February 10, 2016

Is Branding a Dirty Word?

By Kate Purcell

Marketing seems so, order
well, anesthetist
cheap. Recently, while we were working on a rebrand for a nonprofit client, the team balked at the word “brand.”

They recognized that they needed a new message and look, but they didn’t connect with the idea of branding. The word didn’t apply to their work, they said. It’s a common thought — although most don’t express it bluntly. In our time working with nonprofits, we’ve realized that many people working daily to effect social change innately dislike having to “market” their work.


Branding does have an ugly history

In many ways, this makes sense. Fresh from the Super Bowl ad madness, we all know the ways companies use branding to sell us things we don’t need. It doesn’t help that the word’s history comes from “firebrand,” when people would burn a mark to show ownership. If the traditional notion of branding is to sell or own something, how can this possibly apply to organizations trying to change systems?

I know this intimately. I started my career working for nonprofits abroad — not ad agencies. Although I loved the work, it became clear to me that the nonprofit world desperately needed help communicating why their causes matter so much. I remember one of my early jobs working for an environmental organization. We did important work, but the leadership believed that making our cause “sexy” to people wasn’t an urgent need. They knew gaining supporters and funding was vital, but they struggled to connect with people to further their cause.

It’s time to look at every personal encounter you have as an opportunity to connect about the work you do. While people might resist if you tell them what to buy or do, most will engage in a conversation with you. So when someone asks you “What do you do?” use the starter question to bring awareness to your issue.

Let’s take that idea further. What if we flip the traditional notion of branding on its head? What if branding is no longer about selling, telling, or convincing, but rather about listening?

What would this mean? It might mean asking lots of questions without assuming the answers. These questions might be:

  • What challenges is your audience facing?
  • What do they know about your issue?
  • Equally important, what don’t they know?
  • What kinds of actions do they want to take?
  • What actions are they afraid to take?

On a practical level, this approach requires you to create opportunities to seek out and listen to the people you want to reach. It could be undertaking focus group testing with outsiders when drafting your annual report. It could mean spending time creating audience profiles so you’re clear who you’re talking to when you post new content to your website and social media channels. But these efforts don’t have to be costly or time- consuming. Try asking your staff to reach out to their networks and discover what is and isn’t resonating.

Whatever you do, be sure you listen. It’s certainly a greater investment to guide your supporters to more deeply engage with your brand, but the payoff is well worth it.