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Taking the Mystery (and Misery) Out of Branding

June 27, 2005

Respondents to AFP's State of Fundraising 2004 survey indicated that branding and increased competition for the charitable dollar were two of their biggest concerns. This week, AFP eWire begins a special six-part series of articles by Bill Toliver, executive director of Seattle-based The Matale Line, running about once a month, to help nonprofits use advanced branding and communications techniques to further their cause. The series will conclude in November, when AFP's bi-monthly magazine Advancing Philanthropy will focus on branding.

(June 27, 2005) With almost a million nonprofit organizations in the United States alone, how do you make yours stand out? How do you help everyone truly understand and appreciate the important work you do, and support it with their hearts and pocketbooks even though they may have no personal experience with your mission? How do you create deeper, more meaningful relationships with employees, volunteers, donors and other stakeholders--relationships that stand the test of time, regardless of what happens to be in the headlines this week, or the inevitable changes in political or economic climates that affect budgets and funding?

It begins with your brand.

Admittedly this may seem a bit unusual. After all, you're not here to sell the world something, but in some shape or form to change it for the better. So how can something that's so connected to 'products' and 'marketing' and 'selling' be so relevant to what you do?

Actually, it couldn't be more relevant.

A brand is not a logo, tagline or mission statement. It's something much more profound. It is that central thing that underpins your mission--that inescapable combination of history, philosophy and experiences--that determines the essence of your organization, not merely the way it looks or sounds to the outside world.

The right kind of brand doesn't just hold the promise of making you well known, but literally well owned. Where your stakeholders--staff, donors, board members, the general public and the people you serve--feel a sense of connection that transcends the services you provide, and, sometimes, even logic. Where they not only believe in you but feel in some way or another that they are a part of you, and you of them.

What is a Brand?

A strong brand is nothing more, or less, than the authentic foundation upon which a bond can form between you and a community of people. That kind of community of loyalists is created when there is a visceral, emotional 'cause' they can identify with. When they see in your brand something about themselves. A shared hope, aspiration or strong belief. A common interest.

Successful branding builds on a simple rule of human nature: People like being around other people who care about similar things, who have shared values and beliefs. It's why groups of strangers find themselves forming clubs or political movements. And how you can feel a kinship with countless others you may never meet.

Examples of brand loyalty abound in the business world. Harley Davidson, for example, stands for 'rebellion,' something no demographic data will ever tell you. The Body Shop built an empire around ethical and ecological cosmetics, marketing not shampoo and lip balm but 'lifestyle' for people concerned with fair trade and environmental protection. Saturn inspired such loyalty in their customers that 44,000 Saturn owners converged on the auto plant for a week-end cook-out with the people who made their cars. And let's not forget Apple computers, a company that has made countless business blunders over the past 20 years, but who's fiercely loyal customer base simply will not let them fail.

The best companies have long known they were selling brands before products. That in a competitive marketplace where products and services aren't all that different, the best way to grow consumer loyalty is by establishing emotional ties through a value system.

Ironically, then, it is in the nonprofit sector, where organizations are literally built on values, that branding holds the most potential. Such values cannot be fabricated. They're something integral to what your organization stands for. Something that requires a different set of questions.

Call it the moral to your story. Your reason for being. Not simply what you do, how you do it and who you do it for. But why you do it. Why do you as an organization, even exist? What was driving the thoughts and actions of your founders when they risked everything for this endeavor?

Instead of basing a relationship on one particular issue or service you provide, ask yourself a harder, but more powerful question: What is it you stand for (your 'cause') that connects with people's core value system? What is it about your brand that your stakeholders see in themselves?

The answers will help you discover your real brand.

And a well-understood brand will help you define not just what your communications and public relations have to say, but what they (and you) have to be.

Do this right, and you will have begun to solve the real problem for so many nonprofits like yours. Which is not simply one of awareness, but of loyalty. And what it takes to be truly worthy of it.

The Questions Most Likely To Lead You Astray?

It'd be wonderful if there were a few magic questions guaranteed to help an organization discover its brand or 'cause,' but experience shows there aren't. Everybody requires a different process and unique form of inquiry to get to the right answer. Experience also shows there are a lot of common questions that will almost always lead you astray. For example:

  • 'What's our slogan or tagline?'
  • 'How can we make our issue more popular?'
  • 'How can we prove to people we're better than _________________?'
  • 'What message will strike a chord with soccer moms (or some other demographic)?'
  • 'What's the board going to think about this?'
  • 'What story will make us more desirable to a certain funding source?'
  • 'What's the latest trend in our area of service, and how can we leverage that to increase our appeal?'

Bill Toliver ( is executive director of The Matale Line, a collection of experts in branding, communications, fundraising and organizational development committed to social change.

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