Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash
August 26, 2021

How can you update an iconic brand?

Mark Graham

A classic brand identity is hard to change. Old perceptions about your organization’s brand or internal shifts can be challenging. Listen in as Sarah Durham talks with Mark Graham, chief marketing & communications officer at American Friends Service Committee about AFSC’s distinctive brand and the organization’s journey to evolve its iconic identity.


Sarah Durham: People who work in younger or less well-known organizations often struggle with raising awareness and building mindshare for their work. They want to be recognized and known for what they do and they envy folks in better-known organizations, because they may have a level of visibility that seems useful to advance the mission. But when you work in an organization that’s been around for a while and has an iconic identity, it’s not always as easy to evolve with the times as you might think. Sometimes you’re grappling with a very large staff that can be challenging to pivot or change or evolve. And sometimes a well-known organization can shift their focus successfully internally, but the public struggles to let go of the old perceptions about the organization. I talked a little bit about that in an earlier podcast with Teresa Younger, who’s the CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women. That podcast is called “What happens when people think they know your organization, but they don’t.

Sarah Durham: But today we’re going to continue our exploration of how well-known organizations evolve their brands. I’m Sarah Durham. I’m the host of the Smart Communications Podcast, and my guest today is Mark Graham. Mark manages the communications department at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). He’s worked at AFSC since 1999. He actually started there as a temp, updating the web pages and stuck around. Over the years, he’s moved through donor services, through program communications, web fundraising, public opinion research, direct response fundraising, magazine, production, online advocacy, and acting as the head of the development department through two transitions. Today, he is the chief marketing and communications officer and as you can gather from his resume, he’s done just about everything. Mark is the devoted partner to Amy Ignatow. Amy is a children’s book author and illustrator, and together they are the parents of two fabulous elementary school kids. And Mark is someone I’ve consulted with for years because as you can get a sense from his resume, he’s really done it all. He is truly a nonprofit communications pro par excellence. I’ve referenced his work at AFSC in my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, and I regularly share lessons that I’ve learned from Mark with others. So let’s get into it, Mark. Thank you for joining me here today.

Mark Graham: Wow. I thank you for that very gracious introduction. It’s great to be here.

Sarah Durham: Very long and action-packed introduction. So, let’s start by talking about American Friends Service Committee or AFSC. AFSC is a Quaker organization that works with people from all faiths worldwide to challenge injustice and promote peace. Tell us a little bit about it, Mark from both a historical point of view, and its visual identity, its name, and other brand assets.

Mark Graham: The American Friends Service Committee is about 104 years old. We were founded in 1917 as the US was entering World War I, and war fever was starting to grip the country. AFSC became a place founded by Quakers for conscientious objectors to serve humanity without being in the military. They ran ambulances, they rebuilt schools and houses in France. They fed many, many hungry people in France, Germany, and elsewhere who were dealing with the ongoing and then the aftermath of World War I. And then they turned into the US and saw that some of the roots of violence that they saw in the World War were taking place here. There was growing hatred toward immigrants and the first anti-immigrant laws were forming. There was racism happening in the United States. There still is racism happening in the United States. There was serious economic injustice with big strikes. So what AFSC did was we pivoted from starting to be more of a relief agency and then started working on the root causes of violence and the root causes of oppression. And we’ve been at that ever since. So that’s in essence, the story of AFSC. We currently still focus on humane immigration policy, and work on helping people get decent livelihoods that are good for both people and the planet. And we also are working toward peacebuilding and avoiding militarism, militarized policing, imprisoning mass incarceration, the whole realm of state control, and state violence is a suite of interrelated issues that we’ve been working on.

Mark Graham: But you also asked about our brand and our logo. And so AFSC has been known for our work as a Quaker organization. Quakers are not big on bragging. So we’ve been relatively humble about the work that we do, trying to let the work speak for itself. The main logo that we’ve used over these years and it was actually a Quaker star that was donated to Quaker Relief Services in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

Mark Graham: So our logo predated the organization. The Quaker star was given by a London newspaper that was founded by Charles Dickens, and was a progressive newspaper, to try to identify that these shipments from England weren’t from the military, weren’t from the country, were humanitarian shipments, and could get through. And the early Quakers who were driving the ambulances and rebuilding houses wore uniforms with that star on their logo, and we’ve used variations of that star and the name American Friends Service Committee ever since. And we’ve had it in basically any color, sometimes with a rainbow, sometimes with really strange color choices, I have to say, but we solidified a logo about 20 years ago. And then recently we’ve had a new strategic plan and we were looking to see how to advance the organization into the next decade with our new plan and the new things we’re doing, and we decided to take a look at redoing that.

Sarah Durham: It’s interesting when you talk about the history of the organization. Here you are 104 years old, international organization. How big is the staff approximately around the world?

Mark Graham: We’re about 400…350 to 400 people.

Sarah Durham: So big organization, lots of different people in different places, and as you say, you know, AFSC has been traditionally, I often think of it as, you know, the sort of social justice arm of the Quaker movement, you know, there are these associations that people have with the organization and its Quaker roots. So you mentioned you’d been through strategic planning and it was time to take a new look at the brand. And that was an opportunity that we at Big Duck got to help you with a bit. It ended up being a slightly different project than you expected. Tell us about that. What happened?

Mark Graham: Well, I thought we were going to work on some key messages to update ourselves with our new strategic plan, which was focusing us on peace-building, migration work, and economic justice work, and adding a level of sustainability and antiracism to our work. And trying to figure out what are really accessible ways to message that. And so we started working with Big Duck and we brought together staff from different parts of the organization. I think a board member was on this call, and we had an intensive. I thought we were surely going to get from the beginning of the intensive, toward, oh, we need to find a new way to talk about these things. But part of that intensive process was looking at some other organizations and looking at our own work, and when we did that, there was just a growing feeling amongst the people there that we needed to update our look so that we were more distinctive, that we were more recognizable. And so instead of working on key messages, and the new elevator speech, or any of those fun word things, we started working more on the visual identity, and definitely it took a very big pivot there.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And updating a very iconic mark, a mark that’s been around for more than 104 years, for sure. And for those of you who haven’t worked with Big Duck, when Mark talks about the intensive, the intensive is a name that we use here to describe usually a workshop or a series of workshops where we’re helping organizations evolve their brand strategy. So that’s just a little bit of Big Duck jargon.

Mark Graham: Yeah, and I was sorry that we couldn’t do it in person, but it still worked through Zoom. So that was good.

Sarah Durham: What’s nice about doing collaborative workshops and meetings in Zoom is that you can actually, in many ways, include more people if people have digital capacity, so that’s cool. Okay. So I want to circle back to something you’ve referenced in your new strategic plan and in AFSC’s current work, which is its enhanced commitment to antiracism and anti-colonialism, and I’d love for you to talk for a little bit about how that played a role in this brand refresh? That feels very relevant to your situation and too many organizations. There’s a lot of organizations who are thinking about this now.

Mark Graham: As we were thinking about this refresh, we wanted to make sure we’re doing it in a collaborative way. That was getting the point of view of people who are working in many different parts of the world and their communities into the mix because we’re not refreshing the brand just because it’s fun. Even though it did turn out to be kind of fun. We were refreshing the brand because we wanted to make sure that we could engage people with us as well as possible. And we were trying to solve a few problems that we’d run into.

Mark Graham: We found that several of our international offices weren’t using our former logo because the first word is American. And in the post-9/11 world, a lot of people in other countries did not trust an American organization to be neutral, to be on their side.
And they thought that we had an agenda. And so they would call themselves the Quakers in that area. Or they would just say AFSC, but never really spell it out. And they wouldn’t hide it exactly who we were, but they would downplay the “based in America” part. So as part of the process that we had, we talked to people all across the organization. We invited volunteers and other community members in, we did open calls by Zoom and other ways, all hours of the day and night, to be able to try to get people at the time zone that they’re working or they’re up. And so we heard quite a lot and we got some really good engagement around the organization. And in the end, we ended up coming up with two formal logos, one with the full name that many people know and love, and one with the initials AFSC. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see this period where we have two and see what people gravitate to during this phase.

Sarah Durham: You mentioned the initials or the acronym AFSC, and this is something that comes up a lot, and I think it is also another variable that is a particular challenge for organizations that have a long and storied past as you do. Because oftentimes in a younger organization, if you start using an acronym or your initials, it really feels like insider speak. It feels like people in the organization know what you’re talking about, but it’s hard for people who really don’t know who you are externally, to latch on to an acronym. And so generally I often discourage people from using acronyms, but when an organization has been around as long as you have, and when you’ve been around awhile and you have a word in your case, American, that may be challenging or problematic for some of the people you’re trying to work with, acronyms can be very useful. They almost become like a placeholder or an empty vessel that you can fill with a lot of different things. So they become almost like a bridge to communicating in a different way in the future. Yeah. I’m going to be interested to see how that plays out for you and if your international colleagues find that that’s a good solution.

Mark Graham: I hope so. I also think that our new tagline that we’ll be combining with that, it will help people realize that the “friends” in AFSC means Quakers because our tagline is going to be “Quaker action for a just world.” And so I hope that that makes it a little bit clearer. You know, the global scope of the organization, the work toward peace and justice, as well as that we’re rooted in that Quaker identity while we work with people from all backgrounds and faiths.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And I love that you’re bringing in the tagline into this and talking about the relationship of those things. I think whether you work in a small organization or a large organization, the way your name, your logo, your tagline work together, the way those things come together in places like your website or your other communications can help to tell a more complete story about who you are and the work that you do. And I think as you’re talking about some of the things that you have been reviewing and updating or creating during this recent brand refresh, we’re sort of alluding to an order of operations, a way of doing things, or a step-by-step way of tackling things that need to be updated or created, but you know, budget, buy-in, how you involve different stakeholders in your organization or externally, these are all real-world variables that can often make the ideal order of operations, not so possible. So how do you in a larger organization, how do you navigate that? How do you get things done in a way that seems logical, especially with strategic planning, as part of the mix so that you don’t have to go back and reinvent the wheel?

Mark Graham: I think to a large extent, you need to follow where the energy is. The most important thing I think for any project, but particularly for a brand identity project is, does it really help your team and your colleagues and the community around your organization come together and want to work on this more? And so I think figuring out what are you ready to answer at this point, and trying to make progress in those places makes a ton of sense. Working on the visual identity has opened up a range of other questions for us that we have other processes that need to play out to be able to fully answer. And there’s always a little bit of an awkward dance around having partial answers and taking one step forward, but then maybe another tentative step forward, but not exactly sure. Like, well, this is where we think this is going to be, and this is where we suggest, but not necessarily, we’re not codifying this yet. I think that in general, figuring out what gives you, your organization, the community around you some energy. What do you have the budget for? What is aligned with your values and helpful and engaging people in your organization? And figuring out, what’s in that sweet spot that you can keep pushing for? And then be happy that you made some progress and then hopefully then you’ve built up some energy to solve the next problem. That’s what I’m hoping for right now, too.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Progress, not perfection. I really appreciate what you’re saying about doing the work that there is some energy or momentum around. Cause I think it’s also particularly true that in an organization that might be a bit larger, these things can take longer. You know, it can be harder to convene all the people who need to be a part of these conversations. And so rallying around the things that people are energized by sort of balances that out a bit.

Mark Graham: Yeah. I was talking to a friend who works in a similar organization where they really only need their executive director to say yes, to be able to change almost anything about the organization. And there’s part of that that makes me very jealous because it’s so simple, but there’s also, while it’s difficult, there’s something that happens when people really come together and you get a lot of different ideas, and you get ideas and perspectives from around a larger group of people.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, the opportunity to co-create. It’s inspiring.

Mark Graham: Yeah. And the variety of work and ideas and challenges that you’re trying to solve is also really amazing. Sometimes it’s the grass is greener on the other side in the other organization where you can just snap your fingers and all of a sudden everything’s blue. At the same time, I also love the organization that’s built off of collaboration and built off of that level of consultation too.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I hear you. Mark. As you know, the listeners to this podcast work for all kinds of different organizations, different shapes and sizes, and missions. And for folks, particularly who may also work in organizations with a long storied history around their brands, who are thinking that maybe they need to go through some sort of refresh or update. What advice would you give to them or even to folks who have the ability to snap their fingers and make it all blue?

Mark Graham: Well, I wouldn’t do it just because you can snap your fingers. I think that your legacy is a beautiful thing and that you really need to think about that as a part of this. It may also come with some baggage and it may present some challenges. You really have to think about how does that effect being able to engage people in your mission? Being able to bring people along with you right now and for the next few years. And then imagine, what really do you need to adjust? What’s aligned with your values? What is it that’s helpful? What is your team ready for at this time? And then trying to figure out some way that helps bring along people. if you do have a challenge and you do need to make some changes, what helps bring along the people who are still committed to your legacy and also helps you maybe reach new by being a little bit more distinctive or having something new? I think it’s very different for different organizations because everybody has some similar challenges, but everybody also has very, very different variations of this. And I’m always kind of balancing between the internal opportunities and the external opportunities, as well as just making sure that we’re building up steam to keep going on to the next challenge.

Sarah Durham: You know, I’m listening to you talk about this Mark, and I’m thinking about the patience that this must require. The patience to bring together large groups of people and find ways to collaborate and to identify where the energy is and to be thoughtful about your legacy. And I’m thinking about how lucky American Friends Service Committee is to have somebody like you, who’s been working in communications for over two decades because you’ve seen over that amount of time, a number of changes. And I think you’ve probably seen the benefits that emerge from having that kind of patience. And you’re not saying that, but as I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking that’s another piece of advice that maybe your leadership exemplifies, that sometimes it does take time and it takes patience.

Mark Graham: Well, I appreciate that. I think it does sometimes take patience and sometimes it takes a bold step when it’s possible. And I think being able to gauge that time and figure out is this yet the time, or do we need something else to align to make this work? I think when I look back on things, it’s remarkable how much change happened from one thing to the next, but then in the moments that often seem like we’re waiting for something and then everything happens all at once. But I think even the times when you think nothing much is happening, I think there’s still a lot of change simmering and a lot of opportunity and a lot of possibility happening too, and you gotta just keep on moving.

Sarah Durham: Keep on going.

Mark Graham: Yeah. I feel like sometimes in communications, just keeping up with everything that’s going on. If you’re keeping up, you’re doing a great job.

Sarah Durham: That’s awesome. All right. Well Mark Graham, who is the chief marketing and communications officer at the American Friends Service Committee, I thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your wisdom.

Mark Graham: Thank you so much for having me.