Saturday, April 30, 2011

A logo is a brand like a tire is a car

I've recently seen several non-profits make the mistake that getting a new logo amounts to getting a new brand. Their lack of knowledge about what a brand really IS not only makes me scratch my head, it also undoubtedly will not give them very much value. Here's why.

A logo is to a brand like tires are to a car. The logo, like tires, is the place of first contact -- it it where the rubber meets the road. The entire power of the car is channelled through its tires. You could say that the logo has a similar function for brands -- it is where brands channel their power. You couldn't have a car without  tires, and likewise, you can't have a brand without a logo.

But the real question is whether tires are the car. The answer is obviously no. Cars are more than just tires. And, tires are interchangeable. The car's identity can still remain there same even if the tires are different. In other words, tires are an important part of the car, but they are not all.

The same thing is true of the logo. It is certainly an important part of the brand, but it is not the brand itself. A brand is more than a picture.

It's not surprising that many people think that an image is a brand. That's because we usually identify brands by the way they look, like the Nike logo. We often don't read what words beneath it -- "just do it". But is the Nike logo everything to their brand? Think about this. Could Nike slap it's logo on just about anything and still be Nike? Sure, for footwear. But what if it was hamburgers or a candy bar? We don't have to be brand experts to know that those would not gel with Nike's image. And what about Nike's award-winning ads about athletes. What if they used ads of overweight adults wearing athletic gear eating chips on a sofa watching TV? Not a fit, either. So, the image does not define the brand all by itself. The brand is more.

The problem for most non-profits is that very often they don't know what the "more" is. Their communications people are often unable to tell them because they lack marketing skills and experience. And so the logo becomes the brand by default.

A brand is really your identity. It says who you are, what you stand for and how you want people to see you. Your logo is the face of that identity. But a brand is also your boilerplate description, your values, a guide for your ads and your website, your key messages, your key audiences and more. As well, a brand is about strategy. It is the place to say how, where and in what manner you will use your identity -- in images, in words, in events, in everything. In short, your brand is the communications bible for your non-profit. It is the centre of all your marketing.

Tell that to a small town in the Maritimes I saw recently who put out an RFP for a "re-branding". They wanted to spend a few thousand dollars to buy a new logo and slap it on their letterhead. Is that branding? Yes, in it's crudest, lowest, least effective way. The results will be equal to the approach -- they will only be skin deep.

So, next time someone tells you that a logo is a brand remind them what their car rides upon.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cutbacks and Non-profit Marketing

The word is out. In the UK, in the US and, likely, here in Canada, governments are thinking about cutting their support for the non-profit sector. Already, in the UK, the Big Society initiative is downloading government services to the Third Sector. As a result, many non-profits are under stress, some are laying off people and others are closing. In the US, many state governments are also cutting back. And at home, speakers at this week's Ontario Nonprofit Network "Unconference" predicted provincial governments will begin to do the same here. For those non-profits that rely on government funding (which is the majority of the sector), times are about to get a lot tougher.

Where does this leave non-profit marketing and communications?

Many will be quick to write-off marketing because of this. Non-profit marketing has always been underfunded. Worse, as I wrote in a previous blog about marketing budgets, cutting marketing programs to balance the books has been a consistent theme for non-profits in the last several decades. If the sector follows its traditional pattern then non-profit marketing is about to get a close hair cut.

However, before sector leaders begin to sharpen their axes, let me make a plea for more marketing, not less.

Cuts in government funding will mean more competition than ever for most non-profits. More organizations will be fighting for fewer dollars. Those with a poor profile will be left behind. At the same time, managing how the government makes cuts will be a key issue -- lobbying politicians, rallying the sector, engaging stakeholders and the public to lobby for fairness. That requires communications power and the ability to project it. It also assumes a certain level of continued engagement with staff and key stakeholder leaders. That requires marketing muscle, too. When budgets are cut, non-profits will need to look to other sources of funding. In some cases, that will mean fundraising. And that requires good marketing as well. Finally, whatever happens when the cuts come down communicating change will be a critical factor to success. Having an efficient communications program will be essential.

So, should your non-profit spend more on marketing and communications to deal with government budget cuts? Perhaps the answer is that it should be smart about it spending.

Most non-profit communications shops arre already badly funded and have a host of skills and infrastructure gaps. Going into the cuts, these will have to be fixed. It might mean spending more, or even spending less. But now is the time to make marketing and communications the best they can be. If not, when the cuts come, you won't be able to respond.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The "In and Out" scandal in public sector communications

You might think this blog is all about Canadian politics, but the "in and out" scandal I'm talking about isn't the one where the Harper government was found to be in contempt of Parliament. Rather, it is the issue of how public sector institutions handle their communications. They are simply ignoring external audiences in favour of internal ones. In other words, they are "In" and not "Out" in how they communicate. To me, that's a scandal.

To be sure, not every public institution is like this. There are many that serve their external audiences very well. But many, especially in the health care sector, need to be scolded for devoting too much effort on internal audiences at the expense of external ones. They spend so much effort on their internal publications and their intranet that their focus is mostly on their own people. True, they do look outside their institutions, but when they do it is mostly through "reactive" media releases or writing free articles for a local newspaper that no one except themselves ever reads. Perhaps the zenith of their external push is their website, but here, too, they do not push too hard. If people come to their websites, they come. If they don't, they don't. End of story. Some of them still don't even measure how many people visit their web pages. I think that says it all.

Why do they do that?  Well, for one reason, reaching the internal audience is the usually the most pressing issue in their portfolio. Cutbacks, layoffs, changes in the workplace, capital redevelopment -- all must be addressed by the communications people. But frankly, these groups are also the lowest hanging fruit. They are relatively easy to find and addressing their issues makes the communications shop look effective. Things like media releases can also give people the appearance that the institution is communicating externally, even though most media relations programs deliver lukewarm results at best.

The problem is that public sector institutions serve the public, not themselves. External audiences are tougher to find, tougher to engage, but they are the people who can actually make a difference in the long-term health of the institution. Without a supportive public, the mission of the public sector will always be troubled.

Part of the problem is a lack of skills and resources. Most public sector communicators are good at playing the internal game. It's what they know. And they excel at cranking out media releases -- a no-brainer skill if ever there was one. Do they know how to do anything different, like reach out to the public in a proactive way? For many, the answer is no. Worse, many of them aren't interested in innovation. So, new ideas on how to use technology, such as social media, to explain the institution to the public, is beyond them.

Resources are tight for most of them, and this is often used as an excuse for inaction on the external file. But reaching external audiences doesn't have to be expensive. Establishing an outreach program for schools and local political and social service leaders wouldn't cost much except in time. Giving a high school class or a city council a tour of a new surgery room would do more to explain health care to the public than a hundred internal newsletters. Getting institution leaders out into the public to meet business leaders or rotary clubs on a  regular basis would cost peanuts, but it would be more effective than a website no one ever goes to.

The place to start is by asking a simple question: what do external audiences know about us? If the answer is "not much", then the external audience isn't getting its due.

Smart ideas exist for making public institutions more public friendly. It's a scandal that too many public sector organization's won't do anything about it.