Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nonprofit Identity and Branding

A piece on nonprofit brands in today's NYTimes ( called to mind some further thoughts. Non-profit organizations often overlook the value of creating a brand presence. Non-profit executives usually think more effectively about the content of their programs and services than about their marketing—either to potential users or to donors—and non-profits have generally been less than aggressive in making use of the brands that they have actually established.

There are, of course, gigantic exceptions, such as the Red Cross, the United Way, and the Salvation Army, but an argument could be made that while the first two have promoted their brands brilliantly, even the Salvation Army actually has not made full use of the enormous good will of its brand. Experience suggests that the universally familiar logo of the Salvation Army calls to the public mind a limited image of Christmas bell ringers, soup kitchens and religious charity, without building fully upon the quiet efficiency of an organization that offers a great variety of services and the lowest overhead cost of any large charity.

Defining identity, image and brand identity
The term identity often sounds like professional jargon when used to describe institutions. The more such an impression is stripped away, the more accurate (and useful) the idea. An institution’s identity is a lot like an individual’s. It refers to who you are in your entirety. As such, it is difficult to grasp or represent, but it is nonetheless essential.

The identity of an institution is expressed through actions, achievements, values, and goals. The challenge for an institution is to take this identity and represent it, internally and externally, for various vital purposes (admissions, faculty recruitment, fundraising, public relations, staff morale), and to convey it through strategies, messages, interactions, communications, and facilities.

Frequently confused with identity, image (the popular, surface perception of an institution) is one of the reflections of identity and its representation. Other outcomes of a well-articulated identity—somewhat more substantive—are a clear basis for institutional strategy, a more effective understanding of the achievability of the institution’s mission, increased revenues (through such means as programs, grants, public support, and fundraising), possibly cost-efficiencies, and a more secure future.

Brand identity, like identity, is often reduced to its use by graphic designers, to mean the last (and least) stage in developing brand identity, the logo, signage, and packaging. Even for consumer products, brand identity is about more than the cereal box or the candy wrapper—it is the summary term for all that distinguishes one product from another, real or imagined.

Why are these distinctions important?
Identity is the essential nature of the institution; brand identity is this essence viewed as a product to be marketed. Brand identity for non-profits offers a framework to communicate vision, mission, programs, and services. It is, essentially, the expression of an institution’s mission in the language of the marketplace.

The more robustly one defines brand identity to encompass institutional character, values, unique assets, and all of the messages to be conveyed by all of the means available to convey them, the more the idea can be used to tie together much of institutional strategy in a meaningful and powerful way. It can help an institution to focus on the most important issues in context, keeping in sight the broad strategic directions that all actions and messages should support.

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