How Better Stories Build Better Nonprofit Brands

Sep 26, 2016 | Marketing and Communications, Philanthropy Journal, Resources

A strong brand - one that involves the fundamental story an organization is telling - can help nonprofits make the most of limited resources.


Julie Cottineau

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

by Julie Cottineau

It’s more challenging than ever to run a successful non-profit these days. There’s so much competition for the minds, hearts, and wallets of donors, policy makers and volunteers. You’re no longer only running up against the messaging and media of other established non-profit organizations, but also from individual efforts like pages and requests on Facebook from friends (and friends of friends) for support in cause-related marathons, walkathons, etc. In some ways, social media has made it easier for your organization to connect with potential supporters yet, on the other hand, it’s amplified the noise in the category, making it harder to get noticed and connect.

How can you break through the clutter and away from the “me-too” marketing to get the vital resources your cause needs and deserves?

brandtwist-logo_revisedIt starts with better branding. And by brand, I don’t mean a more colorful logo or a catchy slogan. I mean the fundamental story your organization is telling – who you serve, what your promise is, and how you’re different — what I like to call your TWIST.

Here are a few tips you can implement right away for stronger non-profit branding.

  1. Don’t limit your brand to just a name, logo, and website

Branding has become a buzzword and one of the most overused and least understood terms in marketing lexicon. Many people tend to limit the definition of brand to the logo, name, and website. These are important elements, but the real value of a brand is the experience you create. How you make people feel. It’s this relationship that creates long-term brand ambassadors as they rave about you to friends and family, and even strangers, on social media. How can you provide a better experience to your community? Not just an easier way to donate, but in all aspects of the brand journey. When I was VP of Brand for Virgin, we didn’t just think about the time in the air as the Virgin airline journey. We thought about the whole continuum. From when someone was considering a trip, all the way to when they got home and were telling their friends about the wonderful experience. Where does your brand journey begin and end? And how can you keep your organization top of mind and engage your stakeholders in between core events? Let your brand ambassadors be part of your on-going story. This could mean providing regular opportunities on social media for them to share their own experiences related to your cause. It could also mean inviting some of your more loyal members in to create the next chapter of your story. What do they hope for the future? What do they love about your brand experience, and what do they wish could be different or better?

  1. Take off your brand blinders

If you printed out the websites of your organization and other non-profits in your sector and covered up the names and logos, could you tell who was who? The answer is probably not. That’s because many non-profits spend too much time trying to look “legitimate” that they end up using the same words and imagery as everyone else. The problem with this is your important message won’t cut through. Take off those blinders and question the “givens” in your category. Look for outside expertise and new perspectives whenever possible.

  1. Look out of your category and TWIST for inspiration

How do you create a brand that has tangible value, is authentic, and stands out? How do you TWIST? It starts with looking at your story from new angles. Cast aside the dos and don’ts, colors and imagery and so-called best practices of other non-profits in and out of your sector; find fresh ideas by using an out-of-category perspective.

Think of brands that you love in all areas of your life and learn how to use these brands to inform and influence your own branding strategy and execution. Get inspired by a brand like Apple with its empowering Genius Bar, or Starbucks with its focus on customization, or Amazon, who helps customers with suggestions for additional products. How can your non-profit take these lessons and TWIST them for a stronger, more distinctive brand experience? For example, think about the fun moment when you open a Snapple and look under the cap. What kind of inspiring and unexpected message could you include in the flap of your fund-raising mailers that could create a moment of surprise, delight and connection?

  1. Use your brand as a decision making filter

I’ve worked with several large non-profits and one thing I’ve noticed is that many organizations, in an effort to please everyone, take on too many initiatives. Their websites become overwhelming with a hodge-podge of programs and messages and its difficult to determine what they really stand for. Brand building is not easy. Many organizations have great ideas, but what will make you successful is your ability to bring your idea to life, into the communities you wish to serve. Identifying your brand TWIST can help you say yes to the right opportunities and stay focused. But just as important, it can also help you say no when necessary to ideas that distract your core resources and cloud your message.

  1. Make sure the organization “walks the talk” of the brand

A clear brand TWIST is also critical for internal alignment and guiding behaviors. Writing and sharing your TWIST within your organization helps ensure everyone from the Executive Director to the part-time helper is presenting a unified vision of the brand. Your employees and volunteers should be able to answer the question, “What does your organization do?” highlighting your unique TWIST. Make the brand story part of the on-boarding of everyone who is a key resource for the organization, including staff, volunteers, and key partners. One of my Brand School graduates makes brand a part of their weekly staff meetings. He repeats the core brand promise and values and leads an interactive discussion on how each individual is living the brand promise in their specific role and what kind of actions they should stop or start doing to make sure their actions, and not just their words, are bringing this promise to life. Your brand promise is not something that should be sitting on a plaque in a conference room. It should be felt in every interaction and every brand touch point.

A strong brand can be a non-profit’s secret weapon. It can help you make the most of limited resources and share your story more effectively with those who can help make your mission a reality.

Julie Cottineau is the bestselling author of Twist: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands, founder and CEO of BrandTwist, and creator of Brand School Online, an actionable branding class for entrepreneurs, small businesses and non-profits. She is the former Vice President of brand for Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and served in executive positions at Interbrand and Grey Global. She has taught integrated marketing communications at Columbia and Cornell universities, and is a frequent commentator on brand strategy and innovation in top business media.

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