Night of the Brand Shamans
Something strange often happens when nonprofits turn their attention to branding. Here’s how you can avoid the nightmare branding sometimes unleashes on unwary organizations.
You can sense the evil magic, tingling like static electricity. That’s one sign brand shamans are at work in a nonprofit. Other signs include:
* Rampant scheduling of focus groups.
* Nonstop chanting of the word “standards,” like a spooky mantra.
* Appearance of spiral-bound books filled with pictures of ways the logo should not be used.
“Branding” has swept through the nonprofit world. This should make communication better. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Branding actually has done more harm than good.
We can thank the brand shamans. Their backward form of branding fails to reach donors because it’s built on organizational aspirations and preferences — not donor needs. It’s a blend of dogged consistency and poor design principles, held together with bogus research.
The brand shaman product centers around a brand guidelines document, or graphic standards manual. The theory is that if your look remains consistent, people will know who you are.
The odd thing is, these standards almost always dictate sociopathic design that reduces readability and restricts emotional range:
* The fonts are often sans-serif and hard to read.
* Design techniques like reverse type, type over color and colored type only make things worse. (For a commonsense approach to readability and design, read “Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes,” by Colin Wheildon.)
* And the color palette is usually a witches’ brew of faddish, sterile and unemotional shades.
Brand guidelines don’t have to be bad. Sometimes they aren’t. But when your standards are created without donors in mind, that’s almost inevitably what you get.
Your brand is what you do and who you are -— as perceived by your public. What you look like is the smallest part of that. Most brand guidelines pay lip-service to this fact, but few of them do anything about it. Because they can’t. A brand is bigger than a set of rules. (Read about what a real brand is in “The Brand Mindset: Five Essential Strategies for Building Brand Advantage Throughout Your Company,” by Duane E. Knapp.)