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.)
A strong brand — one that drives success in the marketplace — is a crystal-clear expression of your donors’ aspirations.
Here’s the deal
Donors don’t give because your programs are so brilliant. They don’t give because you’re so smart or strategic. And they don’t give because of your long history or superior achievements.
Your donors give because of what giving means to them. How it gives them personal significance. How it fills their hearts with joy, or eases their conscience. How it changes the world in ways they care about. What it says about them — to themselves or to others.
That’s what your brand must articulate: What about your organization feeds donors’ needs? What is it about supporting you that makes them feel proud, or fulfilled, or cool, or validated?
The brand shaman approach to branding ignores this. Their guidelines tell you that if you follow the rules, you’re “on brand” — when really, the navel-gazing focus of the document pushes you away from the real brand. If your brand consists of a logo, font choices and a color palette — that’s all it’s going to be. If your brand belongs only to the marketing department, it’s not really a brand at all.
Branding without shamans
So you want a real brand, not a brand shaman sham. Here’s how: Go easy on the externals (like design), but be a stickler about the internals — who you are. Here some steps you can take:
1. Get rid of your brand guidelines. This will allow you, force you, to build a donor-centered brand. Instead of rigid design rules, you can have design principles that are about the heart of who you are. Couple that with a well-told story about your organization — its founding or defining moment — that’s aligned with donors’ dreams.
2. Test, test, test. If you want your brand to drive better fundraising results, you need to let your donors lead you. And the way to do that is direct-response testing. Testing discovers how donors respond in real life, not what they theorize in a focus group.
3. Get aligned. Everyone in your organization needs to believe the same thing about who you are. Everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction. Getting nonprofit employees on the same page can be like herding cats, but the payback in brand equity is incalculable.
4. Be great. There’s no substitute for simply being amazing and unique. I’m not talking marketing here, but what you actually are. Don’t just say you’re great — be great! Bowl-’em-over great, tell-all-their-friends great. A “purple cow” as marketing guru Seth Godin would say. (Read “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable,” by Seth Godin.)
All that’s much easier said than done, but donors deserve it — and increasingly, they demand it. Anything less will have a hard time getting attention — or donations — in the crowded nonprofit marketplace.
The brand shaman fad will play itself out within a few years. Until then, stand firm and resist their temptations. And keep your donors in mind, every decision you make.
Jeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle/Domain. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.