What’s with the branding controversy? Branding has been around since the first rancher stamped his cow with an identifier to distinguish ownership at market. With the proliferation of mass-produced products during the industrial revolution, the practice of branding provided product differentiation. Over the last 100 years, brands have evolved to become symbolic representations of companies or organizations.
Nonprofits of the past seldom concerned themselves with branding because differentiation was clear: a nonprofit represented a unique issue or a unique group. Clearly, this is no longer the case and some form of branding is useful for differentiation.
But there is a bigger reason branding is important. Humans have a natural affinity for symbolic experiences. Just look at the power of storytelling. Nonprofits use storytelling every day to create meaning and emotion in their supporters in order to garner powerful backing for specific programs or projects. The same can be true for an organization as a whole. If an organization can tell a big-picture meaning-laden story about itself through its brand, it is in a position to create powerful change as a whole.
Defining your brand provides at least three considerable benefits:
- Branding helps clarify the main story of your organization. Getting clear on this story will help hone priorities, messages, and audiences.
- Branding means focusing on relationships. The practice of branding forces organizations to think of the long-term impact of their actions and messages by considering the relationships they need to build and maintain with supporters in order to remain strong. 
- Branding creates community. The people who respond to a specific brand have characteristics in common. Because of those commonalities, members and supporters of a well-branded organization feel part of a community, virtual or live, and reap the benefits that communities provide: support, encouragement, teamwork, synergy…
But what about the down side of branding? The 1999 publication of Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, helped to summarize and popularize many concerns of the anti-branding circle. Brand critics state that the emphasis on brand image and the subsequent move away from products and production has led corporations to take advantage of people and environments in less developed parts of the world, often in direct contradiction to the image they are trying to sell. Critics also charge that corporations have claimed almost everything public and privatized it, as well as undermined our democracy by reinforcing the self-centered, individualistic nature of our society.
It is true that people in less developed countries are frequently bearing the brunt of our consumer needs. I could cite hundreds of examples linking environmental degradation and human exploitation to many different industries. Issues with privatization of public space and undermining of democracy are equally prevalent.
Do public benefit nonprofits want to be part of something that has caused so much harm?
I argue that much of the concerns around image branding should be taken seriously. However, I contend it is our system of capitalism, not branding, that encourages corporations to act in this manner.
Branding can actually help resolve some of these issues: nonprofit organizations can use branding to strengthen their own relationships, clarify their stories, and create community. If nonprofit, non-commercial institutions use branding powerfully, they can help to rebuild institutions that emphasize community instead of individuality and caring instead of spending. Organizations can help to provide the knowledge people need to make informed purchases and help others gain the financial ability to make choices, countering some of capitalism’s downsides.
Branding will continue to be an area of contention. In the meantime, supporters of branding can use the impact and effectiveness of good branding practices to bring the world closer together instead of driving it apart.
How have you used branding in your organization? What benefits or challenges have you discovered?
 Goodman, B., & Dretzin, R. (2004). The Persuaders. Boston, MA: WGBH Boston. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/
Image source: freeimages.com/Petr Kovar