How does branding make things easier?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Elandria Jackson Charles, chief development and communications officer at Blue Engine, about their decision to rebrand and the freedom and confidence that comes from being clear on who you are and what you stand for.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner at Big Duck. Today, I am delighted to get into the topic of how branding can make your life easier. I am joined by the very lovely Elandria Jackson Charles, she/her/hers. Elandria leads development and communications at Blue Engine, a nonprofit that helps leaders and teams of teachers create truly inclusive classrooms. Elandria raises private revenue to meet short and long-term financial goals and raises brand awareness to increase the visibility of Blue Engine’s unique value proposition. Elandria has had many experiences that led her to this role, including mentoring with Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, managing the infamous Got Milk? milk mustache advertising campaign, and raising money for a $200 million charter management organization. Elandria, welcome to the show.
Elandria Jackson Charles: Thanks so much, Farra. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Farra Trompeter: Our team had the pleasure of working with Elandria and the folks at Blue Engine back in 2020–2021. You can in fact read all about it in a case study on our website, which we’ll link to in the transcript. And our work actually kicked off in March 2020. So, let’s go back there for a minute, and we’re not going to go fully back to March 2020. I know a lot of things come to mind for folks when we say March 2020, but yeah, I think you were the first client we had the joy of working with during the pandemic, and at the time, in March 2020, Blue Engine was just shy of celebrating its 10th anniversary and was starting to expand beyond New York City. So Elandria, I’m wondering if you can go back to then and just tell us a little bit about what was going on for Blue Engine at the time, and what led you to stop and think, “Hey, maybe it’s time to rethink our brand?”
Elandria Jackson Charles: Sure. It’s so funny, Farra, that you said, “Let’s go back to March 2020,” but like, not really. That was clearly a tumultuous time for all of us. You know, it was so interesting that we had decided to kick off this branding work because, simultaneously, we had gotten very, very clear about Blue Engine’s work and the change that we wanted to see in the world. And what I mean by that is that after almost nine years of operation, we decided to sunset our original program, which was AmeriCorps, to focus on working exclusively with teams of teachers. What underpinned that decision was that we knew that we really wanted to unleash the true potential of all teachers and students and felt like there was a way to do that that was more sustainable, both financially and operationally. And it was also very much connected to our bedrock DEI value around creating inclusive and equitable learning environments. So, we reached out to Big Duck to kick off this project because with the strategic clarity we knew that we also needed a story, and needed assets to support where we were heading as an organization.
Farra Trompeter: Great, and I want to actually come back to that bedrock DEI value. We often look for ways to bring commitments to antiracism and commitments to equity into communications and into branding, and I’m just curious, for you, how do you feel like the new brand connects to that bedrock DEI value and your commitment to equity?
Elandria Jackson Charles: In the most literal sense, it’s in our logo. So, what was so beautiful was that through the creative process, what emerged was a logo that literally has an equal sign, and it represents our belief in the infinite potential of all humans and equal opportunity for everyone. But what was underneath that visual was years and years of a lot of work, a lot of stepping back, reflecting, and truly understanding, as an organization, what are we doing to dismantle patterns of racism and injustice in our educational systems?
Elandria Jackson Charles: We had done a ton of internal work, including changing our north star around student academic outcomes, really focusing on growth instead of just focusing on students who were on the cusp of proficiency, as an example, really targeting all students, also looking at our recruiting and hiring processes, and then we were profiled in a Promise54 case study that really, you know, just elevated some of the work and hard and difficult conversations that we had been having as an organization. So, at the end of the day, the logo ended up being the expression of so much work that had happened internally, and finally, we had something to represent our commitment externally.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I would say, I think it also shows up in your tagline, right, “Teach together, reach every learner.”
Elandria Jackson Charles: That’s right. Exactly. So succinct.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I mean, that’s what good branding does, right? Really tells a story as simply and clearly as possible. I’m very proud of our work together, and you can see it at BlueEngine.org and again, on our website, for those of you who want to get that visual and see more about it.
Farra Trompeter: Now, a few months ago, you and I had the joy of spending some time together, and you mentioned that since the brand launched in 2021, it’s actually been easier for your staff and board to explain what you do and why it matters, and it actually got me to thinking about that… and really that branding can make your life as a nonprofit professional, a nonprofit fundraiser, a nonprofit communicator, easier. And I’m just curious if you could reflect a little bit more about that. How did this branding process make your life at Blue Engine easier?
Elandria Jackson Charles: Yeah, so as a really small, nimble team, to your point about a nonprofit having the tools and the resources for this aspect of our work to be more seamless was huge. It was game changing. We’ve always known who we are, but we finally had the words and visuals to actually back it up. One small example is that, you know, through the branding process, we articulated our brand personality. Which is agile, insightful, refreshing, positive, authentic. And to have words like that, that capture the essence of who we are, it gives us a barometer for, like, everything that we’re doing, everything that we’re saying, going back to that and making sure that that is coming through. As the person who leads fundraising at the organization, I can tell you that it freed me up. It gave me the license and the comfort to basically go into conversations with confidence, being able to really tell our story in a way that felt very true and authentic, because again, we’ve always known it, but now we’ve had support and partnership to help us articulate it in a very clear way.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. I think another way that I believe branding has made things easier for you all has been with hiring. Like, one of the things that we did in our branding work was, first, let’s clarify who you are and figure out how to tell it better with visuals and with words, as you said. But now, let’s figure out how we can help you get out there, how we can respond to this request for you to expand into new cities, how you can increase your national visibility, and after the branding process, we did some work with you to really help figure out who and what your first director of communications should be and help you think about what that role is, what the job description might be, and help you throughout the hiring process, and I’m just curious if you could connect the dots between, how do you think doing the branding first set you up for being able to hire and onboard that first role, that first director of communications?
Elandria Jackson Charles: Our theory or objective is to grow impact through partnerships and bold dialogue. There is no possible way for us to do that without having a strong communications function. And so, through the work with Big Duck, doing the work to articulate who we are, what we stand for, or have those resources, but then to connect it to the hiring. Like, “Who is the person that needs to be in the seat to drive this work forward?” gave us the chance to get it right, and now that we have a director of communications, I like to say, “It’s go time.” Like, now it is time to go. And we’re in the process of launching a few things this summer that will align very well with our brand, but more broadly than just hiring for this role, what I’ve heard from colleagues is we’ve done a lot of hiring in the last year as our program has grown, and time and time again, candidates tell us how the clarity on Blue Engines work, the change we want to see in the world for teachers and students, and our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion stands out and sets us apart.
Elandria Jackson Charles: And so, it really feels good when we are talking to potential candidates and they tell us, “Yeah, we were really attracted to this role for that reason,” that means that we did something right, and it’s really a testament to taking the time to, again, I have to say, we knew these things, they were internal, it was always with us, but then being able to have it articulated in a way that others can be a part of the conversation and gravitate towards the work that we’re doing has been a value-add.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I appreciate you lifting up that last part. We could probably do a whole other podcast topic around the connection between branding and employee recruitment. Like, a lot of times we talk about how branding can impact fundraising, can impact visibility, can impact growth, but internally it can help you make a stronger case for people to want to join your team, get on your board, other things. So I’m glad you brought that point up, and I’m happy to hear it.
Farra Trompeter: So, we’re talking all about branding making your life easier, but I do want to acknowledge sometimes branding can be hard and things can get difficult in the process, and I’m curious if there’s any tips you want to share about navigating the process. What was hard for you? Anything that’s been hard after branding that you want to share with our friends out there?
Elandria Jackson Charles: I want to start this answer by just saying we could not have asked for better partners than Big Duck. You know, as the person who was responsible for this effort on the Blue Engine side, I could not have felt more seen and supported. That being the case, I also, stepping back, realized that we just barely had the right capacity to get this done and to get it done well, and so, if I was to give advice to any others considering a brand refresh, is just make sure that, internally, you are accounting for the work that’s required on the organization’s part. For us, stakeholder engagement was something that Big Duck did a great job of helping us understand how to thoughtfully and authentically engage staff and board and funders. And so, when you do that, it takes time. You’re going to get feedback that’s going to take you, potentially, in a different direction. You need to take it in, either incorporate it or give rationale for not. And so, I just think, overall, capacity. Making sure that you have the time and the resources, people resources, in particular, to manage the branding process and have it reach the outcome that you are looking for.
Farra Trompeter: Well, we loved working with you, too. But I think a lot of what you’re talking about is also change management. Sometimes branding is changing all the things, sometimes it’s changing some of the things. Either way, change is hard and it takes time, and you want to figure out how to involve people at the right time and in the right ways and genuinely listen to their feedback. And I think that is really helpful advice so thank you for sharing that.
Farra Trompeter: Now, before we wrap up, I do want to talk about the other part of your job, which is connected to fundraising. Now, many organizations do come to Big Duck because they want to push their brand to help them build or deepen connections with donors and funders, and as someone who, in your role, you oversee both fundraising and communications. I’m curious if you can share any insights or results connected to the brand and fundraising.
Elandria Jackson Charles: Yes, I will harken back to something I said earlier around the freedom… I think I would add to that the confidence that comes from being so clear on who you are, what you stand for, the change you want to see in the world, and the role that others can play in helping you achieve that change. I find myself entering conversations almost like giddy and excited to tell our story because I have the language to tell it, but I also can adapt it for the audience.
Elandria Jackson Charles: When you talk about team teaching, that is oftentimes not something that is top of mind for people, and so being able to enter the conversation based on where the person is, their understanding of the education system, what’s going to move them. Is it the financial aspect of it? If it’s equity, like, making sure that we can kind of lean into the conversation in different ways while always being true to our story and our DNA has been fortunate. I’ve heard from board members, too, that in their own circles, having a pithy elevator pitch that they can quickly, finally tell others what Blue Engine does is another very specific tool that’s led to more introductions and conversations with people who can support our work.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. Well, Elandria, thank you so much. I want to invite people to learn more about Blue Engine, if you’re interested, just to see their work in action, see the brand. Again, you can go to our website for a case study, which also includes a lovely rollout video that we did in conjunction with Rob Bellon. But if you want to check out Blue Engine, go to BlueEngine.org. You can also find them on Twitter @theBlueEngine and on all the other major social networks, and if you want to learn more and connect with Elandria, you can find her on LinkedIn:Elandria Jackson Charles. Elandria, thank you so much for being here.
Elandria Jackson Charles: Thanks so much for having me, Farra.