Branding for Nonprofits

The importance of nonprofit branding

In a recent re-branding project with a fairly large and long-established organization, it was clear that only a handful of people within the organization really understood what a “brand” is.

While their staff and board members could grasp the “Nike” brand, they were having difficulty understanding why a nonprofit organization needed a brand. After decades of operating a particular way, and in spite of many public misconceptions about their organization, they were still unclear as to how a brand would help them.

It is critical that nonprofits understand the importance of developing a strong nonprofit brand and how your brand literally lives within the minds of your audience. Lack of clarity about or within an organization is usually the result of the absence of a core brand that connects with the intended audience.

I like to describe a brand as the “personality” of your organization, but it is much more than that. Your brand is the sum of all experiences at all touch points. It is the “gut feeling” someone has about your organization. Nonprofit organizations have a great opportunity to embed a gut feeling into their audiences. This is ultimately what will differentiate your organization from your competition.

In the for-profit world, the effectiveness of a brand depends on what is being sold. Sometimes a story or personality is at the core to provide differentiation such as with Pepperidge Farm or Orville Redenbacher. Sometimes differentiation is based on cost leadership, like in the case of Wal-Mart, while other times it’s based on a focus of who it serves, such as Facebook.

Regardless of the type of differentiation, a brand serves social, emotional and functional needs. It’s much more than selling a product or service – it’s selling an experience. Nike sells motivation. Apple sells innovation. Pampers sells being a good parent.

When a person thinks about a nonprofit’s brand, they make the connection to the organization’s cause, which becomes the main identifier. They think, ‘Do I support the cause or have a gut feeling about it? Do I have a heart for the mission or care about it?’ Bottom line, if a person doesn’t care about the cause, they will not give to it.

This is why it is essential that nonprofits embed a gut feeling into their brands.

A nonprofit organization shapes its brand by focusing on the same three elements used by for-profit companies: value proposition, personality and messaging.

Apple is a great example of how people’s connections with brands transcend commerce. Less than two decades ago, the company was near death, but people said we’ve got to support it. By establishing an emotional connection with its customers, Apple proved a brand is built by its audience and lives in its audience’s mind.

The very nature of nonprofit organizations gives them an advantage in creating powerful brands that people want to support.

When nonprofits understand the importance of branding and how a brand can connect them to a wider audience, then shaping their brand becomes an exciting and necessary endeavor.