Want to disrupt your organization’s brand? Dig deeper.

by Meg Tripp for Journal of the DMA Nonprofit Federation

I was sitting with a friend once as he browsed the online roster page of a membership organization for nonprofits. He started clicking random links, spending a just a moment or two on each page, and then clicking back to the roster. After a few clicks, I asked him what he was up to…

“I’m playing ‘Guess the Mission!’”

My face must have betrayed my confusion, because he quickly launched into a run-down of the game.

“Guess the Mission! We used to do it when I worked for a foundation. You move your cursor around with your eyes closed, click after a couple of seconds, and then open your eyes. You have a minute to figure out what the organization does, and if you can convey the basics, you get a point. If you can’t, you lose a point.”

“Were points hard to come by?”

“They were, but mostly because you’d get confused after a few clicks as to who was who. Sometimes you’d see the same stock photos, and then it would really get disorienting.”

“Really? But nonprofits do so many different things in different ways.”

“They do—but that doesn’t mean they’re good at telling you about it.”

What are you doing today to prepare for your tomorrow?

When it comes to establishing an institutional brand, many nonprofits end up facing the same hurdles:

  • Their communications haven’t kept up with their evolution as an organization, and they’re telling a story that isn’t true to who they are anymore.
  • Their communications aim for inspiration, but end up erring too much on the side of aspiration—and they can’t quite back up their words with action or results.
  • Their communications look, feel, and sound remarkably similar to other groups who do what they do; denying them an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
  • Their communications are so generically “nonprofit” in affect that figuring out who they are is more a test of patience than a compelling journey.

If you’re resting on your laurels as your organization evolves and grows, if you’re projecting strengths you haven’t quite mastered to ‘fake it until you make it’, or you’re doing your best to look like everyone else, odds are that your brand is ripe for a little disruption.

Who are you today? What’s special about you today? What’s unique about you today? How have you built on your history to become who you are today? What attributes, actions, and attitudes are you known for today? What makes your approach unique amongst your competitors today? And what are you doing today to prepare for your tomorrow? If you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, don’t worry — they’re out there.

You just have to be willing to ask.

Ask the big questions about who you are — and act on the answers.

The most authentic brands develop from a clear understanding of who they are internally, and how they’re perceived externally.

To get a better understanding of your internal landscape, schedule in-depth interviews and conversations across leadership levels, focus areas, silos, and age / experience levels to get the “lay of the land”. This comprehensive approach ensures your view isn’t solely “top down”, or overly focused on one facet of what you do. A quantitative survey could be useful to test some of what you learn with a broader group.

Next, it’s time to ask some big questions of folks who aren’t immersed in your organizational culture. Set up chats with organizational partners, associates who know your landscape, colleagues at aligned organizations, and even some of your clients—both new and long-term.

Across both sets of interviews, keep an ear open for:

  • Areas of agreement: Are there any themes or terms that come up again and again? Any common descriptors?
  • Areas of disagreement: Are there areas of cognitive dissonance between different folks internally, between your internal perceptions and the external perspectives you gather, or between how you want to be seen and how you are seen?
  • Attributes: Are there commonly expressed ones you already own? Any you would rather not own? Any you’d like to aspire to in the future?
  • What’s missing: What did you expect to hear that you didn’t? How does what you heard compare to the perspective you had before?

You might end with some insights that frustrate you, confuse you, or make you uncomfortable, but focus on listening above all else, rather than debating or arguing what your interviewees tell you. The more you learn, the stronger your brand foundation will become.

The final step in a thorough investigation is an audit of your communications, and those of a couple of your competitors (whatever you can get ahold of — their website and social media presence, at the very least).

On your end, take a look what you produce (both print and digital vehicles) and the verbal and visual building blocks you use to produce them (messaging, imagery, type, palette, and so on). Do they tell an accurate story of who you are and what you do? Does their affect align with the personality of your organization? Does each piece have a clear purpose? Where could you consolidate efforts? Where might something new be needed?

When it comes to auditing your competitors, take a look at the same elements you’ve audited in your own communications, but with a specific eye toward areas of overlap and areas where you diverge. What position in the landscape could you make entirely yours? What areas of discourse could you take ownership of? How could your visuals work harder to set you apart?

The more you know about your landscape, the better chance you’ll have of standing out from the crowd.

Create communications that reflect the real you

With the findings from your interviews and audit in hand, you’re primed to build an institutional brand that’s true to who you are right now — and that will grow and evolve with you in the years to come.

Your brand architecture

Your areas of focus and endeavor are to be mapped out clearly so your audiences know what you do, how you do it, and for whom you do it.

Your messaging structure

A multi-layered system comprised of a high-level message that gives your audiences a clear first handshake of your vision and purpose; a set of sub-messages that expand on the key points in your high-level message; storylines that delve into who you’ve been, who you are now, who you’re becoming, and why any of that matters — all to bring your messages to life; and facts, figures, and testimonials that prove the points in your messaging.

Your visual system

A flexible toolkit that provides all those charged with creating communications on your behalf with clear approaches to type, color, imagery, and any proprietary design “moves” you develop.

Your content and communications strategy

A map to marshal all the moving parts that make up your communications— both online and off, print and digital, and so on.

  • What types of content are needed, and who is responsible for creating them?
  • What types of need-to-know information should be distributed to your audiences, and when and where?
  • Who is responsible for supplying, writing up, editing, and vetting that information?
  • Who will respond to inquiries and conversation on social media?

While the questions may seem a bit daunting, doing this work up front makes it easy for all your communicators to stay on the same page.

Disruption isn’t easy — but it’s worth it.

The process of developing an institutional brand may become complicated along the way, but your goal should remain straightforward — to provide your audiences and constituents with an authentic and compelling expression of who you are. And the deeper you’re willing to dig, the better chance you stand of getting to that authentic place.

So grab a shovel, and get started!