I feel like I’ve been seeing the word “brand” more and more recently, and yet I still find that many organizations aren’t developing brands in a way that really serves their goals.
The traditional idea of a brand is in a marketing context: a type or set of products that a company sells. You know: Crest, Adidas, Johnson & Johnson, Whole Foods. Just from their name you know what these companies sell and what their products are about.
The common interpretation of brand that persists today is the visual brand – the logo, the typeface, even the tagline. These can definitely be powerful elements that convey a brand. Think of the Nike swoosh or “Just Do It.” You don’t even need the name to know what company they represent and what products that company sells. The same goes for the Starbucks mermaid, the Apple apple, and the Twitter bird. Simple images that tell you the company name and its products.
A lot of organizations think a brand is just the visual part. They think branding is a marketing tool and they focus on creating a logo to improve visibility and recognition. They are so worried about the look of their logo that they forget the image is just a shorthand representation of their organization. The image only works because it stands for something else. The Starbucks mermaid doesn’t just stand for lattes and frappuccinos. It also stands for the cafe environment – a warm, cozy place to hang out or meet up or do some work – and the experience of drinking your coffee there. The Apple logo doesn’t just stand for iPhones and MacBooks. It stands for cool, beauty, quality, and value, and the prestige of being an Apple product user. The Twitter bird doesn’t just stand for a messaging service. It stands for a trendy, quick, easy way of staying in touch and staying informed, and the status that goes with having a lot of followers.
And that is what a brand is about: the experience you create. For your constituents, for your donors, for your volunteers, and even for your employees and Board members. Because the experience you create is reflective of who you are. Not just the work you do, but your personality, your values, and the unique value you offer to others.
At the end of the day, your brand stems from who you are as an organization. When an organization that doesn’t have a concrete mission, an inspiring vision, a clear strategy, a cohesive staff, or articulate messaging doesn’t have a strong brand, they shouldn’t be surprised. It doesn’t matter what cool image you put in front of someone. If it isn’t clear what it stands for, why would anyone remember it, let alone care about it? The logo is just an image. The meaning behind that image is made up of so much more.
If you want to create a strong external brand for your organization, you have to look inward. What is the essence of your organization? Who are you as an institution? What are your values and personality? What experience do you create for those you encounter? And what unique value do you offer others?
A brand can be a powerful way to garner support and advance your mission, but to create such a brand you have to go beyond appearances.