The Art of the Rebrand: When, Why and How to Rebrand Your Nonprofit
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.”