What can branding really do for your org?
Farra Trompeter, co–director, chats with Vince Warren, executive director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, about their branding journey and what outcomes they achieved by shifting how they expressed their mission more robustly through new visuals and messaging.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to talk with Vince Warren. Vince uses he/him pronouns and is a leading expert on racial justice and discriminatory policing, and is the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, sometimes referred to as CCR. He oversees the organization’s groundbreaking litigation and advocacy work using international and domestic law to change human rights abuses, including racial, gender, and LGBTQIA injustice. He is currently the 2023 Hayward Burns Chair in Human and Civil Rights at CUNY Law School. Previously, Vince monitored South Africa’s Historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings and was a senior staff attorney at the ACLU and a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn. He’s a graduate of Haverford College and Rutgers School of Law and a previous client of Big Duck’s.
Farra Trompeter: You may remember hearing Vince and Center for Constitutional Rights on previous podcast episodes. Specifically, Vince talked with Sarah back on episode 27, How can an executive director realize their vision? And I had the pleasure of talking with Chandra M. Hayslett, the former communications director at CCR back on episode 93, What can a good tagline do for your nonprofit? Today, Vince and I are gonna talk about what can branding really do for your nonprofit. Big Duck had the privilege of working with Vince and the CCR team several years ago. In fact, you can check out the case study of our work together at bigduck.com/work and we’re really looking forward to getting into this conversation. So, Vince, we’re going to take a little time machine and travel back to 2017 when you first hired Big Duck. And I’m just curious for other executive directors and senior leaders, decision-makers, board members, comm staff development staff, anyone out there who’s thinking about exploring branding. I’d love to just start with, why did you do it? What led you to think now is the time for us to go through a branding process?
Vince Warren: Well, thanks Farra. It’s great to be on the show again. And man, going back to 2017 feels like it’s going back 30 years given everything that we’ve gone through. So why, why, why, why would I have done this? There was an interesting point at CCR, I was actually on the board of CCR many, many moons ago before I became executive director and CCR did a rebrand that was really driven by the development director because our stuff just looked terrible. It looked amateurish, and there was a tremendous amount of resistance, frankly, on the board to changing the really lousy logo that we had. But we did, and I personally wanted the change, but I didn’t like the logo. And so in a strange twist of fate, I became executive director of CCR and I got to change the logo, which is pretty cool.
Vince Warren: So as we approached our 50th anniversary in 2018, I knew that the organization had shifted. We had been doing Guantanamo work since 2002 and inside baseball as a small organization and doing massive Guantanamo work, we really shifted away towards that work from what we had been known for for 30 years prior to that, which is our racial justice work. And so I knew we needed to shift and evolve and to not make a break from but to signal a pivot that we were going to be doing more racial justice work, more work that was in the radical spectrum of change work. So that’s what I got very excited about and I kind of got the board on board with that change in 2018. Yeah. And so we made that shift and it’s really been fantastic for us.
Farra Trompeter: I love hearing that. And you know, we often say organizations do think about branding on the heels of a significant milestone moment, like a 50th anniversary or any other kind of big change happening after a big strategic plan. When there is a shift in leadership. When, especially, you are doing work that’s not reflected with how you’re communicating, the organization has changed, but how you’re communicating hasn’t. So it sounds like many of those factors were at play for you.
Vince Warren: Yeah, that’s exactly what was going on for us. And you know there were big changes that were happening internally and people were aligned with it. And then the question is what are the many ways that we can communicate that shift externally? And the branding piece was really fantastic for doing that for us.
Farra Trompeter: Great. And you know, as we were preparing for this conversation we talked a lot about how branding then can deliver both expected and unexpected results. And you know, now it’s been almost six years since you rolled out the brand in late 2018, so maybe it’s five and a half years at the time we’re recording this conversation. What were some of the immediate and long-term benefits? And maybe you can speak to that expected and unexpected. What were you hoping for and what actually happened?
Vince Warren: From my perspective as an executive director, I was mostly interested in signaling a shift that people could get excited about and I learned a lot about the broad-ranging impacts of branding. And Chandra Hayslett, who was our communications director at the time, hat tip episode 93, she was very key in helping us define the audience that we wanted to capture and we wanted to capture the group that we called “unaffiliated progressives”. And unaffiliated means largely unaffiliated with CCR. So everybody knew the great work that we were doing. We’d done stop-and-frisk in New York and ended long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay, California, Guantanamo work. But a lot of people didn’t know that we were the people that were actually doing that work. So the piece that was really key for us was trying to get to what we called unaffiliated progressives and that would attract new donors, it would attract new constituents that would be able to help us move forward some of the advocacy pieces that we wanted.
Vince Warren: And that was really successful. We began to see new subscribes to the email list. We began to see new donors popping up and when we were asking them, so why did you choose CCR or how did we get on your radar screen? It was a very interesting thing, Farra. So what we had been saying to ourselves that we want to be bold and we want to be unrelenting and we want to be unafraid and that sort of thing. We started hearing that back from the people that were just joining us. I really like CCR because you guys are just really bold that you’re out there, you’re not doing what everybody else does. And the branding piece was really key in essentially getting CCR’s new folks to reflect back what CCR thought of itself. And that was really, really exciting.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I think you’re talking about the brand personality, which I feel really comes through in the, in the look and feel of the logo and the colors. We went from, you know, kind of a sort of softer blue and green in your previous visuals to a really bold black and red. We have a tagline now that is “Justice takes a fight.” which is really reinforcing who you are and your positioning. And I think that’s been really exciting. I remember you mentioned a surprise to me about how you were starting to show up on lists for organizations to support. Maybe you could talk about that.
Vince Warren: Yeah, so we had been up to that point on sort of the top 10 lists of organizations doing post-9/11 work. And as we got to 2019 and 2020 and in particularly as more and more Black people were being killed by police on video, and as the country began to not only rally around that but to begin to reckon with the question of racial justice, CCR started showing up on top 10 lists and top five lists of organizations doing racial justice work. Which was a real surprise. It wasn’t a goal that we had set. But I think because of the way that the brand positioned us, folks were automatically thinking of us as connected to the racial justice work that we had been doing for so many years and really elevated us to top priority giving and things like that. So that was a very exciting, for me unexpected, impact of the branding work that we did with Big Duck.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. I’d love to stay on this unexpected tip for a moment. So again, when you’re being really strategic and intentional about branding, you hopefully get the results you’re looking for. And again, sometimes you get results you weren’t expecting. And I’m curious if there are any surprises, particularly the pleasant ones, that might have shown up for you along the way of either doing the branding work itself and the whole process or maybe what came after?
Vince Warren: Yeah, the process that Big Duck led us through was really great for us. We’re not a top-down organization where the executive director and you know, another person just decides this is what we’re going to do. We had a process that included board members, staff members. I even included a couple of staff members that were somewhat skeptical about the concept of branding and marketing that they thought it was really super pro-capitalist , which was not really our vibe. And I’m like, come on down and let’s just see what we can do. And it was a great process because an unexpected benefit was that the board members and staff members on that committee got much closer. I actually could participate not as a positional leader, but as someone that’s part of the CCR community that’s trying to figure out what would be the best way for us to move forward.
Vince Warren: And so we got a lot of buy-in from staff for the changes. We gave them a couple of options that we had narrowed down and people got to debate them and vote on them and move the swishes around. And then, you know, we went to Big Duck and they said, yeah, you should probably move the swishes back. And so we moved the swishes back and everybody was cool with that too because they also recognized that as a partner that Big Duck had all of the expertise of what would work and what wouldn’t work and gave us a tremendous number of options that would work for us and that also would work as general branding and marketing principles. So it was lovely to go through that process with you all.
Farra Trompeter: Well I just want to say thank you because I think our dream and our hope for all you current and potential clients out there, whether it’s with Big Duck or other consulting agencies, is to really have a partnership to work together and trust each other in co-creating a new brand. Both leveraging our visual and verbal and strategic expertise and your team’s certainly input and ideas for that. And some organizations have in-house designers and writers as well as just folks who have to live with it, who have to show up and really be on brand in an everyday way. And I’m just curious now I know that back, you know, when we were doing this work, it was on the heels of the 2016 election and we were very much in the “President Trump” years where there was a lot of things that were motivating people to connect to you and sort of driving that. And here we are now gearing up to the 2024 presidential election and there has also been a lot of threats to our rights, including abortion, access to services for transgender folks, violence toward immigrants, ongoing racial discrimination, and attacks. So there’s a new threat in our midst now than perhaps was when we were doing the branding work. And I’m just curious how you can imagine or how you plan to use the brand and communications to really sustain or bring in new interests to your work.
Vince Warren: The United States politics ebb and they flow and they shift, although, you know, since 2016 they’ve really moved very hard right? In both policy and rhetoric as we all know. And over time what I’ve found is that as people get more anxious about not just the state of the world and things like the environment or the economy, but they also get anxious about the rhetoric and the policy that flows from it as has been happening crazily since 2016, and even before. People get motivated by almost anything that feels like it’s putting up a fight against the thing that they feel like they don’t have much control over. So I mean theoretically we have control over collectively the midterm elections who gets elected and who doesn’t. But when the Republicans take over and stymie a lot of the things that those of us at CCR feel that really do need to move forward and the rhetoric has become very hyperbolic and dangerous, people are looking for ways to feel some level of comfort and some level of investment in the fight against that, even if they’ve sort of lost it electorally.
Vince Warren: And so the brand has operated as a way to capture people that are moving closer to the left because the politics are moving so far to the right. And again, these aren’t necessarily even progressives, but these are sort of unaffiliated people that really didn’t want to pay much attention until it gets really bad. And then like, where are we going to go? So our brand, which I think taglines, that’s what we’re about, but I think also has really cohesive color scheme that really suggests that the fight needs to continue even if it feels hopeless, even if it feels like it’s going very much in the wrong direction. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to continue to get the brand out there and to offer it to people as a place from which they can make a stand against what’s happening. And we do that through our litigation work, our advocacy work, our communications work. Part of our ethos is to lift up the voices of the people that are most impacted, which are rarely the voices that people hear. So that brand I think not only attracts them to the fight, but it also attracts them to the building of the society that we want to do even as we fight the bad things that are happening.
Farra Trompeter: Well I personally am very grateful that you are out there leading that fight, and I’m going to zoom back out to branding at large. And I’m just wondering, you know, sometimes if there’s an executive director out there or somebody who wants to share this with their friendly executive director, I’d love you to give some advice from ED to ED. How should executive directors make the case to go and invest in branding for the board and to their staff? You talked about also that that buy-in has to happen on both sides. You know, branding can take a lot of time, can be an expensive investment, and I’m just curious if you’ve got any lessons learned or advice or something you wish was told to you six years ago or that you have found was really helpful that you might have any lessons learned you can share with our listeners out there.
Vince Warren: Yes, so dear EDs that are thinking about this or even those that haven’t thought about it yet, here’s what I learned. I was making the assumption that the branding process is from the outside in, meaning that you come up with all sorts of interesting colors and missions and da da da da da. But what I learned through working with Big Duck is that the branding actually happens from the inside out. And once you’re clear on that, once you kind of get next to that, there are tons of possibilities for how you can express the work that you’re contemplating, the values that you have, the hopes and dreams that you have for society or your clients or your constituents. And branding becomes a way to both galvanize and align the work that is happening internally and the planning and the thinking and to display that for all manner of constituents.
Vince Warren: And it’s very important for the people that know you, like your donors, like your board, like your key allies. And it’s almost more important for the people that don’t know you yet. And so my take on it is if you’re nervous that the board or that your staff is going to say, this is a marketing tool and there are more important things that we need to do, I would cause you to sort of dig in and think again. Is that anything that feels important to you, the shifts that you want to make, the things that you want to uplift, those can and should be expressed in a branding scheme because it aligns you both internally and externally. And if you have the fortune of hearing back from people that just met you, why they love you, and it tracks with why you love your organization, what your organization is trying to build, it’s an extraordinary feeling. And I would really invite you to even use this case study with board members or key staff people that aren’t quite there yet to say, let’s try this. Because there’s literally no downside to expressing your mission, your values, and your accomplishments in more robust ways than you’re doing it now.
Farra Trompeter: Love that. Thank you, Vince. Well, and now next we’re going to have to start like a “Dear Abby” column, but a “Dear E.D.” column that maybe, we can set you up for next time. Next time we’re looking for a new marketing tool, I’ll reach out to you about that. Well, if you’re out there and you’d like to learn more about the amazing work of the Center for Constitutional Rights, please visit their website at ccrjustice.org. Get on their email list, listen to their podcast, The Activist Files, which was a sub-brand we got to do some work on too. And you can connect to their amazing vital work. You can also follow them on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. We’ll link to all of those in the show notes at bigduck.com/insights. If you’d like to connect with Vince, you can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn at Vince Warren. And again, we’ll add links to all of this in our transcript. Of course, you can also take a look at the work that we did together in the case study at bigduck.com/ccr. Vince, before we wrap up, anything else you’d like to share?
Vince Warren: Yes, that by far the best engagement and you can ask almost anybody in our staff that we’ve had with a partner has been with Big Duck. We love Big Duck. It’s almost unseemly how much we love Big Duck.
Farra Trompeter: Well, we love you too, and I didn’t expect you to say that, but now you have me blushing, so thank you. And you know, our team loves you very much and we love your work. We love all of our clients as well. You know nothing but love in the air here today. All right, well Vince, thanks for being on the show.
Vince Warren: Absolutely. It’s wonderful to be with you again.