Why branding matters: Making a case for investing in your nonprofit brand identity

guard rails brand standards

So, mission-minded communicator: you understand what makes up your organization’s brand and why it’s important. How do you convince leadership that your brand is worth investing in? Today, I’m debunking a few common reasons nonprofit leaders may offer for not investing in brand-building.

“Branding is a ‘nice extra,’ but not worth the time and effort

According to the latest estimate, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the United States. In Ohio alone, there were more than 35,000 nonprofit organizations as of 2013.

red tulip in yellow brand recognition
How will you stand out from the competition? Brand recognition is key.
Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Those numbers alone suggest any organization must put in the work to build trust and recognition if they’re going to stand out among the competition. Add in the constant firehose of social media, email and other real-time content sources that compete for everyone’s attention, and it becomes imperative that you have a strong voice to cut through the noise and resonate with the people who matter to your mission.

And a brand isn’t fluff–it’s the foundation on which so much of your communications stands. It is the basis for building consistency, comprehension, trust and recognition, in the wise words of the folks over at Column Five. If your brand identity is shaky, it will make everything else harder.

Big Duck, a communications firm that exclusively serves nonprofits, found that investing in a rebrand pays off: Nonprofits that have rebranded tend to raise more money and reach new audiences. Note: You have to pay the email address toll for this report, but it’s got great information–and Big Duck has great resources to share, in general.

Branding is too expensive and we don’t have the budget to pay a big design firm

small budget branding can still be effective
Branding doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.
You can make meaningful progress toward a strong brand identity even if your budget is tight.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

You don’t need to pay a big firm to get branding right–and this is true whether you simply need to organize and refine an existing brand identity or if you’re doing a complete rebrand.

Sure, you can get great outcomes from a big investment in a branding firm, and if you can afford it, it’s usually worth it. But if you can’t, that doesn’t mean you should carry on with an ineffective or haphazard brand.

If you do your homework, secure buy-in from decision-makers, seek candid input from your audiences and selectively engage freelancers or consultants when there’s a true skills gap, you can create a strong brand with very little money.

Remember: the visual elements, though important, are just a small part of your overall brand identity. Your core identity and messaging are vital, and you already have access to the people who know your organization best and can help you define that identity.

(Don’t forget to download your brand audit checklist, a great starting point for identifying gaps in your brand.)

Branding is too constrictive – it limits creativity or personal style

If you’re in a communications role, you’ve likely had to play “brand police” with some of your colleagues. Maybe someone is using Papyrus to make signs for your volunteer events, or communicating with stilted, formal language in Tweets instead of the conversational tone you’re aiming for. Whatever the infractions, they’re confusing your messages and risk diluting your brand.

If you don’t have a clear set of brand standards, though, you can’t really blame them.

think of brand standards as guard rails

Think of brand standards as guard rails. They set the boundaries that allow your team to communicate authentically while preserving the voice of the organization.

Having a style guide allows you to enforce these standards without having it get too personal. (“Listen, Carol, we all love Papyrus, but the style guide says we can’t use it.”)

It also, in many cases, can free up your time and help empower your colleagues: You don’t have to make every last sign and flier to ensure consistency if your style guide is in good shape.

It’s just… a lot to do

A rebranding of any degree can feel really overwhelming if you’re “in too deep” already: if your brand is a disorganized and unintentional conglomeration of old and new ideas, programs staff vs. development staff, and/or the personal preferences of past and existing employees. If you have 27 different .jpg files of your logo with 10 slight variations in color, or a mission statement that reads a little differently in every annual report and grant application you come across, you’ve probably felt the simmering anxiety that accompanies this muddied brand.

I’ve been here. Often. Almost everywhere I’ve worked. It’s really common among small organizations. And in all of these cases, it takes someone taking ownership and securing the buy-in of leadership to scrap the sloppiness and work toward consistency.

Just because it’s a huge mess doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. And if you’re going to be an effective communicator, you really shouldn’t let it.

Champion Your Rebrand

be a champion for your nonprofit brand
Be a champion for your brand.
Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

As our branding series continues this month, I’ll share as much as I can to equip you with the tools to become the champion of your own nonprofit rebrand (or just improved organization and definition of your existing brand elements).

Now that you have the what and the why, here’s a short run-down of the how to tackle branding for your nonprofit:

  1. Start with a brand audit.
  2. Build the foundations: determine the degree to which you’ll deep-dive in brand strategy development (like hosting small focus groups of your target audiences, developing personas and sourcing guidance from your strategic plan).
  3. Define your visual brand and messaging through a basic style guide. It doesn’t have to be 70 pages long to be effective.
  4. Once you have your style guide in place, you can then start scrapping, replacing or repairing logo files, templates, documents, etc. that don’t align. You don’t have to do this all at once if you don’t have the capacity to do so. Prioritize.
  5. Once you’re on the path to a more consistent brand identity, set a reminder every 12-18 months to quickly review materials and make sure you’re still in good shape.

Featured Photo by Branislav Belko on Unsplash

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