Part 1: What is branding?

We’re beginning a short series on branding, with a particular focus on this question: Why is it so hard for most non-profits to successfully rebrand themselves or even clarify what their brand is?

Let’s start by defining branding. Branding is the process by which you align all that you do around a common point of differentiation and relevance. Notice that word, “all.” Branding is more than your logo or tagline or the colors you use. Branding relates to how you treat donors and staff, how you communicate online and off, how you talk about your work even when you’re not at work.

Your mission is what you do. But your brand is the unique way you carry out that mission. Using the well-worn example, Volvo makes cars. But their brand is “safety.” So what’s your brand?

Let’s make it even simpler and forget all this branding language for a minute (because misunderstanding the concepts related to branding is one of the biggest challenges for not-for-profits). Simply answer this question:

“What one thing do you want to be known for?”

Not “what are all the things you want to be known for.” Not “what are the top ten things you want to be known for.”

What one thing.

Of course, your ministry, like most organizations, probably does dozens or even hundreds of things. But that gets back to the confusion between mission and brand. People won’t remember all the details about what you do. They just want a shorthand way of describing you – who you are – to their friends.

Seems fairly easy, doesn’t it?

You know better than that. Getting to simple without being simplistic is hard work. You want to reach the point where everyone who has heard of your organization would say, “Oh yeah, that organization. They’re the ones who _________.” But that takes a number of things, all of which are hard for anyone, but especially for not-for-profits.

We’ll explore several of these challenges to branding in detail over the coming weeks, but for now, let’s stick to the question above.

Answer for yourself, “What one thing does our organization want to be known for?” You can even try this one on: “What one thing are we currently best known for?” The former is your preferred brand. The latter is your existing brand, the one that lives in the minds of your donors. Your job is to understand the existing brand but shape perceptions and guide them toward your preferred brand. But you can’t get people to your preferred brand unless you know what it is.

So try answering those questions yourself. Then ask several different people in your organization the same questions. See how many answers you get.

These may be simple questions.

But they aren’t easy.

Welcome to branding.