Three essential steps to create an epic brand for your nonprofit

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Google “How to Create a Great Brand” and you will end up with 1,210,000,000 hits. Add that to the books and articles available and you end up with an overwhelming amount information.

I am an advocate of simple. And while branding can be quite complex, it often boils down to just one basic formula: the brand flip. Let me explain...

Once upon a time, before social media existed, most “build-your-brand” stories went like this: company creates brand, brand attracts customers, customers sustain company.

Now, the plot events are the same, but their sequence is different: company creates customers (through social media and selling products), customers build brand, brand sustains company. This is the brand flip, and the story sticks to nonprofits and for-profits alike.

To dig deeper, consider what a brand is, or maybe first, what it isn’t. A brand is never static. It’s fluid - constantly changing. You have probably heard the saying that branding is what other people say about you when you are not in the room. Branding, then, is also a dialogue. A dialog between YOU and THEM, and, to some extent, this means that those “other people” build your brand. Even if you don’t think that their opinion is true. In their eyes, it’s reality. And it’s that reality that becomes shared.

Branding is also about alignment: aligning your purpose, your service, and your values with their identity, their aims and their values. If you are able to align these three, you will create an outstanding brand with a tribe of raving fans that will support your cause. What follows will help kickstart that alignment in your organization. Let me share this 3-step process that I apply when doing strategy work with our nonprofit clients.

Step #1: Your purpose, their identity

The first step is to align your purpose with your clients’ identity. To do this you need to know the answers to two questions:

1. Why do you exist?
2. Who are your clients?

Beginning with the first question, take time to examine your organization. Look at your vision and mission statement and use those to help you craft or refine your purpose statement. You’re looking to build one memorable statement - something that will create an emotional connection with people, something that will resonate.

As an example, the purpose of the Canadian Red Cross is to “improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and around the world.” Look at the language: vulnerable, mobilizing, power, humanity...all strong words that stick in the mind and the heart.

A great place to start building your statement is this format from Simon Sinek:

TO __(take some kind of action)______ SO THAT __(you get some kind of outcome)______.

A few more examples: “To create safe communities so that children can live better lives.” “To develop homecare solutions so that people retain their independence and dignity.” “To ensure people have access to clean water so that they can be healthy and build healthier communities.”

Now, for question two, look at your audience. Who is it that you serve? And, at least as importantly, who serves you in terms of donors, staff, volunteers, community partners? Get specific, and always remember that everyone is NOT your audience. You need a clear segment to target, so imagine your perfect client, then perfect donor, perfect volunteer, and make that list as long as it needs to be. Give him or her a name. Imagine how old he is, what her profession is, where he lives. Think from her perspective. What are his values; what is important to her? What are his frustrations? What are her goals in life? How can you help him to become the person he wants to be?

When I work with my clients, this is a favourite process because it’s when magic happens. Switching that perspective suddenly helps people look past their own needs and wants to see what matters to the people the organization is trying to reach. Once that shift occurs, it becomes much easier to circle back and look through a different lens at that first question and refine further the “why” behind your organization.

Step #2: Your onlyness - their aims

This step is about matching up what you offer with what your audience wants. To connect these dots, it takes a bit of thought and, of course, specificity, but the picture created in the end is well worth the effort.

Let’s start with “onlyness.” Your onlyness is that thing you offer AND the special way that you offer it. Onlyness is the secret you use to position your organization. It helps you stand out because it’s unique: it shows that there is literally only one organization like yours.

Use this sentence to help you locate your onlyness: “Our brand/organization is the only _______ that ______.”

Here is an example: The Lending Cupboard is the only nonprofit organization in Central Alberta that lends medical equipment for free to people in need as long as they need it. Because of that, they are able to dominate this niche, grow within it, and/or grow the niche as a whole. Your organization can do the same. Always remember that the more specific you are in what you offer, the less competition you’ll be up against because, in the end, there is only one you.

The next piece is to align your onlyness with your audience’s aims. Let’s use the Lending Cupboard again and consider another example.

Imagine you have a teenage son who plays hockey. In their opening game, last period, he gets caught in a tangle of skaters and ends up with a broken leg. He is in pain, he can’t play hockey, can’t get to school, can’t drive, and might have spent some time in the hospital. He is totally dependent on his family to help him because he cannot get around on his own.

What is the one thing he wants most? Sure enough, he wants to be able to walk again, start his physio, and get back to his old life.

At the same time, his parents might struggle because they have to take time off work to run their son to his appointments and to care for him at home. The wheelchair he is using is expensive, as are the gadgets needed to assist him in the bathroom, and even crutches come with a price tag. It’s a lot of money to spend when the family (gratefully) knows that they will not need to have these aids forever.

With a clear picture of this family in mind, it’s easy to come up with a list of their aims. They want affordable medical equipment (crutches, wheelchair, shower bar, etc.). They want their son to be independent. They are looking for resources to help their son heal faster and fully.

Again, the trick here is to paint yourself a picture that will let you actually adopt the perspective of your clients so you can structure your messaging and your brand around their needs.

Step #3: Your values - their mores

In this last piece, the main objective is to align your values with the values of your clients. Here’s the big question: How do we behave and how do they belong?

In the words of Seth Godin, what you want is to create a tribe, or a group of people who share interests AND information. And these tribes are not hard to spot. Think about these simple questions: Are you a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons person? A cat person or a dog person? Chances are that if you call yourself a dog person or a Timmy’s lover, you feel an immediate connection to others who share your preferences.

Note that there is no coincidence here. Research shows that customers who interact socially with other customers in a brand community often develop an intense sense of loyalty, both to the brand and to each other. It’s this loyalty that will motivate your fans to stand up and fight for your success.

So, how do you find your tribe? You can start by clearly defining the values of your organization. And here’s how:

Get your executive team together and do a brain dump. All you need is a whiteboard or a big empty wall and a bunch of sticky notes. Give everyone a stack of stickies, explain that they are only allowed to write one value per note, and then get them started with these two questions:

1. How do you want people (clients, staff, donors) to feel when they interact with you?
2. What do you want to stand for and what against?

If you have trouble coming up with values, another sweet little helper to get the creative juices flowing is Brand Deck. Using this deck of cards, you sort a collection of pre-printed values into three piles: “you are”, “you are not”, and “not applicable”. Observing the differences among your team may be as important as seeing where people’s perceptions overlap, and often provides a gateway into key conversations that can guide the strategic direction of your organization.

This said, whether you use sticky notes or the Brand Deck, the next part of the exercise is to organize the chosen values into themes. Find the ideas that are overarching. I find it a good practice to pick your big three and to recognize these as your core values.

After you choose those three, there’s a good chance you’ll still have a stack of values that were difficult to slot underneath those “cores.” Use this next question to help you break down your value logics further: “How do we behave: (1) as a team?; (2) as individuals; and (3) with our clients? Fit one value under each of those three, and you will end up with roughly three core values and (roughly) three others that relate to behavioural expectations. Write this up as a one-page document you can use to stay clear about what’s important and how it will affect how people act moving forward.

Let’s again use the Lending Cupboard as an example. They define their core values as mobility, independence, and dignity. As a team, they value honesty. As individuals, it’s positivity. For clients, respect is non-negotiable. Identifying these standards helps to calibrate expectations and can introduce important changes in the way you relate to your broad audience.

Switching sides, let’s consider how we can help clients belong. It’s simple: our job is to align our organization with our established values and share that message in such a way that those who share our values can find us and become supporters. That process is the full brand flip in action.

Final thoughts

A solid brand framework is created by connecting your organization to your audience using three simple steps:

1. Your Purpose → Their Identity
2. Your Onlyness → Their Aims
3. Your Values → Their Mores

Figuring out your “why” and communicating it through clear messaging and good design will help link you to the “whys” of your audience. Knowing and sharing what you do best in your niche will position you to meet the needs of the people you seek to serve. Getting clear about your values and what’s important to your organization will invite people to share your common ground and build a tribe around your cause.

As you work through these three steps to design your brand, remember the fluidity embedded in the process. Your brand will never be “done”. It will evolve and change. It will take management. And it’s best to remember at least one more thing:

“The best design tool is a long eraser with a pencil at one end.”
Marty Neumeier

Kerstin Heuer is a nonprofit marketing consultant and founder of Non Profit Today. Since 2008 she has used the trifecta of branding, marketing, and design to help nonprofits communicate the heart of their organization, connect with their audiences, and achieve their missions. With over 25 years of industry experience and lessons learned from work on 500+ non-profit projects, Kerstin is skilled in collaborating with NPOs to make sure they have a clear message and the traction they need to spread it. Connect with her on Linkedin or email her at: kerstin@non-profit.today.

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