11 min Read
August 20, 2015

The art of the rebrand: When, how, and why to rebrand your nonprofit

Sean Norris, Nonprofit Pro

This article was originally published on July 14, 2015 on the Nonprofit Pro blog.

Branding. It doesn’t take an MBA to understand how critical it is. Good branding can elevate a company from successful to iconic, with the biggest brands—Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike—so well recognized they’re borderline cultural institutions. Bad branding can leave even the best-run business struggling to stand out from the competition.

But while for-profits long ago discovered its importance, branding remains low on the priority list for some nonprofits. That’s understandable—with so many nonprofits focused on development through tangible fundraising methods with measurable ROI, it’s easy to overlook something as abstract, as seemingly cosmetic, as branding.

That’s a mistake, but thankfully, it’s becoming a less common one. “Increasingly, what we have found is that more and more nonprofits are thinking about branding in a more reflective and smart way than ever before—and, particularly, seeing it as a strategy to communicate more clearly so they can build relationships mostly with individual donors,” said Sarah Durham, president of Big Duck, a communications firm based in New York City. “And that’s a big shift. I started Big Duck 21 years ago, and the first 10 years of the business I almost never even used the word branding. It was almost like a word that nonprofits found offensive. These days, I think that nonprofits understand that branding is really about reputation management.”

So, take a look at your nonprofit’s branding strategy. If it’s an afterthought—or even if it’s already high priority but in need of a refresh—it might be time to make it an integral part of your donor engagement strategy. It might be time to rebrand.

Here’s what you need to know before you do:

Debunking the Myths
Let’s start by clearing up two big branding myths—that it’s purely aesthetic, and that it’s hard to measure its effects. Neither is true, and buying heavily into either can hurt your rebranding efforts, or worse, discourage you from ever rebranding at all.

On aesthetics: Your logo is important, but it’s only a small part of the branding mix. “It really helps for people to understand that branding isn’t just about your logo, or even your logo and your messaging—it’s about everything you do internally and externally that impacts how people perceive you,” Durham explained. “And donors first and foremost have to have a positive sense of what the organization is and why they should support it.”

A great logo never hurts, but branding has to do more than look cool. It has to resonate with donors enough to compel them to your cause. Your nonprofit might have the slickest logo and the sharpest marketing, but if those elements aren’t part of a broader plan—a cohesive effort involving all parts of your organization working to communicate a singular message—your branding will fall flat.

Then there’s ROI. It’s difficult to quantify something like brand equity: How do you know it’s your branding strategy, and not, say, your superb product, that’s influencing customer loyalty? That, combined with the accompanying array of marketing jargon—vision statements, design grids, value propositions—makes it easy to dismiss branding as little more than an ill-defined marketing gimmick. Don’t overthink it—just look at the bottom line.

“We conducted this survey, working with a market research firm, that’s sort of a quantified look at what happens to nonprofits when they rebrand—what do they change, does it impact fundraising, does it impact recruitment into programs, all of that stuff,” said Durham. “One of the most interesting things we found in that study was that a lot of nonprofits had rebranded fairly recently, but those that had rebranded two years ago or more were seeing a sizeable shift in their ability to raise money. We saw that more than 50 percent of nonprofits that rebrand report that they’ve seen an increase in their revenue. […] That’s a very high number, especially compared to only 4 percent who say they’ve seen a decrease in revenue.”

Is Your Organization Ready?
How do you know when your organization is ready to rebrand? It varies from nonprofit to nonprofit, but Durham noted that most choose to rebrand when there’s a “transitional moment”—a leadership change, a new organizational strategy, a shift in focus. “So, what we experience is the time most nonprofits typically think about rebranding is when that happens—when something significant has changed and the way they’ve been communicating feels like it no longer fits,” she said.

“If your organization changes—if it gets older, if you have new leadership or a new strategic plan—and the way you’ve been communicating still works, great. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she continued. “I never recommend a rebrand just as a matter of course. It’s not like getting your teeth cleaned—it’s a lot of work, and it can be time-consuming and disruptive and expensive, so you really don’t want to go through that kind of process unless what you’re going to get out of it on the other side is worth it.”

Why Rebrand?
That’s the big question for nonprofits—is a rebrand worth it? Durham’s numbers suggest that it is, and so does the anecdotal evidence. Cure SMA, a charity dedicated to the treatment and cure of spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal disorder that affects children, is one of the charities Durham mentioned whose rebrand led to increased revenue. When Cure SMA approached Big Duck about rebranding, an issue was the organization’s then-name: Families of SMA. The charity had a strong footprint in the SMA parent and patient community, but it wanted to increase funding for research and was having difficulties reaching a broader donor audience.

“They needed people who are not necessarily directly affected by SMA to know what they do and feel compelled to want to support the cause. And so, when we took them through a rebranding process, we looked at all the ways they were communicating, what was working and what wasn’t,” Durham explained. “One of the things that came up in that was that their name, Families of SMA, was kind of restricting—it assumes you were directly affected. So we actually shifted their name over to something they had already been using, Cure SMA—that was their URL—and we just made Cure SMA the name of the organization.”

The name change, along with coordinated adjustments to the charity’s visuals, messaging, donor engagement strategy and relaunched website, paid off. “We were able to fundraise in the year-end season using all these new ideas, new messages, new tone and style. But effectively, the arc of the year-end appeal was not all that different from what they’d done before—it was really just a shift in the brand,” said Durham. “And we saw that their year-end numbers went up exponentially. They almost doubled, actually. They raised over $750,000—so, a really sizeable income increase—and those numbers were coming not only from old donors, but from new ones. So the strategy we set out in the rebrand was to bring new people into the Cure SMA community, and that appeal really showed that it could be done, that the new brand helped do it.”

Durham noted that this scenario—an organization outgrowing its name—is one of the most common reasons for a rebrand. The American Association for Retired Persons, she explained, now goes solely by its acronym, AARP, in an effort to reach an audience beyond retirees. “We see a lot of organizations that have those kinds of situations—they’re carrying around maybe language or ideas or visuals that are reflective of the past, not the future,” she said.

How to Do It

Smile Train, a New York-based international charity that provides corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates, is another nonprofit that recently rebranded—though not because it needed a name change. Founded in 1999 and approaching two major milestones—its 1 millionth cleft surgery and its 15-year anniversary—Smile Train wanted to update its branding and approach to ensure that its fundraising and engagement efforts were up-to-date. The charity was struggling to accurately communicate the nature of its work, and it needed a major overhaul of its messaging.

So the nonprofit set about reinventing itself. It examined the giving habits of current and prospective donors and interviewed its global staff and medical partners, using the findings to devise a rebrand strategy. “What followed was a complete brand refresh and fully integrated creative campaign that impacted every touchpoint of our communications, from the logo and look and feel of our brand, to the creative message, to the media channels we use to distribute content and the ways in which we seek to engage our audiences,” explained Susannah Schaefer, Smile Train’s CEO.

“Central to our brand refresh was our ‘Power of a Smile’ campaign—a departure from familiar direct response charity advertising that captures third world plight through the donor’s eyes,” she continued. “Instead, we sent an award-winning team of photographers and journalists far into developing countries to capture footage of Smile Train patients whose lives have been transformed by the cleft surgery they received from our local in-country medical partners. The campaign used a range of integrated multimedia tactics to tell the story of individual cleft patients through their own eyes, including videos, sharable infographics—or ‘SmileyGraphs’—and patient narratives.”

One of the “SmileyGraph” infographics described by Schaefer. Smile Train used the infographics as part of its new multimedia brand focus emphasizing visual storytelling.

Smile Train shifted the focus from the macro to the micro level, highlighting in its marketing materials individual patients and families. It employed interactive channels to better connect with supporters and updated its communications strategy to prioritize social engagement and visual storytelling. The SmileyGraphs campaign attained four times the average engagement rate for nonprofit posts on Twitter, and subsequent campaigns achieved similar levels of engagement.

“Since the rebrand, we’ve been better able to keep our donors steadily informed of our successes and provide context for how their contributions are changing the lives of patients and communities,” said Schaefer. “In addition, our experimentation with multimedia tactics, spanning video and crowdsourcing has been successful in raising awareness among new, younger audiences. Collectively, these efforts have driven greater, more substantive engagement with the organization, enabling us to cultivate deeper, longer-term relationships with our donor base.”

No two rebranding strategies will be the same—what worked for Smile Train won’t necessarily work for another nonprofit with different goals, needs and organizational makeup. But Smile Train’s example typifies perhaps the most critical element of a 
rebrand, one that all nonprofits would be wise to prioritize in their rebranding efforts: building, or rebuilding, a connection with donors.

“What we usually encourage nonprofits to do is to shift the way they’re communicating away from an organization-centric voice—which is, ‘We do this, we do that, here’s why you should support us’—toward a voice that is audience-centric,” Durham said. “And we do that by trying to identify the mindset of people who might support the organization. So, what’s the mindset of our longtime donors? Why have they supported the organization? What do they think it’s about? Are they people who care about supporting scientific breakthroughs because it makes them feel a part of something cutting edge and meaningful?

“So it’s kind of a shift in strategy as opposed to just in tactics,” Durham added. “What we find is that a lot of organizations understand the tactics—they understand how direct mail works, even how email direct-response marketing can work—but oftentimes what they’re missing is the ability to send messages that really speak to that existing donor or prospect in a way that is audience-centric and reflective of why they care.