in and tailor, make adjustments, and sometimes those will be extreme, but hopefully if you keep your finger on that conversation, they’ll be more subtle. The third pillar you talked about is brand tools and assets. What are those tools?

Ally: There’s a bunch of stuff that falls under that category. One of the most important things is a brand guide, which is a central resources where you can capture all the best practices, the assets that you’ve built for your brand. So, that’s where your logo goes, rules about your visual identity, your messaging, your strategy. It’s a resource that all your communicators, and that can be all staff, can use and refer to for communicating about the organization. That’s a really important one. We find that organizations that have a brand guide that actually is distributed and referenced across the organization, the brand lives out more effectively.

Ally: That tool, that guide should be formulated in a way that’s actually useful for all the staff. Sometimes a 30 page brand guide isn’t the most useful tool to reference. So, that content should be adapted to all the people in your brand team in a way that’s going to be most useful for them. So, if putting it on the internet, or creating a one sheet, or having just a reference card for just a few pointers or messaging tips, those are all assets.

Sarah: You’re describing a kind of cultural adaptation within the organization of the way you codify those tools.

Ally: Exactly.

Sarah: That’s verbally jargony. I used a lot of jargon there.

Ally: There was some jargon there, but I think our audience can understand that one.

Sarah: People can handle it. Yeah. Just as examples of that, and maybe just to get a little bit more into de-jargoning some of these terms, we usually consider a brand guide a guide that has your brand strategy, your messaging, the visuals, the whole enchilada, right? As opposed to in the creative world often times a style guide is just visuals. A style guide will have the colors, the logo, those kinds of visual elements, and style guides are really helpful for designers, but they’re not very helpful for the staff who are just going to most typically represent the organization in writing and speaking, right? So, for people who mostly are going to write and speak, they need messaging and strategy. That can be in the form of either just a messaging guise or a brand guide that’s got everything in it. Are there any other versions that you see or any other iterations that help stick?

Ally: One thing we’ve found recently, some of our clients are creating language guides, interesting component to a brand tool kit. A language guide takes messaging a step further and breaks down the messaging and use of language that’s appropriate for an organization’s strategy, for their culture, and for their audiences. What words are we using, and what words aren’t we using about our issues, the problems that we’re working on, the impact that we’re having. In general, that could really help an organization steer clear of language that can be really off putting or just not working for their cause.

Sarah: Right. One example of that would be in a language guide you might say something like, “We don’t use the word ex-convict to describe the people we serve. We use the term formerly incarcerated people.”

Ally: Exactly.

Sarah: Are there other examples that come to mind? My sense of those language guides, or lexicons, as they’re sometimes called, is that they’re usually about identifying jargon and identifying inflammatory … or terms that are controversial, come with stigma, infer kind of layers of bad meanings, right?

Ally: Sure. Yeah. I mean, another example might be an organization that works on LGBTQ rights, right? They might choose to, instead of using gay and lesbian individuals, they might always choose to use the acronym LGBTQ or LGBTQIA, depending on how inclusive they want to ensure that their language is.

Sarah: Right. Great. Okay. We talked about four core elements of a brand that sticks, brand culture, brand team, brand tools, and brand evaluation. Are there any other brand management tips or recommendations you have if somebody out there is managing a rebrand or just went through a rebrand, trying to really make it stick? Anything we haven’t touched on that we should share as parting words of advice? One thing I was thinking about is the question of how do you integrate all of this into your operations. We often recommend that in addition to doing a training, you maybe do some on-boarding integration, so that in your HR practices, when somebody comes to work at your organization, one of the modules they get is a training on the brand. Anything else like that?

Ally: Yeah. That’s a really nice idea. I would say what we talked about, just going back to the beginning, of sometimes we work with clients who they budget and think about the time it’s going to take to go through a rebrand process, but they don’t think about necessarily or budget for all the work that comes afterwards. A lot of that is time, and a lot of that is just building a new systems. So, we think that generally the organizations that their brand is really thriving, it’s alive, it’s sticky, are the ones that are really seeing the long view.

Sarah: Yeah. Seeing the long view is a great way to summarize it and really knowing that the ownership of that brand is going to shift away from whoever helped you create it fully and squarely in house, right? You have to live it and own it as an organization, so taking the long view on that is critical. All right. Thanks very much.

Ally: Thank you.

Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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