Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

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

Are You Being True to Your Brand?

When it comes to branding an organization, having a memorable visual identity is valuable, but not as valuable as being true to the core values of the organization.

This past weekend, during the Super Bowl, there were many well-crafted and humorous ads. While fun to watch, many of the ads made me ask: Are companies simply creating entertainment, or are they effectively building their brands?

During the game, a friend recounted the plot of a favorite ad from last year’s Super Bowl, but then confessed they couldn’t remember which company the commercial was for. Advertising your organization is an opportunity to share the story and values of your brand, not just to momentarily grab attention.

This year, the commercials for Denny’s restaurants were a good example of a company using their high-profile advertising time to promote their brand, not just entertain (Watch ad here). Denny’s campaign was built around promoting an upcoming event during which they will be giving away their signature Grand Slam breakfast. As a brand built on delivering an affordable dining experience, Denny’s reinforces their core values with an offer that acknowledges their customers’ need for affordability in a struggling economy.

Too many companies that bought Super Bowl advertising time made entertainment paramount to their brand, which is fine if you’re in the business of providing entertainment. Denny’s gave consumers a chance to connect with their brand. To strengthen your brand, take advantage of every opportunity to tell your organization’s story by asking: Am I reinforcing our core values in a way that’s meaningful to our audience?

– Claire Napier

The Illusion of Control

Being a designer is as much a personality trait as it is a profession. Most designers can’t help themselves – they are compelled to do what they do. Basically, it’s an impulse to control the form and function of our own little corner of the world.

With the rise of social media, there’s great anxiety in some circles about “losing control” of the message. If employees or customers are allowed to comment at will, is the end of civilization imminent? Is branding doomed?

What this noisy newcomer to the media table has exposed is that we never really had control in the first place. Just because conversations are now happening in a public space doesn’t mean those same conversations weren’t happening in private. If you provide poor customer service, over time people will find out about it. The only difference now is the speed at which the news travels.

So, why bother?

If we have no control, aren’t all marketing efforts pointless? If a random tweet from a cranky constituent can torpedo years of carefully orchestrated plans, are we just wasting our time?

Before you begin to regret the time and money you’ve invested in graphic standards and marketing plans, consider the following statement: All products, services, and organizations are commodities – one is easily interchangeable with another of the same type. We know this is not true.

Marketing a nonprofit organization is a lot like being a parent. It is confounding and humbling to be reminded, repeatedly, that we can’t always make things (or kids) turn out exactly the way we’d like. And yet, despite our lack of control, we continue our efforts to inform and shape opinions. We know it matters.

Relax and embrace the ambiguity.

A website may pave the way to an inquiry. A chance conversation at your child’s soccer practice may lead to a referral. A customer survey may identify a previously hidden opportunity. The fact is your actions, and those of your colleagues, have more influence – if not tightly squeezed and defined control – than you imagine.

Instead of circling the wagons, use new forms of media to listen to your stakeholders. They don’t want to destroy the organization or take your job. They just want to be heard. Listening is your opportunity to influence their experience and perceptions. And having hundreds of engaged advocates is better than employing a single, controlling marketer.

Uncertainty over the outcome of your marketing efforts is not sufficient reason to abandon them. When in doubt, keep trying to do what’s right for you and your organization. That’s the one thing that is completely under your control.

The Relevance Filter

In America, we normally assume that more options will make us happier. We want it the way we want it, customized without compromise. However, anyone who has flipped through 200 television channels or tried to find just the right pair of jeans can attest, freedom of choice can be overwhelming.

Information overload
Before Gutenberg’s printing press, information was scarce. Europeans depended on priests to know what was inside of books. Today, with the rapid rise of an internet-fueled “author class,” a new revolution plays out. Content is so abundant that it has become nearly worthless, but the cost of investing our limited time and attention is high.

Amid this abundance, not all information is valued equally. With finely-tuned senses, a dog can distinguish the sound of his master’s car approaching amid competing noises. Migrating birds recognize their nesting grounds from high above. And as a method for coping with a multitude of options, we each have our own filters to distinguish what is important enough to offer our full attention and grant our precious time.

For those of us hoping to communicate effectively, the question is: How do we make it through the filters?

Consistency is not enough
For years “consistency” was considered the gold standard in branding. The path to success was paved with one clear and compelling message, repeated often, everywhere.

But today the landscape has changed. While consistency is not a bad thing, it’s no longer the most important thing. People are far more diverse and distracted and, because they expect the customization of everything from credit cards to coffee, less likely to share common experience. In this environment, delivering a single consistent message becomes both less possible and less desirable. To make a lasting impression you’ve got to hit them where it’s relevant.

Unless your market niche is incredibly narrow – like Amish beet farmers or cross-dressing mermaids – following a few basic rules will ensure your communications become more relevant.

1. Know your audience.
Even audiences that seem homogenous at first glance reveal important nuances on closer inspection. Take colleges and universities. Students are students, right? Only if you expect transfers or working adults to have the same preferences and behaviors as a seventeen-year-old overachiever. Modify your message and tactics based on who you’re trying to reach.

2. Stop broadcasting.
It’s a mindset as much as a media strategy. Most non-profits don’t have the budgets to consider a market-saturating ad blitz, but even though is a giant retailer, through the wonders of their immense database, they interact with each customer as an individual. Think engagement instead of immersion (or inundation).

3. Keep it simple.
Consider the context. Everyone you’re trying to reach is bombarded with thousands, if not millions, of messages daily. If you can’t decide what’s important enough to feature, don’t expect your audience to do it for you. The Flip, a tiny video recorder with minimal, intuitive features, virtually eliminates the need for an owner’s manual. One year after its invention, it had captured 13 percent of the camcorder market. Doing or saying one thing very well is a powerful advantage.

4. Exceed expectations.
These days, getting good customer service is so rare, invariably we tell others about it. The same thing happens if we encounter a product that delights. Your most effective message is the one delivered by somebody else – by word-of-mouth or referral. In fact, our multitude of choices is an illusion because few truly different services or products exist. Be extraordinary and give people something worth talking about.

Making your communications more relevant is the key to gaining your audience’s trust. People construct information filters because they want to trust their decisions will be good ones. They don’t want to waste their time or regret giving you their attention. By regularly delivering relevant content, you will build a reputation as a trustworthy communicator and a solid investment.


Design Your Customers’ Decisions – John Sviokla

The Brand Gap – Marty Neumeier

The Paradox of Choice – Barry Schwartz

Changes in Media Over the Past 550 YearsDavid Sasaki

57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)

As a favor to a friend, I met with the marketing folks at a small, private grade school a few weeks ago. This school’s five-year enrollment slide threatens its business model, if not its very existence. As the conversation unfolded, I was taken aback by the dizzying array of “marketing” activities the school has dabbled in over the past few years. It was apparent there had been no analysis of the relative merits of one option versus another. All were accorded equal standing: Gotta get your name out there!

This predisposition to action is as common in non-profit organizations as in corporate America. Shoot first. Ask questions later. But tactics without strategy usually amounts to a whole lot of noise signifying nothing. Or as legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put it: Never mistake activity for achievement.

Witness the headlong rush to social media – Facebook, Twitter, et al. Conveniently neglecting history (remember when TV killed radio?) the true believers assign it magical powers and the actionistas jump on board.

Don’t get me wrong. Social media has tremendous potential … as another channel of communication. And that’s the problem. For most non-profits, adding things to the marketing mix should be among the least of their worries. With budgets and staff stretched thin, “more” is rarely better and can lead to diminishing returns. Better focus – doing a few things really well for good reason – is the best way to make sure your marketing channels are worth watching.

Living the Brand

Whenever we work on a branding project, the most-anticipated moment for the client is often the “big reveal,” the creative presentation. While there’s an undeniable allure to seeing pixels or printouts mysteriously conjured out of thin air – or, better yet, some serious research – rarely is there as much excitement for the heavy lifting that follows a brand launch.

To succeed long-term, an organization must evolve from awareness, to promotion, to passionate advocacy of its brand. Sometimes referred to as “living the brand,” this involves deliberately aligning processes, systems, and employees in support of a shared promise. In other words, what you say and how you act on a daily basis has as much bearing on your organization’s success as any website or brochure.

Graph with the title "Building Brands Takes Time." The graph shows how a brand evolves through time.

Recently, I looked into donating my old car to charity. My first call was to an organization that was top-of-mind – an ad proclaimed their interest in donated cars. Doing a little research on their website, it wasn’t readily apparent what the donation would fund, but I found a phone number. Undeterred, I called to ask a few questions.

On the phone I was greeted by an operator with all the enthusiasm of a teller at the DMV. After slogging through the interrogation, she told me to call back to schedule a vehicle pick-up when I had my VIN# handy. Now, I wasn’t expecting her to gush over my generosity, but after that phone experience I decided to see who else takes cars. For that nonprofit, it was a missed branding opportunity.

The next day, on the way to the auto dealer, my car was rear-ended in traffic. Even though this needlessly complicated my intended donation, dealing with the driver’s insurance company was a pleasure. In order to process my claim, I spoke with two representatives by phone and a claims specialist in person. All were remarkably friendly, upbeat, and helpful. This doesn’t happen by chance. More likely, this company hires well, trains well, or both. It’s part of their brand.

Having told this story to a half dozen people, I can’t help but wonder: How many paid advertisements is that worth?

Because brands only exist in the minds of consumers, paying heed to the brand experience is critical. Paraphrasing the Chinese proverb: Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand. By reinforcing the brand through everything you do, non-profit organizations can shape perceptions more indelibly than with marketing materials alone.

Flying Blind

Dan's dog Buster.

About a year ago my dog almost died. Buster and I have been together for nearly 16 years. He had been as frisky as ever on a long walk the day before his near-death experience and now, many months later, he’s doing fine.

The problem I faced that day at the veterinary hospital is similar, though perhaps less emotionally charged, to ones faced by non-profit organizations on a regular basis: not enough information to adequately guide a wise decision.

How could Buster seem so healthy one day and so ill the next? What’s wrong with him? Can he be saved? And what will it cost? In a very condensed time frame, with the help of the vet, I needed to consider what little information I had and make a decision.

Unlike large corporations that spend millions on market research every year, non-profit organizations have relatively shallow pockets. However, they are well-served by acquiring as much information as possible before making decisions that affect the success of the organization: Would our stakeholders prefer to get information from us online or in print? How can we increase donations from younger demographics? Is our website as effective as it needs to be?

Sometimes decisions are made with virtually no information aside from hunches or other people’s personal anecdotes. Other times there’s paralysis caused by too much information. Either way, organizations benefit when they take the time to acquire and analyze relevant information.

Targeted market research doesn’t have to cost a fortune or take months to see results. It helps to ask the right questions — or any questions at all. Most non-profits have stakeholders ready to offer their time and insights with little or no incentive. Through facilitated focus groups or online surveys, organizations can quickly collect useful qualitative and quantitative data.

We’ve conducted website usability testing with only 5–6 subjects that resulted in significant improvements in a matter of weeks. Cost? A few thousand dollars.

Sometimes the information is right under your nose, but making sense of it is the problem. If your organization is information rich and time poor, it could be worthwhile to ask an expert to analyze the data with fresh eyes.

As a parent, as well as a dog owner, I often feel as if I’m flying blind. Most often, my course of action is trial-and-error, with only marginal confidence that what I’m doing might work. Non-profit organizations have far less margin for error. By building an organizational culture that encourages informed decision-making, your marketing efforts will be more successful the first time.