Branding expert Marty Neumeier famously defines a brand as "Who you are, what you do, and why you matter." For a nonprofit, your brand is the promise you make to your donors, community members, and stakeholders. Who you are, your mission, your purpose, and how you turn charitable dollars into impact, are all part of your brand.
As the world gets more digitized, more crowded with brand names and organizations continue to compete for people’s time, nonprofits need to begin seeing themselves as brands. A “brand” is not exclusive to physical products. It also represents a feeling, a cause, and a higher purpose. Can you see yourself fitting into that wheelhouse?
Take Nike, for example. Nike sells sneakers, but their brand encourages us to “just do it,” sparking in us a desire to act and to reach our full physical potential. Urko Wood, founder and president of Real Growth Strategies, explains that “Nike understands that they are not in the business of selling athletic shoes and apparel. Instead, they inspire people to become better athletes and achieve their personal best (Just Do It!).” He continues, “All great brands recognize that their products and services are ultimately just vehicles for addressing higher aspirational needs.”
The same goes for nonprofit organizations. The work you do addresses a higher purpose in the world. Charities aim to solve local, national, and global challenges, save people’s lives, or make them better in some way. They aspire to achieve greatness, and are made up of people -- donors and professionals -- who are passionate about the mission. These are the perfect ingredients for an impactful brand.
I’m sure you’re wondering, how do I practically apply this?
There are five core elements that all nonprofits can employ to become a lasting and effective brand:
1. Brands aspire 🌎
The most widely known brands in the world understand first and foremost that their business is much more than the products or services they offer. Rather they sell their aspiration. As Simon Sinek teaches in his famous TED Talk, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” People want to follow brands and causes that align with their own aspirational dreams. Your followers, donors, and stakeholders partner with you to help realize those shared goals and ideals. Consider your organization’s “why.” How can you bring this aspirational vision to life?
2. Brands inspire ✨
People are inspired by companies who effectively communicate what they believe in. The most successful brands in the for-profit world aim to inspire their audience to do something, to act. Apple is a great example. Steve Jobs believed that it was his job to create products that were at the intersection of art and technology, intuitiveness, and design. His openness to being influenced and motivated by the world around him allowed him to live his philosophy and, in turn, inspire others. Can you remember a time when your organization’s work inspired you? How can you craft and share that story to inspire others?
3. Brands tell stories 📣
Humans are natural storytellers. It’s in our music, our conversations with friends, our social media feeds, and it’s at the center of our work. Amazon does a great job of telling a story that draws on the experiences of their customers in their 2020 holiday commercial. Not only has it garnered nearly 1 million views on YouTube and countless more impressions on Twitter, but they utilized the art of storytelling to empathize with their embattled customers and show how their platform can be used to empower communities and draw them closer together. Do you see? That is the art and impact of storytelling. It turns perfect strangers into neighbors and causes into whole movements. Consider what stories your organization can tell. How can you use the voices of those being impacted by your work to draw people in?
4. Brands build community 💛
Communities support movements, and movements drive impact. Peloton is a great example of how an influential brand can turn an individual exercise into a communal phenomenon. By expertly creating moments of connection via their app, social media channels, virtual workout classes, and challenges, Peloton has brought some much-needed life into the idea of “alone together” during these challenging times. It’s the virtual “high-five” between friends and strangers that gives riders an almost spiritual sense of community and desire to maintain connection until they reach that final goal, until the ride is over. Consider how you can begin (or continue) to create moments of connection between your various stakeholders. Engagement is when they interact with you. Community is when they interact with each other. That’s how you foster a sense of connection and responsibility within your audience. Communities buy in. How can you empower your audience beyond the individual ask and raise up leaders who bring people together instead?
5. Brands listen 🎧
Another sign of a successful brand is one that listens to its customers, its audience, and the people around them. Social media can be used to share information, but it’s also useful to gain feedback, monitor trends, and engage in conversations. In January, Budlight turned to Twitter to ask their audience to help them decide which Superbowl commercial to unveil on Superbowl Sunday. Considering the cost of such coveted TV spots, the brand was able to post both video reels on their Twitter feed, test them on their audience, and reward their followers with the opportunity to have their input matter. This was an important engagement to build brand loyalty and drive sales. For the nonprofit, donors and relevant stakeholders have quality input to offer also. Engaging them gives you the chance to learn your strengths and weaknesses, build your Net Promoter Score, and improve your perception in the marketplace. Opportunities to listen are opportunities to grow. How can your organization build a listening component into your brand?
At ignite: action, we think about brands every day. It’s the crux of the work we do with nonprofit organizations, helping them achieve their goals through brand development, communication, and digital campaigns. However, creativity, strategy, and planning are only parts of the equation. The organization must be on board with thinking about itself as a brand from the top leadership to the advocates on the ground. It can mean shifting the message from sharing what you do to why you do it, and disseminating that from the top down to every volunteer in between.
Your brand matters because it is the most prominent representation of your cause in the world. Jerry McLaughlin, co-founder and CEO of Branders.com, wrote in Forbes, “Your ‘brand’ is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your brand offering – both factual and emotional. Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.”
How do your prospective donors consider your organization? What do they feel? What do they know about what you believe? Are they invested in your community or your cause? Has your work inspired them? Don’t be overwhelmed by these questions; own them. You’ve got this.
This is your opportunity to establish an impactful brand in the world, so be inspired! Create it. Build it. Believe in it. Your brand is your organization’s promise to the world; it’s also the promise you make to yourselves.
Givebutter made a $100 donation to Jeff's charity of choice, Hamilton Families, for this guest blog.
An award-winning digital strategist, educator and public speaker, Jeff Rum has nearly 15 years experience in digital strategy, branding, and marketing.