Monday, February 8, 2010

Identity, brand and image

This week's Wednesday Webinar is What is a brand; and why does it matter to nonprofit organizations?. Here are some related thoughts.

The term identity may sound like misconceived corporate jargon when used to describe nonprofit organizations and institutions. Actually, it is an incredibly useful and important concept.

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 is nonetheless essential.

The identity of an institution is established through mission, values, actions and achievements. Once established, the challenge for an institution is to take this identity and represent it, internally and externally, for various vital purposes (admissions/subscriptions/participation, fundraising, public relations, staff morale, etc.), and to convey it through strategies, messages, interactions, communications, and facilities. You might call it substance distilled.

Identity is the essential nature of the institution, its reality; brand (or somewhat confusingly, brand identity) is this essence as it is perceived. It is, essentially, the projection of an institution’s mission into the marketplace.

Brand, 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 other 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. For non-profits the concept of a brand offers a framework to communicate vision, mission, programs, and services.

Frequently confused with identity or brand, image is just the surface reflection of them—the popular perception at a specific moment. (The challenges of teenage life might put these all in perspective.)

Why are these distinctions important?

Substantive outcomes of a well-articulated identity are a clear basis for institutional strategy, a better 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.

The more robustly one defines identity and brand 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 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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