Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

An Interview with Stephen Olson of U7

Logo for U7In a tough economy, small businesses everywhere are struggling to survive. Add a multi-year light rail construction project on your front doorstep, and the future begins to look even bleaker. U7, an initiative of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in collaboration with six other non-profit organizations, was launched to support small businesses along the Central Corridor in Saint Paul, Minnesota – with design and marketing services playing a key role.

Recently, I spoke with Stephen Olson, the lead designer at U7.

How long has U7 been around? And what services do you offer?
We started in July 2009. We offer design, marketing and business consulting services, as well as help with financial projections, bookkeeping, and applying for grants. We’ll also provide referrals to consultants in areas beyond our expertise.

What is your criteria for working with area businesses?
The business must be affected by the light rail project, either on University Avenue or one block north or south of University, stretching from Lowertown in Saint Paul to Highway 280. For our purposes, a small business means $2 million or less in annual revenue with five or fewer locations. So far, we’ve worked with nearly 100 businesses.

How does U7 market its services in the community?
We started by going door-to-door, doing cold calls on University Avenue. A lot of the businesses haven’t traditionally sought design and marketing help, and there’s a huge amount of diversity along the avenue, so there’s a trust that has to be gained. It was a lot easier to show potential clients what we have to offer than to try and explain it over the phone.

Now, we get referrals from other agencies like the University Avenue Business Association (UABA), through social media and word-of-mouth – clients we’ve worked with tell their friends and neighbors. We also have a quarterly newsletter that is sent to our target audience.

Through the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), U7 provides all of these services for free. Was this made possible by a new revenue source, or a reassignment of existing funds?
These are all new revenues and come from a variety of funders: Saint Paul Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, Federal Appropriations Awards, Living Cities, and the City of Saint Paul STAR grant. We are always looking for new funding sources to increase our manpower to help businesses faster!

How many people are currently on staff?
We have five full-time staff members: One project manager, two small business consultants, one loan officer, and me – the lead designer. As lead designer, I supervise a team of three design interns and a contract worker. It’s a struggle to keep up with the demand for our services, so we’re constantly tweaking how we staff and how we work.

What do businesses most often need when they come to U7?
It varies quite a bit. They usually know what they don’t want. We start by conducting interviews to assess where they’re at and determine what is needed. It can take some time to build the relationship and identify how best to help their business. We don’t want to just give them a business card and push them out the door.

Does the amount of help you offer each business vary as well? I’m guessing some businesses have more needs than you’re willing or able to take on.
We rarely turn them away, but we do try to keep a cap on project creep. We’ll usually design 3-4 pieces and then let the business run with it. We want to teach them how to update things, use social media and become more self-sufficient.

We have created marketing plans for a handful of clients: What they can do weekly, monthly, annually to continue marketing their business. Then we stay in contact with them monthly to see how things are going.

The best feeling is when clients call us up spontaneously, excited about seeing their efforts pay off.

Would you share a success story?
The Best Steak House has been around since 1991, and they’ve been very receptive to exploring new things. We did a whole brand refresh with a new logo, tagline, business cards, take-out menu, website, social media and small table tents telling their customers to find them on Facebook and Twitter.

When we stopped in for a follow-up visit, we found out they needed 1,000 signatures in order to qualify for a façade grant. We jokingly said, “Let’s make an Uncle Sam poster with Mike’s (the owner) face on it.” They hung the posters in the windows and bathrooms and got over 1,000 signatures in three days.

Are businesses required to put up any capital or show an ability to implement your design ideas?
When we start working with a business, we explain that all production costs are their responsibility. We ballpark a price for them depending on what they want – usually $100–$400. In a few instances, when a client was unable to pay, we have helped with loans and even done some printing in-house.

Does U7 have a future beyond the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line?
The life span of U7 is tied to the construction, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. We’ve talked in general terms about possibly offering these services under the NDC banner. There are a handful of other non-profit organizations that serve small businesses, but I haven’t seen any of them doing what we’re doing.

What’s your favorite part of this job?
At my first internship, I worked on projects with some huge corporations. Now I’m working on a very intimate level. These are mom-and-pop stores whose family livelihood depends on the success of the business. It’s pretty fulfilling.

It sounds like a great program. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Steve. I wish you and U7 continued success.

Related content:
Central Corridor Businesses Prepare for Disruption
University Seven website

Just Be Yourself

Nothing is so commonplace as to wish to be remarkable. – Oliver Wendell Holmes

We hear it all the time when it comes to marketing: Be authentic. Savvy consumers have high expectations of the brands they’ll reward with patronage and loyalty. They can spot a pretender from miles away.

If you conduct an internet search for “how to succeed in marketing,” among the 20 million results you’ll find useless statistics on social networks, implausible promises that there’s one true way to achieve success, and pithy advice like this: You have to be awesome.

So, how awesome is your organization?

  • Are you recognized for being an innovative leader?
  • Are you a trendsetter known for regularly taking calculated risks?
  • Are you doing things none of your competitors can match?

Ever noticed there’s a lot less “awesome” in the middle of the bell curve? We simply can’t all be above average. Or, as Judge Smails suggests to Danny, a brown-nosing law school hopeful in the classic film comedy Caddyshack: “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

Hopeful copycats
Many organizations, rather than risk being truly authentic (e.g., We’re understaffed and our customer service suffers for it!) or delivering meaningful differences in their products or services, spend a lot of effort chasing others’ trendy tactics. We need a website, a Facebook page, an iPhone app!

Faced with a moving target of so-called best practices, tactics-focused marketers are perpetually behind – a guaranteed path to the vast undifferentiated middle ground.

Redirect your efforts
A better approach is to invest budget, time and staff resources in identifying ways to deliver a remarkable experience. Marketing driven by a strategic goal is not a quick fix, but a much more valuable one.

In the children’s book, Three Questions, based on story by Leo Tolstoy, a wise old turtle helps a boy discover answers to the following questions:

  1. When is the best time to do things?
  2. Who is the most important one?
  3. What is the right thing to do?

Answers: 1. Now  2. The one you are with  3. Do good for the one you are with

Being authentic in your marketing requires adherence to similar principles. If you know your target audience, and can consistently deliver what they need most when they need it, you’ll develop a truly remarkable reputation.

Related Content:

Online Personas Rarely Match Real-life Behavior
Authenticity Is King Because Branding Bores Everyone

Day Traders

Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

At the turn of the century, as technology granted ambitious individuals opportunity to compete with institutional investors, we witnessed the growth of day trading in the stock market. Day traders obsessively buy and sell positions, attempting to profit from market volatility. Unfortunately, around 80% of all day traders lose money.

Flash forward to 2010, a year in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recognized as TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In his commentary on the social network’s influence, Facebook Puts All Brands on Notice, branding consultant Simon Mainwaring writes:

The power of Facebook is the relationships it fosters and how that gives individuals and brands influence over their fans and friends. Variously called social capital or influence, this ability to exercise influence means that brands become day traders in social emotion and continually manage their reputations.

Facebook’s unmatched ability to instantly connect millions of people has changed the way we do business – of that there is no question. Where I take issue with Mr. Mainwaring is in his assessment of what that means for marketers. Do we really want or need to influence our customer’s “social emotions” on a daily basis?

Affirming this as a goal seems a bit self-serving for the social marketer, as it gives license to remain ever busy providing up-to-the-minute (or second) brand management. There’s another emotion at play here as well – fear. What if I’m not doing enough? What if my competition is tweeting while I’m sleeping? How come no one “liked” our latest Facebook post? To me, this behavior seems unhealthy.

The question should really be: Do our customers want to have “relationships” with us? Based on consumer trends toward self-service, evidence seems to be mounting that customers aren’t seeking a dialogue. Here’s a sobering thought: Is it possible your customers are “just not that in to you?”

Being responsive to your customers is always good business, whether face-to-face or online. Investing in social media will keep you plenty busy, but removing daily obstacles to self-service may do more for your customer relationships than all the tweets in China.

Related Content:
Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You
Ads in the Age of Hysteria

Branding From The Inside Out

You’ve got a great new logo and website, brand guidelines, a presence on multiple social media channels, and some soon-to-be-award-winning marketing materials. You’ve got this branding thing whipped, no? Well … um … no.

Think of your printed or online materials as the scaffolding around new construction. It is necessary and useful, but of little value on its own. Until the brand has been built from the inside out, you may remove the scaffolding only to discover there’s nothing there.

It’s a team sport
Successful managers are adept at putting their people in a position to succeed. Unlike Bugs Bunny, forced to play every position against the Gashouse Gorillas, a brand manager can’t succeed unless everyone on the team plays a role.

Because authenticity is the name of the game, it’s important to provide training, support, and incentives for coworkers so that your new branding effort won’t ring hollow.

Winning buy-in
From curmudgeons to the terminally shy, not everyone will proudly sing from your brand hymnal. Though uniform enthusiasm may be unrealistic, it’s not too much to ask for understanding and acceptance.

Dilbert.com

For a large, nonprofit client, we insisted on scheduling several voluntary, one-hour workshops as part of the brand launch. Each session was designed to provide participants with an overview of project goals, key messages and graphics, and practical tips for putting the brand to work. With a drawing for a free weekend getaway trip and other prizes as incentive, the internal training effort reached over two thirds of all employees.

Additionally, we encouraged the sharing of stories, regularly recognizing “brand champions” through internal communications after the workshops were a distant memory.

Training days
To keep everyone in tune with the institution’s brand, Virginia Tech developed a comprehensive, two-phase Brand Ambassador Certification Program. Since its inception, they’ve identified several best practices, including:

  • Recruit executive-level supporters who believe in the program.
  • Solicit feedback on everything – program content, presentation style, overall value.
  • Offer each class at least twice to accommodate scheduling conflicts.
  • Ask participants to recommend the program to peers.
  • Award participants with official recognition.

Actions speak louder than words
A brand is not what you say, it’s what you do – the sum total of all your actions. The better prepared your organization is to live its brand, the more vivid and indelible an impression you will make.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Like the very proper announcer who provided transitions between outlandish scenes in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, colleges and universities would like to promise that they are completely different from their competitors. Unfortunately, most schools’ marketing boldly goes where everyone has gone before:

  • Where Success Begins With You!
  • From Here You Can Go Anywhere!
  • What College Should Be!

Though one might fault marketers for a lack of imagination, the truth is a little more painful: most schools just aren’t that different. And that spells trouble.

Warning signs
Books, magazines, newspapers, and music have all seen dominant business models rendered obsolete in recent years. Higher education is ripe for the same kind of disruption witnessed in other information industries.

Earlier this year, technology observer Clay Shirky argued that “complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.” Notice any stress in higher ed recently?

Trying to be all things to all people can prevent institutions from responding to the challenge of doing things differently.

No one said this was going to be easy
As difficult as it might be for some institutions to undertake a new branding or marketing effort, it pales in comparison to taking a cold hard look in the mirror and deciding “We’re this, not that.”

The fact that this kind of systemic review hasn’t happened on a broad scale only points to the opportunity waiting for those institutions able to move more urgently. As Anya Kamenetz notes in her book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, if institutions are unable or unwilling to change, others will fill the void.

Different is as different does
What might this new world of higher education look like? It could be college that’s no longer campus-based. It could come from a realization that all students are “non-traditional.” Maybe some schools will entirely forsake athletics. The point is that a higher education monoculture is both unacceptable and unhealthy.

Some schools already maintain distinct models that serve them well:

  • At St. John’s College in Maryland, there are no majors or departments. All classes are discussion-based and no textbooks are used. Now that’s different!
  • At Berea College all students receive a full, four-year scholarship, putting real action behind the school’s mission to provide opportunity to academically promising students who have limited financial resources.
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology, formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla, changed its named to better reflect the school’s academic focus.

Different is good
Cynically, one could look at marketing simply as a way to raise the perceived value of what colleges offer so that regular cost increases are more acceptable. Ideally, however, a marketing campaign helps a school draw distinctions that attract students who are the right fit. The better an organization can differentiate its operations and offerings, not just its tagline, the more successful its marketing will be.

Related Content:
Why College is Overrated
The Axe Man Commeth

Navigating Brand Success

Launching a new product or service is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Launching a brand is an even more perilous proposition requiring ample doses of skill, planning, and the coordinated efforts of an entire organization.

Why does one effort fail and another succeed? Though good fortune can never be underestimated, successful branding is not a game of chance. As the architect Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.”

Get support from the top.
Visible endorsement and budget commitment from the boss is essential. The director of marketing or communications cannot successfully launch a brand without it. Everyone in the organization needs to understand that branding is a priority.

Process matters as much as product.
The success of any branding effort depends as much on internal adoption as any new logo or tagline. Listen to your staff and existing customers, not to water down recommendations, but to understand how this change will affect them.

Include the right people at the right time.
Gathering broad input is valuable early in the process and disastrous late. But it’s not enough to be inclusive, you have to ask the right kinds of questions. Don’t ask loaded, open-ended questions such as: Do you like this? Frame your inquiry around well-defined project goals, for example: Which option better captures our brand position?

Centralize control.
As Charles Kettering warned, “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.” Democracy is a wonderful thing, but everyone’s opinion cannot be treated equally here. Project leaders need the authority to lead – and permission to use it.

Branding is a marathon, not a sprint.
The brand is launched! Everyone’s excited! Now what? Guide expectations with regular updates and results so internal audiences understand that effective brand execution is an ongoing effort – and the day-to-day delivery of that brand will determine its success.

Have you seen – or launched – a successful nonprofit brand campaign? What were the keys to its success?

Related Content:

Cautionary Tales
Gap Scraps New Logo
Drake’s D+
Tropicana Packaging Blunder

Brand Success Stories
William & Mary Mascot Search
American University: The American Wonk
North Dakota: RU Legendary?

The Perfect Storm

Today’s forecast calls for heavy rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. Maybe I should climb on the office roof and point a golf club to the sky.

Why attempt such foolishness? I’ll certainly get wet, but even taking extreme measures the chances of getting struck by lightning are remote. Yet marketing departments frequently appear to be pursuing a similar strategy – choreographing (sometimes literally) elaborate efforts in hopes of becoming the next internet sensation.

Is it contagious?
By now everyone has probably heard of or enjoyed a campaign or video that produced a groundswell of publicity. The Blair Witch Project, fueled by a promotional campaign that blurred fiction and reality, was a viral marketing phenomenon. Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald, in a series of online trades, successfully bartered his way from one red paperclip to a house. And Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, attracted widespread acclaim for his star turn in the school’s lighthearted video parody.

Manufacturing buzz
Understandably, marketers dream of capturing the attention of ad-saturated consumers and generating free media coverage. But there’s no formula that can be taken from these examples and consistently applied to duplicate their success. When asked how his project received so much publicity, MacDonald replied: “I have no idea.”

In fact, gaining traction is harder than ever with the explosion of content available online. And consumers are savvy enough to sniff out – and savage – a contrived attempt to win their affection. The best advice is to consistently give people something of value that is true to your brand.

Happy accidents
Don’t get me wrong. Trying new ideas, even non-traditional ones, increases your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Be happy if one of your ideas is wildly successful, just don’t gamble all your hopes, or your annual budget, on a fleeting chance. Because if your goal is to capture lightning in a bottle – to “go viral” – you’re not marketing, you’re just playing the lottery.

Related Content:

Through Non-profit Eyes: Christian Haas (The More Donors Blog)

Down the Rabbit Hole: Meet the Puppet Masters of Viral Marketing (Fast Company)

What I Learned from YouTube (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Decision

Imagine a crisp autumn day. A teenager is visiting a college campus with her parents. It’s just one step in a lengthy selection process of reviewing websites, speaking with friends and relatives, and weighing the pros and cons of one school versus another.

Even though most people aren’t given a national TV audience to announce their plans, it is widely assumed that a big decision – choosing a school, volunteering time or money, pursuing a job – demands deep thought. But does it really work that way?

In our experience with regional public universities, we’ve noticed the opposite is true. Prospective students are not very familiar with many schools, often making their choice based on general – and sometimes inaccurate – impressions. In other words, the common perception – touring multiple campuses, filing lots of applications, sorting through piles of information – is the anomaly, not the rule.

Just the facts, ma’am

As noted in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide, it turns out our brains weren’t designed to be rational or logical or even particularly deliberate. This can be seen in all walks of life, for instance:

  • In an age of unprecedented dissatisfaction with our elected representatives, incumbents are still re-elected nearly 90% of the time. Even taking into account an incumbent’s built-in advantages, this doesn’t seem possible.
  • Kobe Bryant is considered by many to be the premiere basketball player on the planet. Who else would you want shooting the ball with the game on the line? Based on statistical analysis, dozens of players perform better under pressure. While Bryant makes a lot of clutch baskets, he is not more skilled at making those shots, he just takes more of them than other players.

The facts suggest we persistently disregard information that would be helpful in making our decisions.

If I’ve heard of you, you must be good.

With exposure to a barrage of daily messages and with access to a world of pretty good – or at least largely indistinguishable – choices at our fingertips, we often take decision shortcuts by turning to the familiar. It’s as much a coping mechanism as it is a reflection on what we value or believe.

We trust who and what we know.

Are we doomed?

So, while this is great news for Goliath, it represents a daunting marketing challenge for underfunded nonprofits with little name recognition. How can you compete?

  • If you’re well-positioned in the minds of consumers, the pool of competitors shrinks. We’re this, not that. It’s called branding.
  • You’re less well known than you think. Invest in some small-scale market research so the right messages are reaching the right people.
  • Expand your communications beyond the low-hanging fruit. Anyone can preach to the choir and remain a well-kept secret. Using social media can strengthen connections with customers and turn them into advocates.

Like you, your audience is faced with decisions every day. To guide your marketing decisions, remember to ask: How can we get more people to know, like, and trust us? Becoming the familiar option will help more people choose you.

Related Content:

How Facts Backfire

The Relevance Filter

Everyone Has Choices

An Interview with Julie Dappen of MAP for Nonprofits

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss non-profit marketing with Julie Dappen, director of marketing and communications at MAP for Nonprofits. Since 2003, Julie has provided her clients with market research, marketing plans, communications plans, public relations, and brand development. Before joining MAP, she worked in corporate communications and public relations positions for HealthPartners and Regions Hospital in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

MAP provides services and consulting to other nonprofits. This includes accounting, board and leadership development, board recruitment, legal services, strategic planning, marketing, and mergers. Each year, MAP serves more than 500 nonprofit organizations.

How does MAP help nonprofits with their marketing?
We provide services to help nonprofits build their own marketing capacity, with a flexible delivery model that accommodates different budgets. We work collaboratively with our clients on projects ranging from market research, to marketing plans, brand building, and name development. We can also help implement plans, as needed.

Have you seen increased demand for these services in your time at MAP?
We are seeing increased demand, perhaps due to the economy.

What types of organizations most often seek MAP’s help?
About 10 percent of my clients are small nonprofits, 70 percent medium, and 20 percent large. The organizations are a diverse group: human service, education, arts, culture, environment, and more.

In your opinion, how much of a role does design and marketing play in an organization’s success?
Design and marketing play a primary role. Who’s going to do business with you if they don’t know you?

How has the role of marketing changed over time?
Marketing has evolved continuously in response to market changes, generational changes, the introduction of the internet, and social and mobile media. Some of the principles don’t change – although some do!

Speak a little bit about some of the marketing principles that don’t change. In my experience, I’ve seen instances where people seem to think all the rules have changed when a shiny new toy emerges.
It used to be that when clients wanted a brochure the communications person would respond, “Let’s talk about your audience and what you want to achieve before we decide whether you need a brochure.” Today, clients want Facebook or Twitter, but once again they’re not always thinking about how the tools will help them strategically. While we have many more tools to choose from today, strategy has changed only slightly.

What principles of marketing do you think have changed?
Years ago, advertising focused on product features and benefits. Today, it’s more likely to focus on emotional benefits or how the product/service might positively affect people’s lives. It’s also much more difficult to break through the clutter today. I think we’re seeing an incredible amount of humor used in advertising in attempts to make it memorable.

Do you feel non-profit organizations today are more design- and marketing-savvy?
In general I think they are savvier, especially when they have talented, professional staff members.

For an organization that recognizes the importance of marketing, but lacks the staff resources, how would you recommend they acquire it?
This is a tricky question. Volunteers are great, if they are qualified, but some don’t see the job through to the end, or don’t leave the client with the right kind of files, or aren’t realistic about the nonprofit’s budget.

I’m a big believer in collaborating with the best expert you can find and afford. How might a nonprofit find a marketing partner?
Pro bono agency work is harder to come by, but usually more reliable. I believe in buying top-notch, affordable expertise, too, as long as the expertise can pass into the nonprofit’s hands for ongoing needs. For example, I believe nonprofits must have the ability to update their websites themselves, quickly.

What misconceptions exist about design and marketing in the non-profit world?
Some believe the entry-level writer or the neighborhood volunteer is a designer simply because they have access to design software. I wish everyone would understand that the quality and consistency of their marketing materials reflects directly upon the quality of their nonprofit.

I suppose another misconception is that nonprofits don’t need marketing. Even human service nonprofits, attempting to meet an overwhelming demand for basic services like food and shelter, need to market in order to tell their stories effectively to volunteers, funders, neighborhoods, etc.

Finally, I believe there’s a misperception in the non-profit community about using alphabet soup for names.

You’re saying that non-profit organizations shouldn’t be using acronyms.
I believe non-profit names need to work harder than for-profit company names. We simply don’t have the awareness-building budgets. I cringe when nonprofits adopt acronyms – meaningless names that usually lack any sort of memory hook.

Would you share an example of an organization that is doing effective marketing?
The Fringe Festival, an annual 11-day performing arts festival, comes to mind. In 2008 the festival featured over 150 shows, with 800 performances, more than 1,000 participating artists, and nearly 400 volunteers. In 2008, they sold 40,000+ tickets, an eight percent increase over the previous year.

They have clearly identified their market and audience. Their fun and consistent design, distinctive brand, and irreverent messages speak to their target audience. They’ve built a recognizable community among attendees with Fringe buttons (over 15,000 in 2008). And the audience participates in the Festival’s marketing by discussing and recommending performances, both in person, and via website reviews.

Great example! And they have been very steady with their efforts. The event seems to grow little-by-little – both in its impact and in the number of marketing activities they are undertaking. I think people sometimes think a marketing campaign is a silver bullet – the key to instant recognition and acclaim – when patience really is a virtue. And then you’ve got to have a good product or experience to back it up.

Any other campaigns or organizations that are doing interesting things?
I have a special interest in social marketing – marketing aimed at educating the public on issues, and ideally changing behaviors. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota’s “Do” campaign, or “Depression Hurts” from Eli Lilly. I’d love to see more nonprofits pool resources and collaborate to attempt larger, more impactful, mission-oriented campaigns.

These organizations must be tracking their return on investment. How do you advise your clients on measuring the impacts of their marketing?
It varies with each marketing plan and tracks back to the objectives set. It might be the amount of donations versus the cost of the promotion, the number of people signing up to be members versus the cost of the membership drive, the number of new clients brought in through an email campaign versus the cost (include labor in those costs!)

Assuming financial and staff resources are always in short supply, what advice would you give to a new (or established) nonprofit organization to help get its marketing message out?
For new nonprofits: Capture names and addresses of every volunteer, donor, client, or contact in a database and stay in touch with them. Don’t over-seek donations. Take the time to share updates, challenges, and successes. And invite their opinions and ideas. Also, be inquisitive about your clients and market. Gain insight on what they feel is important, and speak through your marketing to them by telling stories of how your work changes lives.

Marketing staff at established nonprofits have a responsibility to regularly take the pulse of their clients and market. Also, they need to realize that they will not reach everybody, so they must be strategic about whom they want to reach and focus resources there.

How should an organization prioritize their audiences and marketing efforts?
People want to develop a laundry list of audiences – and that’s okay – as long as they focus their marketing efforts on the audiences that are most critical to their success. For example, a nonprofit conducting business-to-business sales might segment its clients into industries, and then measure total revenue by industries, placing a priority on the industry that is spending the most money.

What are some common marketing pitfalls for nonprofit organizations?
Not being purposeful and consistent with brand, design and messaging. Each new volunteer or staff member wants to experiment with a nonprofit’s brand identity. Within the organization, people grow bored with consistent design. They don’t see the bigger picture – that long after they’re bored, the consistency is working.

I call them departmental do-it-yourselfers. Does the importance of the brand need to be better communicated within organizations?
Yes. But easy access to technology has invited do-it-yourselfers to experiment – and it’s fun! Oh, the trouble they cause without meaning to.

Julie, thanks for your sharing your insights!

United We Brand

Many organizations choose to market some of their products and services differently from their core brand. This is common in industries ranging from hotels and cars to food products and clothing retailers. For example, The Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy are parts of a single corporation. While all three stores sell clothes, they each have a distinct price point, customer base, visual identity and marketing.

Is such an approach appropriate and beneficial in the non-profit sector? Or do you risk diluting your brand? Consider the following questions:

What is your organization’s core promise?

Whether for a small non-profit organization or a large, national retailer, a brand is more about what’s being promised than what’s being sold. For example, Old Navy promises fashionable, casual basics for its young, value-conscious customer, while Banana Republic offers more formal, higher-end clothes for young working adults.

Similarly, most colleges and universities serve customers with a wide variety of interests ranging from business and the arts to engineering and medicine. Should each program be branded separately? While it would be unrealistic to suggest that all programs are of equal quality or prestige, the core promise from the university is basically the same: We will provide an education that will help you pursue your chosen career.

Before fragmenting your message or modifying your brand, consider your important similarities as much as your superficial differences.

Who is your target audience?

Different audiences often have different needs. Because she knows the brand, a 30-year-old looking for an outfit to wear to the office is not going to shop at Old Navy. Similarly, a teenager may turn to a non-profit organization with different needs than a working adult.

Because a university primarily serves students, a department that serves a distinctly different audience – providing agricultural resources to the neighboring community, for instance – might want to market itself differently. In this case, one must ask: How important is the association with the university? If that association is a large motivator for the target audience to turn to the department, you probably want to think twice before obscuring that connection.

What is your audience looking for?

Collection of Pew Research logos.The Pew Research Center provides information on American issues, attitudes and trends. Though different Pew-sponsored programs delve into a broad array of topics, a quick look at the description of each of these programs reveals that that they all provide the same service – information. The organization’s many programs would benefit from reinforcing its audience’s expectations for reliable insights and data, instead of creating distinct logos for each (see graphic).

Conversely, the fans of a university’s athletics teams are seeking entertainment, while its students in the classroom are seeking a degree. In this case, it makes sense to brand the university’s athletics and academics differently.

The sum of many parts

We’re all inclined to think that our organization, department, program, or service is unique. But, you’d be wise to carefully consider the benefits and perils of pursuing distinctly different brands before proceeding. Often it is those unique factors that work together to shape your audience’s perception of a single, solid brand.

By Claire Napier and Dan Woychick