ProSpeak: Branding as a Living Organism by Carl Sylvestre

(The following article was published in the November 23, 2010 edition of Fundraising Success magazine.)

It happens ever so often. At a staff meeting a crisis of faith takes hold, and someone asks, “What makes us different from everyone else?” The response can range from the collective silence of a jury about to hand down a harsh sentence or the rise of the angry mob turning on the most senior staff member for the answer. Depending on your mission and the organization’s life cycle, this question is a critical one. Inevitably, you ask: “What is our brand?” For some organizations, the answer is easy, and for others less so. Questioning and debating, on a regular basis, the meaning of an organization’s brand is healthy and necessary.

There are many elements that go into building a brand — name, symbols, packaging, product and reputation. Research published in the Journal of Marketing Communications (1998) by Leslie de Chernatony and Francesca Dall’Olmo Riley reports that there is little agreement on the definition of a brand. Part of the reason is that branding is a process that collectively conveys all the internal and external perceptions of an organization. It is the personification of the work that is undertaken. As such, any organization or individual is a brand. It speaks of your personality, outlook and vision of the world.

Since there are so many stakeholders in an organization, getting a personality profile requires the application of a number of tools that have to work in tandem. It starts with the logo, the catchy tagline, the color palette often meant to illicit an emotional response and the statement of your promise. Every product that we use has a brand, and every organization whose services we use and support is packaged to tell us more about what it is.

What then would cause any crisis of faith? Is it that the organization’s logo is not interesting enough? Is it that people are simply not sure about the services the nonprofit delivers? Maybe. But this question arises at both established and startup organizations. We have to embrace that a brand is a living mechanism. Thinking of a brand as simply a part of the marketing domain limits our view of its power.

An organization is a living organism that interacts with the world through multiple entry points. Holding on to the concept of a steady brand means that you are working in a static environment. Branding is an on-going communication and value exercise. At its foundation, it promotes the view that the organization is clear about its mission and that there is a quantifiable system in place to make sure that a consistent message is conveyed. To stay competitive and relevant, the brand has to live. Because it is living, the organization constantly faces an onslaught of opinion makers, clients and staff who challenge the very premise that the marketing/communication team is working to define. In that case, is there any hope of having a consistent brand that stands the test of time and its critics?

Yes, and we see it every day in action. For example, Coca-Cola, in spite of its critics, remains a consistent household brand name. Its mission is to bring pleasure to the taste buds It knows what it does. The same thing goes for PETA and the American Red Cross in the nonprofit world. No matter what your feelings are about them, everyone knows who PETA and the Red Cross are. That’s because they know who they are, what their missions are, and they convey that to donors. Knowing what you are is the best and only defense against critics. People gravitate toward confidence.

For your organization’s brand to survive in a fast-changing environment, know what you do and why you do it. What is your mission? What is your organization’s name, and do those closest to you know it? That is the beginning of the process of differentiating yourself from others. Teach your stakeholders to be true to the mission of your organization, and come up with creative ways to remind them.

The core of the brand is the value that is not open for negotiation. It is what the leadership is not ready to compromise on and the experience that those who enter the organization’s universe need to experience. As the organization evolves, there will be guidelines on logo placement, color palettes, press releases — but first be clear on how you define yourself and the emotional transaction that people will have. Accept and embrace the fact that your organization is a living brand. Knowing yourself means that your brand can be fluid, open to debate and yet have the confidence of knowing where it is going to land at the end of that challenge.