Grid of cows with a branded mark

We see it all the time, especially (but not exclusively) at nonprofits: The marketing and communications folks are excited to talk about branding and what it can mean for their organization, but the staff and other stakeholders hear that word and cry foul.

To these skeptics, branding seems to be a cynical endeavor, akin to adding a bunch of spices to rotten meat and serving it to customers. Organizations and businesses that are more mission-based tend to see branding as wrenchingly venal and corporate. Why spend money, time, and attention redefining and redesigning a brand? Do you really need a new logo?

Why so skeptical?

I think that the skepticism flows from two related sources:

The actual cynical use of branding by some to make the world a worse place in pursuit of money to maximize shareholder profits despite destroying and twisting the ideals of our society; and The resulting misunderstanding of what branding can be.

Let’s pick on Coca-Cola, since it is a mighty empire that will likely never lose its seat of power. It is also masterful at branding. The company’s singular goal is to sell more sugar water to more people (including children) every year. Yes, they diversify, and periodically they introduce a health-ish beverage, but their core product, Coca-Cola itself, and their larger corporate brand, is all sugar water.

However, their brand is all about happiness. They want you to associate their products with the feeling of happiness. They bombard the world with images of happy people drinking Coke, and surround those images with their logo and their color red, and you’ll never forget it. It is branded on your brain. Their brand is based in a couple of solid concepts, and they are utterly consistent. The only barbarian at the gate for Coca-Cola are health concerns. But mostly the branding wins.

We get bombarded with these brands nonstop. No wonder the thinking person has complicated feelings about branding — we’re at its mercy at this scale. It forces people in Brooklyn to say things like, “We don’t have a TV,” or “I grow my own kale in one square foot.”

The other source of this squeamishness is a misunderstanding of what branding is and what it can do.

What branding is

It’s actually kind of simple. A brand is the sum total of the thoughts and feelings people have about your organization or business. These thoughts and feelings will happen both without your input and with your guidance.

That’s why when your barista who’s also a life coach talks about their personal brand, you want to act like Moe to their Curly. We seem to know inherently that people shouldn’t be that calculated about how other people feel about them. It smacks of deep insecurity. We get annoyed at Facebook friends who only post pictures of their happy family when we happen to know that Suzie never listens to her parents, Bobby kicks the family cat, and Larry drinks too much, to forget about his disappointing children.

That is also why people, especially at growing businesses and nonprofits, blanch at the idea of branding — there’s a deep sense that an organization should be just as uncalculating and organic in how they present themselves to the world as a painter or a country doctor. Branding is too “corporate” (read: cynical, venal, etc.).

But there’s an important difference between individuals and organizations. Organizations have singular goals and specific target audiences.

Yes, that singular goal can be to maximize shareholder profit at any cost. But that singular goal can also be to grow your business in accord with your values and principles. That goal can be to grow and sell the best kale in Oregon, or to save the whales.

To borrow some examples from our own clients: Oregon Community Foundation is trying to improve the lives of Oregonians. The Society Hotel wants to transform a neighborhood and reflect the spirit of a community. The Steve Fund wants to improve mental health outcomes for youth of color. 

Good branding — that is, both non-cynical and skillful — is honest, transparent, and builds loyalty and love in your target audiences without destroying the fabric of society. In fact, it can do the opposite. If you have a vision for a better world because of your organization, then good branding can smooth the way for people to connect with your goals and help move that vision closer to reality.

We love working with clients who are excited about their organization or business and want to tell their real story to a receptive world. The elements are fairly simple. You need a strong identity, and you need to be absolutely consistent in how you communicate that identity to the world.

Strong identity

A strong identity is much more than a shiny new logo. It means being honest, internally, about the value you provide to people, how you’re different from other organizations like you, who your people are, and what your aspirations are.

It can be bracing to go through this, but it can also be much more fun than oral surgery. More important, by involving internal and external stakeholders, you start to see how well you’re living up to your own values and ideals.

This isn’t a calculating process, it’s a deliberate process that can be transformative. You render who you are in words and images that represent a clear idea, and people start rallying around that idea.

Then you design a logo. Slap it on some business cards. No big whoop.

Utter consistency

Knowing who you are isn’t enough. You need to communicate that to people. If you want people to help you toward your goal of spreading a new model for healthcare in the state, or of being the Polka king of the Midwest, then you want people to recognize you quickly, and to remember you.

Even in the olden days, when cigarette-stained, fast-talking, hat-wearing people might only see your brand on billboards, network television, the Yellow Pages, and the newspaper, consistency was important.

Now, you have to brand a favicon for your website. You have to create a Twitter avatar. You need to design a branded 3D token-ball in the multiverse.

But once you establish a strong identity, it’s actually pretty easy. Regardless of the channel or the medium, you want people to say, “Oh, that’s that nonprofit that is going to save the environment. I get it. I know them, and I’m ready to help.”