Branding for Non Profit Organizations: The Definitive Guide
From the mightiest of globe-spanning organizations to the teeny-tiniest of startups, great brand building never fails to make a positive and meaningful impact in business.
When it comes to nonprofits, however, there are a few highly distinctive differences from for-profit companies that are well-worth taking into account. Branding for a cause, particularly a sensitive and poignant one, often needs to be done with meticulous care and awareness.
Branding and marketing can play extremely important roles in the lifecycle of a nonprofit. From bolstering donations to securing partners and raising awareness for your cause, there are plenty of benefits on offer for those who manage to get it right.
Getting it right can be tricky, so don’t worry if you’re struggling with where to start off on your journey. Ultimately, the best branding tends to be unreservedly unique.
If you feel like you could be doing more to support your own nonprofit’s branding endeavors, or you simply wish to find out more about what exactly branding consists of and how it can be used to your advantage, then look no further. Here is the definitive guide to branding for nonprofits.
Marketing Vs. Branding
It is fairly easy to conflate the marketing and branding, but it’s worth noting the intrinsic differences between the pair and why they are so valuable as separate disciplines.
The two complement each other as they work to form a bond of trust between you and your customer, or as Thea Serrano eloquently puts it in an article for Thrive, "Marketing grabs your audience’s attention, and branding keeps it."
It may be useful to think about marketing as your means of reaching audiences and branding as the face of the company that they’re introduced to.
Your brand is your story, and your marketing efforts represent that story and draw people’s attention to it, hopefully meeting customer expectations along the way.
A great brand tells a story, resonates with the audience, connects shared values, and perhaps most importantly, is immediately recognizable.
Branding can help you:
- Build Customer Loyalty – a loyal audience can be extremely valuable for a nonprofit whose only source of income is through a constant stream of donations. When their values connect with a brand, 89 percent of shoppers remain loyal, according to Smallbizgenius. Your cause may already be one that resonates with people; it’s all about finding those people (through market research) and helping them connect with your brand.
- Bolster Your Reputation – reputation is critically important in virtually all walks of business, especially in the world of nonprofits in which trustworthiness and integrity reign supreme. A well-built brand can easily emanate these kinds of traits, sometimes without even trying too hard at all. A bigger and better reputation means a wider reach, and a wider marketing reach means more donations! Hopefully. Plus, if you have a great reputation, you’ll probably have a much easier time attracting talent and investors.
- Differentiate Yourself – what exactly makes you different? Why should someone donate to your cause and not someone else’s? Maybe it is their cause, and they just don’t know it because you’re not making it clear enough! Branding can help you differentiate yourself, allowing you to flourish among the competition. Many people don’t ever think about nonprofits being competitive, but they are sorely mistaken (but you likely already know this). Even if your cause transcends the petty quarrels of business, it must be addressed if you mean to succeed on a larger scale.
How Nonprofit Branding Differs from Commercial Branding
Many of the basics that make up the branding process will most likely stay the same, but since nonprofits are fundamentally different in purpose from their for-profit counterparts, there are some key contrasts to note between the two.
For example, the biggest difference is that a nonprofit exists to benefit a social cause, whereas the main goal of a for-profit tends to be to make money, as the name handily suggests.
Success for a nonprofit is generally defined by their ability to achieve their mission — a mission that usually consists of helping others and the community in which they live.
Suffice to say, this alters the overall shape of the branding process since it has a different objective — to raise funds and awareness for a cause, as opposed to selling commercial products.
This must be taken into account when mapping out a branding strategy. What is it that you’re trying to achieve with your image exactly? Your message and your values need to do the talking for you, to some extent at least.
After feeling compelled to support a cause, 68 percent of donors are more likely to give money, according to a recent study conducted by Campaign Monitor.
In this regard, both the purpose of branding and the means by which it is carried out and marketed to an audience are inherently different.
Why is Branding So Important?
Nonprofit branding is crucial to mission success, and even if you’ve neglected it up until this point, you will probably have established a presence of some description already; it’s up to you to make it shine.
When you think about branding, your brain may immediately conjure up involuntary images of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Nike, Apple, or a host of other commercial names, but it’s not just the for-profits that get to hog the limelight.
For example, World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) iconic panda-based mark is one today's most recognizable logos.
"Brand is the single greatest asset that our network has," said Marcia Marsh, former WWF chief operation officer.
Without a recognizable brand, spreading the good word of your cause would be challenging.
People can tell when someone’s put care and effort into their brand — it looks good, it sounds good, it’s coherent, cohesive, and accessible.
It takes time to make this happen, and it pays off once you’re able to do so. On the other side of the coin, a poorly put-together visual identity system and brand style tells audiences that you don’t care too much about professionalism, and if you don’t care about professionalism and authenticity, then why should they think you take your cause any more seriously?
In many ways, branding is an integral part of your mission itself, as the cause at the heart of it needs to be reached and supported in any way possible for you to reach the heights of success you deserve.
There are nearly 1.6 million nonprofits in the United States today, according to the Independent Sector. This undoubtedly makes standing out a little harder, even with the marvels of the internet at your disposal, but it’s also an area in which solid branding can come to the rescue.
If people are going to donate to your cause, they’re going to need to find your cause in the first place! Branding is a way of establishing your organization in the eyes of the customer, an essential part of what it means to grow a business and strive for longevity.
Lessons From Some Inspirational Nonprofits
There are (thankfully) countless wonderful and heartwarming stories to watch out for when it comes to nonprofit success, and they’re worth taking a look at for some inspiration.
It’s too easy to get lost in a rut when you’re so passionate about a cause, and it feels like nobody’s listening. Yet, this is so often the plight of the nonprofit, and while it is frustrating, it gets better, especially if you put some time, energy, and money into branding. Perhaps taking a look at those who went before you might give you the boost of confidence you need to get back on your horse.
For the animal lovers among you, you may want to take a little inspiration from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a nonprofit that’s been protecting America’s animals since 1866.
Their success can be partly attributed to their extremely passionate and dedicated community of volunteers coupled with unmistakable branding. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that your employees and volunteers need to be able to fully reflect your brand’s message and embody it whenever they represent your company.
An impassioned and experienced fundraiser who carries with them the weight of your brand with ease and pride is a force to be reckoned with.
Being able to follow through on your word is vital. The American Red Cross is a great case in point in this regard, as they have consistently played a vital role in the nation’s response to natural disasters and human suffering over the years.
Nonprofits rely so heavily on building up a level of trust to develop a loyal base of donors. If this level of trust is broken, or you can’t follow through on your promises, it can be exceptionally difficult to convince people to turn to support the organization.
The immensely popular and irreplaceable Doctors Without Borders work tirelessly to help those in need, no matter who they are or where they are. Their achievements are truly awe-inspiring, so it’s worth checking out a few of them at least.
For a prime example of how inspirational organizations use video content to tell a moving and emotionally compelling story, look no further than Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. It has an incredibly unique value proposition, and brings it to market with profound grace.
How to Build a Strong Nonprofit Brand
Now we’re getting down to the thick of it — how exactly should you start building your nonprofit brand in order to make it as strong as it possibly can be? No matter the company in question, your quest for branding excellence starts with market research.
Discovery and market research
Market research is a crucial part of business, so crucial in fact that as an industry, it’s expected to be worth $90.79 billion by 2025.
Start by asking yourself the essential market research questions, and you surely can’t go too far wrong. They should look a little bit like this:
- Who is my target audience? If you don’t know who you’re aiming your brand at, how can you hope to create an aesthetic or a message that resonates with the ideal donor? How old is the ideal donor? Where do they live? What do they do for work? How do you hope to find them?
- How am I going to conduct the research? Thankfully, you’re alive in the age of the internet, so research has never been quite as easy as it is now. Once you know what, or rather, who you are looking out for, you need to think about the means through which you’ll find them. This usually consists of surveys, focus groups, interviews, field trials, and data research.
- Where does my company fit? Are you aware of how your company is positioned in regard to the current shape of the market? Who are your competitors in your field? The more you know about your competition and the landscape that you’re working with, the easier it is to come up with a way to successfully market your brand.
Define Your Brand Identity
You’ve done the research, so now it’s time to think about your brand’s identity and how that identity will appeal to those who need to see it: the donors.
This means thinking about every single detail (the power is in the minutiae), from the font on your website to the color of your logo.
Everything matters. What makes Nike stand out automatically? It’s the famous tick symbol – the Nike Swoosh! CocaCola’s famous red coloring and lettering is unmistakable, and the McDonald’s golden arches are recognized all over the world.
Since you’re a nonprofit, it’s worth striving to put your values at the very heart of your branding. After all, it’s why your organization exists in the first place.
In fact, in a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review found 64 percent of consumers stated that shared values were the reason for their relationship with a brand. What better shared reason than a meaningful cause that you can approach together?
Some essential pointers to take note of when defining your brand identity include:
- Tone of Voice - When done consistently, it can be part of what helps your audience recognized your brand while bolstering your branding efforts across a range of different channels and platforms.
- Partners – this one is often overlooked, but your business partners can have a big influence on your brand identity. Getting cozy with a sinister business partner won’t go down well with those who you’re trying to show that you are trustworthy. Conversely, a respected business partner can make an immensely positive impact.
- Employees & Staff – Everyone involved with the organization needs to be in the same boat when it comes to brand representation. If your employees are not able to recognize the importance of brand representation, or they can’t sufficiently embody or communicate your values to the public, you’ll probably need to have a few words.
A Consistent Execution
Consistency is key. Only once you’re able to put across the same coherent brand image over and over can you start to build familiarity and meaningful resonance.
This means making every aspect of your company’s presence is aligned, no matter where it happens to be. Whether this is your website, your Twitter page, your Instagram, your physical premises, or the watermark at the bottom of your email address, you need to build consistency.
After a while, people will start to get used to what your brand looks like, even if this is on a subconscious level. Be it through your social media posts or your email marketing campaign. It takes people an average of five to seven interactions with your brand before they’ll remember it, according to Pam Moore.
First impressions matter, but they have to reflect on what’s yet to come should they make a returning impact.
Nonprofit Branding Best Practices
Video content is still one of the most powerful mediums available, provided you’re able to use it properly. It’s highly visual, and visuals tend to connect well with audiences (think infographics). Don’t neglect the power of social media in this regard, either.
Always keep the doner in mind too. They like to know what their money will be used for and whether or not the people they’re entrusting it to know what they’re doing. Tell your story, let the world know what you’re doing to make a difference, show them how far you have come and how far you have yet to go. A user-generated content campaign is a superb example of this.
By putting your narrative first and keeping your values and goals insight, you should never stray too far from the right path.
Additional Support and Funding for Nonprofits
Every nonprofit needs help and support from time to time, so you shouldn’t ever feel bad about reaching out. There is help out there. All it takes is for you to look in the right places. Admittedly, this can be tough without the right direction.
It’s always worth checking out your local government’s website for advice and support when it comes to grants, loans, and tax breaks (perfect for bolstering your branding budget), and there are some very handy tools and resource platforms online for you to check out.
Below you’ll find a few links that may be able to set you off in the right direction. Searching for support can feel like a real battle at times, but you shouldn’t give up hope. Help will arrive; your cause depends on it!