Branding Your Nonprofit – Good or Bad?

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. [1]
  • 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.[2]

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?

[1] Who’s wearing the trousers? (2001, September 6). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/770992

[2] 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

Use the Four Walls of Framing to Build a Strong Message

How do you get a message to connect with your audience, no matter the circumstances? Frame it with four strong walls: speaker, audience, message text, and culture.

Message framing means presenting information to encourage a specific response. Communication, PR, and marketing professionals in nonprofits use framing by choosing which information to include and which to leave out. There is nothing inherently nefarious about this; it is impossible to communicate everything about an issue and given limited space and distracting environments, we must choose our messages carefully. What we choose to include is necessarily highlighted while what we leave out is diminished in the audience’s minds. This selection process helps to define a problem, attribute a cause or blame, provide a moral evaluation, or indicate a solution in an efficient and effective manner.[1]

When choosing how to present a message for the maximum effect, there are four aspects to consider in building a strong message frame:

      1. Speaker – The speaker needs to be credible, likeable, influential, charismatic and/or relatable. Conservation International has recently relied heavily on influential speakers in their video series Nature Is Speaking by featuring famous actors such as Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford. While most of us don’t have the means to acquire speakers of this stature, finding someone with whom the audience can find commonalities can be just as effective. Mercy Corps uses this to good effect in their profiles of recent Syrian refugees, highlighting a boy who just wants his normal childhood back, playing soccer and swimming with friends.
      2. Audience – Knowing your audience will make a big difference in the impact of your message. Sadly, I see too often that organizations fail to narrow their audience carefully enough, or when they do, they don’t carry out enough research to understand them well. But if you take the time to fathom the particulars of the group you most want to reach, you can find speakers that will resonate, use cultural references that are meaningful, and capture images that speak volumes.
      3. Message text – I like to think of message text as poetry. In poetry, we are told that every word should be carefully chosen to convey the exact meaning intended. Words that can convey nuanced meaning or multiple meanings can be even more valuable. Perhaps most important, words that don’t serve any purpose are discarded. Such should be the case with message text. And, of course, when you keep in mind the specific characteristics of your audience you can choose the most meaning-laden and resonant words available for them. Check out World Wildlife Fund’s Facebook page for some pithy messaging examples.
      4. Culture – No individual, and therefore, no audience can become who they are without the influence of the culture in which they live. Culture has, in fact, intimately shaped our experiences and understandings of the world. Tapping into these experiences enables communicators to easily trigger resonance and meaning. We often see memes floating around the internet. Many are silly, but this one featuring Morpheus from the Matrix actually makes a more serious point. Most of us living in western societies over the last 30+ years have seen the Matrix movies, or at least heard about them in detail, so the implications of the meme are apparent: the world is not always the way we think it is.

Framing your message with these four components will strengthen your communications much like the four walls of a well-built house: together they can create a message able to withstand the forces of a crazy news day on Twitter, an inbox full of spam, a personal crisis, or whatever else may be going on in the lives of valuable donors and supporters.

Image source: freeimages.com/Claudia Meyer

[1] Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51–58.

The Compelling Influence of Reciprocation

Have you ever wondered why, when a dog gives you his ball you feel compelled to throw it for him? It’s more than just the cute look on his face. According to Robert Cialdini, professor and author of the well-known Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,[1] reciprocation is a universal motivator for repayment. We’ve all seen it at work in commercial settings, from the cheap swag handed out at networking events (branded pens, candy) to the subtle suggestion of an offered bottle of water when purchasing a car. This well-researched phenomenon is a powerful tool for nonprofits as well.

The idea is that when an uninvited favor is offered, we automatically feel obligated to reciprocate. The dog has given you something and, whether you wanted that slimy ball or not, you feel compelled to return the favor. In fact, there is so much social pressure to comply in human-to-human situations, that numerous unflattering words exist for those who take without giving back, whether the favor was wanted or not: freeloader, moocher, sponger…

How can we use this tool without being crass about it? Some organizations include a nickel in their direct mail; others provide free calendars or tote bags in exchange for a certain level of donation. These all work, but there are even gentler ways to employ the technique by thinking of it in terms of making a concession. When an organization makes a concession, reciprocation works because there is social pressure not to exploit someone who has made an allowance.

Most fundraising requests incorporate concessions when they ask for a big donation first and then retreat to a smaller one. Instead of scaring people away, as long as the larger amount isn’t outlandish, this tactic typically makes donors want to contribute a little bit more that they would have otherwise because the organization has made a concession and the other donation levels seem smaller in comparison.

Here are more ways you can incorporate reciprocation and concessions into your nonprofit work:

  • Offer free admission to your next workshop or event to someone who you suspect will be a big supporter. Not only are you giving them a chance to see your work in action, you have set up an opportunity for repayment.
  • Ask someone to take on a large volunteer job. If rejected, offer something simpler. This can work because, like the donation request example, the new job seems smaller by comparison, but it also is effective because it gives the volunteer a sense of responsibility and satisfaction about the situation. The volunteer now may feel responsible for the terms of the agreement since it appears she influenced you to change it. She also could feel more satisfaction through a sense of control over the situation. Both responsibility and satisfaction have been shown to lead to better outcomes.
  • If there is an organization you are hoping to partner with on a big project in the future, offer to help them in small ways now such as favoriting and sharing their social media posts or passing on links to articles you think would benefit them. In this way, you are building a positive relationship as well as a desire on their part to repay you in the future.

Just think how joyous you make that dog feel when you reciprocate his “gift” by throwing the ball for him. You can do the same for valuable donors, volunteers, and partners by using the gentle influence of reciprocation. Making others happy while rewarding your own organization’s needs – now what could be better than that?

What ways have you used reciprocation to your organization’s benefit? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

Image credit: FreeImages.com/Wendy Domeni

[1] Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Revised). New York: Harper Business.

Visuals: Appealing to the Nay-Sayers

While most nonprofit communicators don’t even attempt to influence people who are not supporters of their cause, there are times when we need to reach even that hardest-to-reach group. Countering misinformation is one of those times, especially when nay-sayers are heavily influencing the conversation to the detriment of the public good.

Take two good examples: climate change and vaccinations. While strong science has backed both the existence of climate change and the safety of vaccinations, we are still caught in the conversation of controversy. In many cases, this controversy is the cause of inaction that is contributing to increasing and compounding harm.

So, how can we appeal to this group of disbelievers? A recent study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Communication, highlights the power of imagery. Instead of causing the dreaded boomerang effect, making the opposition’s opinions even more entrenched, the study found that including visual imagery of scientists in an article about vaccines and autism helped overcome people’s disregard toward scientific authority[1].

In the study, which focused on the autism-vaccine controversy, researchers found that using a message that included both sides of the story but pointed out that scientific evidence only supported one side, was helpful in swaying people who were already likely to trust scientific authority. However, including an image made a significant difference in peoples’ personal beliefs about vaccines regardless of their trust in science.

The authors state, ”It could be that a weight-of-evidence message that proves a greater illustration of the representation of scientists’ beliefs – such as a photograph of a group of scientists – can overcome biases that interfere with message effects, such as low deference to scientific authority.”

The article provides two useful points for nonprofit communicators. As we all learned in high school, including counterarguments increases the credibility of persuasive messages. If the findings of this study hold true for the larger population, a good way to rebut an argument would be to highlight where scientific consensus or the facts stand. Even better? Also include an image that underscores your point.

[1] Dixon, G. N., McKeever, B. W., Holton, A. E., Clarke, C., & Eosco, G. (2015). The power of a picture: Overcoming scientific misinformation by communicating weight-of-evidence information with visual exemplars. Journal of Communication, 65(4), 639–659. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12159

Image credit: freeimages.com/Fernando Audibert