Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Favorite Links: March 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Write Your Brand’s Obituary
Harvard Business Review

How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity
Brain Pickings

Principles for Making Things for the Web
GitHub

Global Navigation is Less Useful on Large, Complex Websites
Gerry McGovern

Rogue Designers

A group of people gather inconspicuously in a public place. Participants nervously wait for their cue. And then it begins, simply at first, then building momentum as more join in. The exhilaration grows as bystanders stop and watch with surprise and delight, finally bursting into applause as the unexpected performance reaches its conclusion.

Flash mobs – with singing and dancing that transform an ordinary classroom or train station into a scene from Glee – are usually performed by volunteers, often total strangers, for nothing more than the fun of it (and repeated views on YouTube).

When it comes to design or brand standards, most organizations are looking for consistency, choreographed through manuals, training, and the occasional friendly reminder. The goal is to display admirable skill and precision that reflects well on the organization – we are good at what we do! So, why is it so damn hard to get people to use your logo correctly?

The art of conformity
At one time or another, we’ve all encountered a well-intentioned – I’m giving benefit of the doubt here – “rogue designer” in our midst. This is the sort of departmental do-it-yourselfer who might decorate the president’s official business with a clip art border of puppies, or arbitrarily change corporate colors because they were “feeling orange” that day.

In the nonprofit world, where a “big media buy” means a trip to the copy center, each impression is precious. That’s why it’s so important to get everyone voluntarily pulling in the same direction.

I recently polled a few colleagues who’ve had success managing brands to assemble some best practices for keeping aberrant design behavior to a minimum.

Ongoing communication
Developing design standards is a painstaking process, but often too much is assumed. An email is sent, a couple meetings scheduled, and some files are uploaded to the website – then we move on with our busy lives. And, so do our colleagues. It reminds me of the warden in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke admonishing his prisoners, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Less famously, Mary Ridgway, creative director at Fort Hays State University, wisely notes: “Branding isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process.” In fact, the process – planning how and when you will communicate with internal stakeholders – is as important as the product (logos, fonts, and colors). Keep in mind:

  • Transparency matters. Getting buy-in works best when people feel involved. Let them know what’s happening, how things are progressing, and ask for feedback. Start early and keep at it.
  • Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How does what you’re asking people to do make their lives more difficult or less convenient? How can you make it simpler or easier? Ideally, this is a two-way street, says Sheila Hines Edmondson, a communications consultant. Empathy helps build trust and encourages open discourse.
  • Training days. The brand launch is only the beginning, a time for handing out balloons and coffee mugs. Schedule workshops – and annual orientation sessions for new hires – to bring everyone up to speed on what the brand standards are, why they are important, and how each person has a role to play in the brand’s success.
  • It takes a village. Recruit a committee of brand champions – ambassadors who lead by example and help you reinforce the brand consistently across the organization.

Chain of command
As a child, no one ever said, “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a manager.” And certainly nobody aspires to the fresh hell of serving as a manager without authority. Brand standards won’t succeed unless there’s visible and vocal support in the executive suite. Without it, the benign paternalism of the brand manager can quickly devolve into resentment and bitter resignation.

Despite the benefits of ongoing communication, ultimately every brand needs a benevolent dictator. Allison Manley of the Chicago-based firm Rogue Element observes, “Getting buy-in from multiple voices is fine, but it’s impossible to please everyone. There must be one or two people making the final decisions, and willing to take any heat they might receive.”

Control of the purse strings is a useful policy as well, says Mary Ridgway. “If someone bypasses my approval, the purchasing department won’t pay the bill, and the rogue must pay out of their own pocket.”

Style and substance
It’s important to document the elements that define your visual brand. The style or brand guide is the foundation for everything your organization produces. These guidelines summarize the brand and illustrate components of the organization’s identity, including: key messages, examples of common print and online applications, explanation of the logo, typography, color palette, and graphic elements.

Make electronic files and templates easily available by posting them on your website. Do you really want to be the bottleneck that responds to every random logo request? However, to discourage foolishness, make those graphics and templates difficult to edit or alter.

Your aim is true
Let’s face it: designers are all kind of control freaks at heart. Accepting that some battles aren’t worth fighting or fretting over is a tough step for some. Where do you draw the line? The answer is rarely crystal clear. Accept that some of the “rogue” work is going to look fine and some is going to be horrible. Sometimes, the best you can do is to ask the offenders for future cooperation.

For most people, there’s joy and fulfillment in being part of something bigger than oneself – cheering on the home team, going to the cineplex, or gathering for Sunday services. Creating the conditions for brand success require tapping into that innate human desire to belong.

Finally, as with a flash mob, don’t underestimate the element of surprise and delight. Ongoing, involuntary drudgery inspires little brand enthusiasm. When all else fails, take the words of Chuckles the Clown  to heart: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

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

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 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

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

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.