Thursday, May 26, 2011

The myth that you are different.

There's a school of thought in not-for-profit branding that says looking inward is all there is. I recently read a new book on one of the high priestesses of this way of thinking. Her approach is simple. Get all of your  stakeholders to fall in love again with your values and mission, whip up a cool logo and a tag line and call it a day.

The advantage of course is that by going back to your roots you re-discover what makes you you. And it has obvious fringe benefit of rallying your stakeholders back to the colours -- the focus on re-living the mission takes their minds off the many troubles the organization faces here and now. The final benefit is that the process is simple...for the branding agency. They can use the same cookie cutter approach one organization after another, and it sells.

But does it work? Yes and no. Anything that brings you back to your roots is beneficial. The trip down memory lane to see what your founding fathers and mothers wanted when they started your organization is powerful. However, it is not enough. This approach creates good brands, but never great ones.

The main problem is that it leaves out the most important and pressing challenge not-for-profits face: competition. Today, the not-for-profit brand must be an external facing brand. The days of having an identity that could look inwards without a care for the outside world are over. Not-for-profits today live or die because of outside forces -- government funding, fundraising, volunteers, regulation and more. And many of the previously internal challenges that they faced, such as recruitment, are fast becoming external ones. Branding, for example, is a major force in recruitment of new staff and volunteers -- a process that these days involves a great deal of competition indeed.

The internal approach tells organizations that by just being themselves again they can succeed in an ever competitive world, and that is a lie. It assumes that each organization is different to begin with, and common sense tells us that is untrue. The vast majority of not-for-profits are very similar to others in their sector, sub-sector or niche. The cancer charity is similar to other cancer charities. The local charity, even though it may fundraise for different things than others in the community, is very similar to other local charities. You can see this very clearly in most mission and value statements. They all sound the same. The idea that not-for-profits are different is a myth. And because of that the internal approach further reinforces that sameness. So, a new brand from the folks who practice this approach could actually serve to make your organization more mediocre.

With not-for-profits facing a chorus of competition how can their lone voice be heard? The answer is to build a brand that takes the competition into account. If your town has a dozen charities, your local charity needs to have a brand that is different from the other charities. If your cancer charity looks and sounds like a dozen other cancer charities, then you need a brand that is unique amongst that group.

This process of being more external than internal is what for-profits, especially retailers, do. They realize the obvious. Competition is fierce and the only way to succeed is to stand out in the crowd. Why doesn't the not-for-profit sector do the same? There are many reasons. One is that they and the branders they hire consistently fail to appreciate the competition they face. Another is that most not-for-profits have very internally-focused communications ideas. They think "internal" and not "external" and that is why they fail.

A good example was a process I was a part of as an observer. The big not-for-profit hired a big branding company who went the "internal" route. They mostly consulted board members and senior staff to create the brand. The idea of testing it against the competition wasn't part of the process. The result was a brand that consisted of a nice logo and a tag line. It didn't move the organization forward. It didn't solve the serious marketing challenges they faced, which, in their case, was that no one knew who they were. They still have a very low national profile.

The lesson in all of this is that not-for-profit brands have to be a balance of internal and external.

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