Put More "Faith" in Your Brand - A Christian Tale

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This is the tale of two of my favorite American charities. One founded by a Presbyterian minister, the other a Catholic Priest. One organization is non-sectarian, the other interdenominational. Both promote long-term sustainable solutions to break the cycle of poverty. Both are child welfare organizations – one helping children from all around the world, one in a specific region of the United States. Both were Christian organizations…that is until both underwent major transformations that more clearly defined how faith-based they really were. 

Two years ago, one of these organizations changed its name. It did so to broaden outreach, provide better brand recognition and raise more money from individual and corporate donors. While it shed its religious teachings several decades ago; its mission stayed the same and the organization felt Christians would unite to help people of other faiths. In making this bold move, the charity was putting great faith in its brand experience, as opposed to its brand name.  

Donors didn’t take the news of the name change well, and neither did charitable watchdog groups, such as They felt the name change suggested the organization no longer wished to be a Christian charity. As a result, the watchdog groups vowed to find new Christian charities to which “Christians” could contribute. Others felt misled – “I'd always thought that they were teaching the kids Christianity. Looks like I was wrong.”

While this transformation was occurring, another one was taking shape within the other charity. The difference, however, is that the second faith-based charity was actually strengthening its position within the Christian marketplace. In fact, it wanted all of America to know it was doing “God’s Work” – helping children, elderly and poverty-stricken families in a certain impoverished region of America. And above all else, the charity intended to “live out and promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ through all their actions.” 

The second charity was also putting more faith in its brand, but unlike the first charity, this one was putting more (not less) faith in the Christian aspect of its brand – both in awareness and experience. The organization’s growth strategy is to build stronger relationships and capture a larger share of the global Christian donor market. It also intended to become an extension of the donor/prospect’s daily religious experience – and in doing so, it will facilitate more loyal and compassionate relationships with supporters.      

My experience strongly supports the notion that Christian charities that put greater faith in their brand experience will reap great rewards. Being a faithful giving organization means that you genuinely put your “faith” at the forefront of your value proposition. It means seeking and bringing together people who share in your beliefs and mission. And it means establishing a culture of genuine Christian interactions and experiences. It does not mandate that you be Christian just in name, but also in action.  

There is no doubt that both organizations – who by the way are among my most favorite charities – will continue being successful, largely because they have created an environment of trust, belief and confidence. The organization that is able to foster a multi-dimensional culture that unites people under a common umbrella, who will in turn become evangelists for the organization, will achieve the greatest long-term success. Which one will that be? Perhaps the one who puts more “faith” in its brand!

-Greg Fox

Greg is the Chief Strategy Officer of Merkle’s nonprofit vertical.   He chooses to Do What Matters because to quote Vince Lombardi, “Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.”

Social Signature - What does your brand say?

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate...

I recently met a fella who maps CEO’s speeches to evaluate communication competency.  He calls it Executive Social Signatures, and I found it fascinating. 

His scientific model is based on a communication exchange that requires audience understanding and emotional engagement, and results in social action.  

His point is that many CEOs, once they reach that position, communicate poorly by staying primarily within their corporate role and failing to engage audiences at an individual level.  His belief is that branding is becoming more personal due to social media and it requires personal relationships in order to build trust, credibility and loyalty.

His goal is to help speakers communicate more effectively because people that engage audiences can drive action. (To learn more, check out Larry Petcovic’s blog.)

So what does this is have to do with donors and fundraising? Frankly, a lot, because much of what is mailed within our industry it is about the organization and not the donor and can’t ever be described as truly compelling; e.g., Our Annual Fund appeal is the most important campaign of the year.

Our job is to get donors to take personal action and to influence others.

Connect the dots so they can understand what their money can accomplish because they chose your organization as a change agent.


Make it personal. “What began as a promise to my dying sister has become…."


Make it authentic. “Sometimes the best way to get something done is to go out there and stand up for what you believe in…."


Make it credible. “The key to our ability to act independently in response to a crisis is our independent funding…”


Make it important. “Your gifts of prayer and financial support are an investment -- an investment that will be repaid many times over by the thousands of lives changed each day…"


Make it compelling. “We need nets. Not hoop nets, soccer nets or lacrosse nets. Not New Jersey Nets or dot-nets or clarinets. Mosquito nets." (Rick Reilly, SI) …. “With a $10 contribution, anyone – from CEOs to youth, professional athletes to faith leaders – can join the global fight against malaria by sending a net and saving a life…"


Remember, everything you do is part of your brand’s footprint.


-Becky Graninger


P.S. Can you identify the organizations? (Komen, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders, The Salvation Army, Nothing But Nets Campaign)       

Branding is dead, more or less

Here's someone else saying branding is dead, this time at ClickZ: Branding Today: Why It's Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent. Here's the main point:

Branding that involves made-up claims and fanciful brand smells, colors, or auras has been rendered completely impotent by the habits and expectations of modern consumers. What should an advertiser do in this Darwinian new world of empowered consumers? First, make a kick-ass product. Second, make a kick-ass product. Third, repeat one and two ....

What's a kick-ass product if you're a nonprofit? It's changing the world in a specific way that your supporters understand, love, and tell everyone they know about. For some organizations, that's just a matter of packaging. For others, it would take fundamental organizational changes to achieve "kick-ass" status.

But all the identity standards in the world won't move anyone one bit closer to that.

If I had a limited budget (as I do, and so do you), I'd spend it on my product, not my identity standards. I might start thinking about identity standards after I'd nailed that part.

(It's worth noting that the Neuromarketing blog has an interesting counterpoint to the ClickZ article: Is Branding Dead? Our Brains Say No!)

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Branding attempts to hide the obvious truth in hurting city

Can a spiffy new brand hide the fact that you've got problems?

Don't count on it.

Take the sad story of Providence, RI, a city riddled with crime, corruption, unemployment, and foreclosures. Seems they thought a new brand would help people overlook the obvious and start revitalizing the city. They hired a branding agency (ironically from a different -- apparently more creative -- city), who gave them the puzzling tagline, "Creative Capital," along with some fancy design work. (Read more in The Wall Street Journal: In Hard Times, Rhode Island's Capital Hopes New Slogan Proves Providential).

It's just a matter of time before Providence is the clean, bustling, healthy city it needs to be in order to revitalize, right?

Yeah, right. All you have to do is visit the city to see that the image is a demented fantasy in the shadow of reality. Other than lightening their budget of the $100,000 the effort cost, it changed nothing at all.

As the Dim Bulb blog points out at Navel Gazing ...

Image is a nice-to-have, at best, but it usually tracks with the actual truth it purports to label. No amount of imaginative branding can change a depressed, failing city or town. It's a hard secret to keep.

Many nonprofits take the same bait that Providence took: They want more market share, more respect, more revenue. But their reality, their ordinariness, their lack of vision, scandals in their past -- whatever else -- mean they're stuck. And staying stuck until something changes.

Then along come the Brand Shamans who say there's easier way: Don't change the broken reality -- create a different perception of reality! So they whip up a new brand.

And it works about as well as it did for Providence.

It seems anyone can fall for the branding snake oil that promises cool design and clever slogans are going to supersede reality.

Doesn't work that way.

Fix your reality. It's a lot harder to do, but it's the only thing that works.

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How to waste your marketing dollars

Are you spending scarce dollars "marketing" your organization's image but not giving people the opportunity to take action with and for you?

You aren't alone. And it's time to reconsider. An article in Response magazine makes the case for action-oriented marketing: Branding Is Dead. The point is focused on commercial advertising, which has largely abdicated the role of directly promoting sales in favor of a complex of vague, unmeasureable goals that all come under the umbrella of "branding":

The job of advertising is not to entertain. Or to be clever. Or even to make friends, although no marketer wants to alienate the customer. While some of these approaches may be used to engage consumers, such tactics are meaningless unless they cause someone to take action.

This applies to us too. While corporations that are foolishly spending on pointless marketing are merely being financially irresponsible, when a nonprofit does it, it's a betrayal of the mission -- the reason the organization exists, and (one could argue) a violation of their 501(c)3 status.

Not all advertising is a waste. Some forms a very important part of moving people toward sales, and it does it very well and cost-effectively, even if it's not direct-response advertising. It's part of the larger strategy where direct response messages close the deal.

Marketing is difficult and expensive. Your time and your budget are limited. Don't waste either one going no where.

Thanks to Ted Grigg's Reflections about Direct Marketing for the tip.

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Is your brand real or ideal?

According to Plato, the world as we perceive it is only a shadow of a higher ideal reality. Our world is just "shadows on the wall" -- vague, inferior echoes of the Real Thing.


It seems some fundraisers agree. Tell me if you've heard this statement: Effective fundraising might raise us a lot of revenue, but it damages our brand.

Apparently, it means something like this: Some of the things we do to motivate people to give seem to be less than the platonic ideal of who we are. Or, even more bluntly: Our brand standards are so cool -- why can't our fundraising be like that?

You can agree or disagree with Plato's belief about the nature of reality, but if you have a platonic view of your nonprofit brand, you're choosing image over mission, or abstraction over reality. Here's why:

  • Effective fundraising tends to be simple, urgent, emotional, often old-fashioned. It's seldom pretty (sometimes it's flat-out ugly), and it's almost never cool.
  • Brand standards tend to be smart, stylish, happy -- things of beauty and purity.
  • The more you do of one, the less you do of the other.

If you're separating your brand ideal from your ability to raise money, you're living in a solipsistic bubble. What you do is what you are. If that includes raising a meaningful amount of funds from the public, that means fundraising.

Fundraising is the way it is for a number of reasons.

  • Fundraising targets older (that is, unfashionable) people. That's who gives, and if you want to reach them, like anyone else, you have to speak their language.
  • Fundraising targets the heart more than the mind. The motivation to give is an emotional one.
  • Fundraising is (and should be) accountable for measurable, real-world monetary outcomes. That gives it a no-nonsense attitude and a healthy ability to avoid BS.

A strong, well-defined brand is a huge asset. It's worth putting real effort into. But if the brand gets in the way of real-world fundraising -- it's going to hurt you. Define your brand carefully.

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The truth: what a concept

To hear some branding experts talk, a "brand" is something you can cook up like a stew and bestow it on an organization. In fact, that's the assumption behind most branding agencies. They claim they can "create a brand" for you.

That's not how a brand works. In fact, that business model amounts to being paid to tell lies. Maybe they're just little white lies or exaggerations or spin. But they aren't the truth.

That's what Brands Create Customers says about certain branding efforts: Some brands are "all hat, no cattle":

The best brand strategy is not just to tell the truth; it's to be the truth. Being the truth means that you have a core connection with customers that can accelerate both of you forward, beyond the shallow half-truths that condemn too many companies and their customers to perpetual mediocrity.

Nobody cares about your great color palette. Nobody gives a rip about your spiffy font. Your logo? Meh. Those things make very little difference in your ability to motivate people to join your cause and give you money.

Furthermore, nobody is into your inspiring creation story. Or the amazing way you pulled through a crisis that almost put you under. Those things matter because they inspire staff and other insiders -- but to pretty much everybody else, it's just noise.

Most of all, nobody -- and I really mean nobody -- wants to hear nor is likely to believe the made-up fakery that some branding consists of.

Your brand is what you really are. Not the cool story you can cook up.

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Graphic standards do not create a brand

I wish "branding experts" would read the Freaking Marketing blog, especially this post: Marketers Don't Know the Meaning of Branding.

What many nonprofits and companies call "brand guidelines are actually just graphic design guidelines. When that happens, you miss the point:

Real brand-building involves much more than graphics.

It's the product. Service. Guarantee. Employees. Customers. Stores. Offices. Values. Culture. Charitable giving. And yes, advertising.

... when a book of "brand guidelines" inhibits innovation, differentiation ... I suggest you throw it out and start over.

So many nonprofit branding efforts make this deadly double error: Instead of defining their brand, they button down their graphic standards, and doing so, they put their communications in a box. On top of that, many add the third error of having graphic standards that are unemotional and/or unreadable.

In the comments to the Freaking Marketing post, there's a great quote from the book Rivers of Revenue: What to Do When the Money Stops Flowing by Kristin Zhivago: "Your brand is the promise you keep, not the one you make."

You should consider tattooing that on your forearm.

If you have a great brand, your graphic standards hardly matter. And graphic standards, no matter how cool they care, do not move you one inch toward having a great brand.

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The power and importance of your logo

Great advice from Seth, at Your brand is not your logo:

Smart marketers understand that a new logo can't possibly increase your market share, and they know that an expensive logo doesn't defeat a cheap logo. ... take the time and money and effort you'd put into an expensive logo and put them into creating a product and experience and story that people remember instead.

Amen! You can spend a lot on creating a logo, or you can get your nephew to do it on the cheap. Either way, what you end up with isn't all that important.

What you do is what matters. Does it excite donors? Does it make them tell their friends? Do they talk about it on their blogs or MySpace pages? Figure that out, and you won't have to worry about your logo.

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When marketing and truth collide

Maybe you've seen this ATT ad. What's the problem here?

According to Greg Verdino's blog, it's the plain unbelievability of what they're claiming: Incredible? I'd settle for credible.

They claim wireless access on a remote desert island. But in the real world, you can't pick up your ATT signal in the middle of urban centers in America. Instead of being inspiring, as the ad is meant to be, it makes you hate ATT even more.

... there is no shortage of instances when actual product experience simply cannot live up to the promises made in advertising. ... makes me wonder what (at a time when consumers seem to prize corporate authenticity and transparency more than ever before) companies think they have to gain by making incredible claims?

Is your fundraising like that?

Does the real world match up to what your fundraising or marketing says? If it doesn't, your marketing could be doing a lot more damage than good.

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Is the Red Cross losing its cool?

Is the Red Cross becoming uncool?

I know it sounds like an idle question, but it could start to matter. To the Red Cross, as well as other top-brand nonprofits.

Check out this post at Personal Democracy Forum: Really, Give to the Red Cross?, which takes the Obama campaign to task for directing its supporters to donate to the Red Cross during the recent hurricane threats:

Supporting the Red Cross is like supporting General Motors -- they're both large, unwieldy bureaucracies that are way past their prime and need to get their acts together and stop depending on the Feds to do it for them.

That's not a completely fair description of the Red Cross. But it you have to wonder: Does the Red Cross seem like a lumbering, ineffective dinosaur? That's a different question from "Is the Red Cross a lumbering, ineffective dinosaur?" -- because its about perception, not reality. And while perception and reality are linked, perception has more impact.

The long string of organizational woes and scandals that have swirled around that venerable organization may be coming home to roost in the form of people just not liking them. That could start to hurt fundraising efforts in a very big way.

Reality check: When disasters happen, most Americans automatically think Red Cross. It's going to take a long time and a lot more missteps to change that.

But if a new generation is not proud to be associated with the Red Cross, they'll find other places to give. If the Red Cross was my client, I'd be spending a lot of my energy thinking how to turn that around. Because once you lose your coolness, you can't really get it back.

Thanks to Tactical Philanthropy for the tip.

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They're coming to take you away, ha-haaa!

Take this as a warning. Ad agencies are starting to notice nonprofits. I know, because I've been spying on them. Here's evidence, intercepted from one of their covert industry blogs, the Small Agency Diary, an Ad Age blog: 'Do-Gooders' Are Brands Too.

It seems, this blog muses, that nonprofits desperately need the ministrations of the brilliant ad agency world, but they so often just don't get it:

Nonprofits don't have the guts (or willingness) to break from the pack. The work is formulaic. And as organizations go, many struggle with the fact that marketing is seen as a dirty world in the nonprofit sector, a necessary evil that no one admits spending too much money or time on. To nonprofits, agencies don't "get" the intricate nature of their brands. Their ideas are too risky for conservative audiences. "Our work and creative strategy is formulaic, and it's always worked for us before," they seem to say.

But -- joy of joys, they note -- many nonprofits are starting to spend big money on marketing. And that's catching the attention of ad agencies, who can make some money and win some awards with nonprofit clients.

They just have to train us to accept their way of thinking. Which is that you're out of it unless you're edgy, unusual, and clever. Being hard to read is just not a problem. And if your audience doesn't get your joke, well, they're just lame.

So be ready to hear from ad agency types who will work hard to de-program you from your unfashionable need to communicate clearly and actually motivate people to take specific actions like writing checks. They have a much more glamorous future in mind for you. It's going to cost you, but you'll really love those awards shows.

More on this topic: Why advertising is so bad and the ever-popular Stupid nonprofit ads.

Thanks to The Raiser's Razor for the tip.

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New Oxfam brand: vacation from the real world

It looks like the brand shamans are at work again. This time, they got their hands on Oxfam Great Britain. With typical results.

The Intelligent Giving blog takes a look at it in Hooray for Oxfam! I'm not exactly saying hooray about this bizarre travesty.

First, I should say I admire the fact that they opened up their "new look" to comments at New-look Oxfam - tell us what you think!. Here's where you see first-hand that everyone is an expert. And while I'd rather have people talking about what a nonprofit does than how they look, engagement is good. Another thing they've done that I think quite nice is a sort of tagline they use here and there: Get rich quick. Give. Brilliant, really. Donor-centered and true.

Now the ugly stuff. They've fallen into a couple of typical errors that seem to be endemic among newly branded nonprofits:

1. Hard-to-read design

Like so many others new brands, Oxfam's has chosen to favor a saturated color palette, especially colored type over colored backgrounds.

Special note to Branding Design Wizards: That's hard to read. It's hard to read in print; it's hard to read online. And what's hard to read doesn't get read.

Please -- have mercy on bifocal-wearing duffers like myself (and everyone else, really) by sticking to the design basics. The purpose of design is to enhance and clarify the message, not to obscure it by making it hard to read.

Why do the Brand Shamans always do this? Did they all go to the same Bad Design School? Or have they been told "nobody reads anyway," so you might as well design for looks without reference to readability? Or are they hiding something?

2. Reducing the message to abstractions

What's the deal? Oxfam does all kinds of very cool, very specific things to fight hunger and poverty. But when it comes to messaging, the new brand wants to reduce it all to symbolic actions against symbolic problems.

This isn't unique to Oxfam's new brand. It happens nearly every time the Brand Geniuses touch a nonprofit brand. You'd think they're allergic to reality.


A freakish example of the abstractionism at work is a TV spot created for the new Oxfam brand (you can see it here on YouTube if you want a laugh).

In the real world, donors give actual money in real amounts to help organizations do real things that have actual outcomes in the lives of real people. In Oxfam's new brand world, people vomit white stuff at animated conceptual words like "injustice," and this is how the world becomes a better place -- or at least one covered with rainbows. (I'm not being silly -- that's what you see in the ad.)

Maybe the urge toward unreadable design and the urge to make the message abstract are facets of the same problem: They don't like the real world. They want to hide it.

Maybe that feels good to some people. But it's not going to motivate actual donors.

So if the Brand Shamans come sniffing around, offering a super-cool new brand -- just say no!

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Darfur babies victimize famous designer

Here's one of those blogosphere storms, nicely summed up at Web Strategy by Jeremiah in Louis Vuitton gets Brand-Jacked, Collateral Damage in Anti-Genocide Campaign.


Seems an artist named Nadia Plesner created this image to make an obscure point about Darfur. Then, stupidly, Louis Vuitton sued her for misusing their brand.

The point, apparently, is that Paris Hilton types get a lot of media exposure, while the suffering masses in Darfur don't. So let's show a starving child with Paris Hilton accessories. The point being ... well ... it seems trenchant and edgy, anyhow.

This is just an artist expressing her opinion, not a nonprofit trying to motivate anyone to action, so it's technically not a stupid nonprofit ad. But it's exactly the type of thing some nonprofits love to do: complex visual meta-metaphors that, should you take the trouble to analyze them, tell you you're a dolt for not thinking they way they do.

The other lesson from this situation -- the one that's got all the blogs going -- is what should Louis Vuitton do when someone hijacks their brand?

Well, one thing they shouldn't do for sure is sue an artist who's trying to stand up for starving babies. Because now it looks like International Fashion Designer vs. Starving Babies. Yeah, that really keeps their precious brand intact.

Vuitton could have joined in and turned the noise in their favor. But the brand cops just don't get it, and think they can wield total control over what people say in a world where anyone can talk to almost anyone.

Similar things can happen to nonprofit brand. (A fun recent example is this video from The Onion: Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation With Wish For Unlimited Wishes.)

You can ignore it. Or you can join the party and grab some of the attention. But don't sue. It makes you look like an idiot. And it doesn't stop the talk.

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How to be a strong nonprofit brand

At the Harvard Business discussion site, business consultant Umair Haque takes a look at The Shrinking Advantage of Brands and notes that the most powerful brand in the world is not a big spender like Coca-Cola or IBM, but Google, a company that essentially spends nothing on advertising.

The reason: with the web as the medium, people can talk about a brand on their own, and their talk is more pervasive and persuasive than billions of dollars worth of great ads:

... when interaction is cheap, the very economic rationale for orthodox brands actually begins to implode: information about expected costs and benefits doesn't have to be compressed into logos, slogans, ad-spots or column-inches -- instead, consumers can debate and discuss expected costs and benefits in incredibly rich detail.

Really, who are you more likely to believe -- real people like yourself who will tell you what they know without spin, or paid marketing creatives forced to follow brand guidelines that may have little to do with reality?

Used to be companies could shape the way people think about them if they bought enough advertising; what they said about their brand was pretty much what people believed it to be.

Not any more. If you want to have a powerful brand, you need to do something very cool, very useful, and very worth talking about. A branding consultant or ad agency can't get you there!

If you aren't satisfied with the status of your brand, you need to look at the heart of your organization. Are you doing something that really breaks through the clutter and allows donors to do something great?

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Advertising can't buy me love

The things people think they can buy. Ron Shevlin's Marketing Whims, at You Cannot Advertise Your Way To Greatness, tells the crack-up story of a chief marketing officer who grandly announced that he wanted the next advertising campaign to make is company an iconic brand that people love.

Say what? As Ron points out, you can't just decide to be an "iconic brand." Only your customers can make you that:

Nobody cares who you are. To become an iconic brand that people love, it takes a lot more than a new ad campaign. You cannot advertise your way to greatness.

It's a common delusion in brand advertising: That you can -- through superior creativity, some elbow grease, and a lot of media spending -- become loved and admired.

Maybe it used to be possible. Back when there weren't very many brands, there was no easy way to find out what other people beyond your immediate social circle were experiencing, and the average person had a pretty weak BS-filter. Now, people see right through your claims, and can find out the real truth in a few minutes online.

The only way to get people to love you is to be consistently lovable, and to do something worth talking about. And the only way to be "iconic" is to stay that way for a long time. Advertising hardly helps at all. And when it reeks of BS, it only makes things worse.

So take that creativity and money you might have spent on advertising, and use it to actually become great. Then you won't need advertising.

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How to build a better brand

Need more from your brand? Here are some thoughts from Online Spin: 10 Principles To Inspire Your Brand (And Maybe Save It). People are demanding more from the brands they interact with:

People now are smarter, less forgiving and expect brands to rise to a higher standard. For most companies, this is far from where they stand today.

The ten principles:

  1. Transparency
  2. Authenticity
  3. Humility
  4. Simplicity
  5. Inspiring
  6. Personality
  7. Stories
  8. Consistency
  9. Flexibility
  10. Receptivity

(Read the article. The explanations are worth the visit.)

Note that words like bold, innovative, and cutting-edge aren't on this list. Instead, these are relational words. Because a good brand isn't' about how cool you are, but about how well you fit in to your donors' lives. The things that make a good friend are often the things that make a good brand.

Thanks to Seachange Strategies for the tip.

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Create experiences for donors

A commodity is something that's the same, no matter where you get it. There's a good chance your fundraising is a commodity -- meaning there's little reason a donor should choose you over another organization in the same sector.

How do you get out of that situation? A blog called A Beautiful Experience has some thoughts in Go online and decommodify yourself.

The point is this: You can use the media-rich and interactive capabilities of the Internet to help customers find meaning and give them experiences:

The ONE thing you need to know about your online experience is that it is NOT about YOU -- it's about THEM. Have a conversation with your customers/prospects, don't talk at them.

Now if this is true about selling (and it is), how much more important is it in fundraising? Our "customers" walk away with nothing but a receipt -- and whatever meaning and experience they derive from making their gift.

They're going to supply much of the meaning themselves. But you can really enrich the experience. Here's how:

More choice about how their money goes to work.

More information about what happens when they give.

More connection with the cause.

It's that simple!

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Stop trying to be cool -- it makes you look like a geek

Let's face it: A lot of nonprofits are a bit corny, wonky, churchy, or nerdy. Many are well aware of this and struggling mightily to change what they see as an outdated or unattractive image. They'd love to be more cool.

They should think again.

The Duct Tape Marketing blog takes aim at the need for coolness in Coolness is optional, authenticity is not:

If authentic is conservative, embrace it, if authentic is wild and edgy, go for it, if authentic is cheesy, go full on cheddar.... Stop worrying about what everyone else in your industry is doing and dig down and discover what feels authentic to you about your business and get very, very passionate about that. Do that and the right people will find you.

When you are what you are, you'll be "cool" -- but not to everyone. To some, you'll be strange, or irrelevant, or nerdy, or even evil. Don't worry about it. Authenticity is rare. And attractive.

So go for it. Be real. Forget cool.

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Nonprofit brands should be democratic

The always-worthwhile Brands Create Customers blog takes a good look at the way companies use their brands at Some brands go medieval on their customers:

The medieval style of brands ... wants to freeze time, and to freeze customers in place.... In the medieval model, a brand that might become a joint (customer) venture with a live edge is reduced to a steady stream of preachments from on high, into a confined, compressed 2-D space without perspective or horizons -- with no place for customers to grow.

The top-down hierarchical brand just isn't going to persuade. People have too many choices to make that acceptable or interesting.

Does your nonprofit have the illusion that their way of thinking is the only possible way? That you control your donors' perceptions and experiences?

You don't. You barely even influence how they see things.

You'll make a bigger difference when you enter their world and speak to their needs, aspirations, and beliefs than you will be trying to force them to join your world.

Like it or not, democracy is now the way people think. We don't control them.

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Research uncovers startling truth: people don't like ads

Should we laugh or cry? A recent study says people don't respect the advertising industry. You can read about it in Adotas, a publication that covers interactive advertising: Survey Says: Ad Industry Needs Image Overhaul.

The study, called “Ad Industry Perception Survey,” was commissioned by giant ad agency JWT and industry publication Adweek. Here's some of what their survey subjects told them:

  • 84% agreed that "Too many things are over-hyped now."
  • 72% said "I get tired of people trying to grab my attention and sell me stuff."
  • 61% said advertising isn't persuasive.
  • 52% said "There's too much advertising -- I would support stricter limits."
  • 47% called advertising "background noise."

And, shock of all shocks, advertising industry people are low on the respect scale! Gasp! Only national politicians and car salesmen rate lower.

Most telling of all is the headline of the Adotas report: Ad Industry Needs Image Overhaul.

Excuse me? How about Ad Industry Needs to Do Better Work.

If they'd pull their heads out of their award-winning rears, they'd see that their problem isn't an image problem; it's a quality problem. Advertising (most of it) isn't persuasive. It really is over-hype and background noise. Not always, of course, but more often than not.

Why bring this up in a blog that's about fundraising? Because these ad industry pariahs want to work with you. They'd really love to win an award or two on your dime, because that would make them seem like socially conscious do-gooders.

(Want evidence of what they do when they get their hands on nonprofits? Check out the "Stupid Nonprofit Ads" series: Stupid nonprofit ads, Another stupid nonprofit ad, More stupid nonprofit ads, and Return of stupid nonprofit ads.)

Unless you don't mind wasting time and money, and you don't mind joining the third least-respected group in America, just say no!

Thanks to Jaffe Juice for the tip.

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Are your service reps helping or hurting you?

A post at the CustomersAreAlways blog takes a sharp-eyed look at the importance of customer service reps. The Frontline of Customer Service: Personal Brands notes:

In the customer's eyes, these servicers are the company itself.... They are the main contact point for which a transaction occurs. When a customer remembers dealing with company XYZ, they quickly transition to the customer service representative they dealt with ....

If the people your donors reach when they contact you are incompetent, bored, annoyed, or ticked off -- it's going to show. At best, the donor will have a flat, uninspiring encounter with the organization. At worst, they'll be totally turned off. How many times can you afford that happening? How many donors do you not mind losing?

Ask yourself these questions about your donor service people:

  • Are their working conditions and pay decent enough to keep a normal person around for a while?
  • Are they well trained?
  • Do they really get your organizations mission? Are they passionate and knowledgeable?
  • Are you being held hostage by competent but sour employees, letting them torpedo your brand because you're afraid you can't live without them?

These are important questions, because to many of your donors, these folks will be your organization. Not your brand guidelines, not your beliefs and idealism, not marketing. Not something to leave to chance.

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Strange but true: Large corporation tries self-deprecation

Did ya hear the one about the company that was willing to laugh at itself in public?

Seems 7-Eleven is going to transform 12 of its stores around the country into Kwik-E-Marts. And most of the other stores will sell such odd-ball produces as Buzz Cola, KrustyO's cereal, and Squishees.

Now if none of these things rings a bell, it's because you don't watch enough television. Kwik-E-Mart is the terrible convenience store on "The Simpsons." Buzz Cola, KrustyO's, and Squishees are among the nasty products they sell.

They are parodies. Biting, savage parodies of 7-Eleven.

It's part of the promotion for the coming "The Simpsons Movie." Read about it at Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? 7-Eleven does.

I've never seen the 7-Eleven brand guidelines, but I'm pretty sure it describes an idealized place of cleanliness, convenience, and community. Not much like Kwik-E-Mart. Even though the real thing is very much like Kwik-E-Mart, and everyone knows it.

So often, a company's brand image bull-headedly flies in the face of reality, stubbornly insisting in an ideal that's baldly untrue. That's why 7-Eleven's willingness to laugh, even at their own weakness, is so amazing. And appealing. They've actually left behind their phony brand image and joined the real conversation. Maybe they figured out that being authentic, even when it's less than flattering, is better than sticking to an irrelevant playbook.

That takes something like courage. I'm waiting for a nonprofit that can do that.

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What your logo can do for you

If you've ever struggled to create a logo, you'll appreciate Seth's take on Logos:

If you're given the task of finding a logo for an organization ... find an abstract image that is clean and simple and carries very little meaning -- until your brand adds that meaning. It's not a popularity contest. Or a job for a committee. It's not something where you should run it by a focus group. It's just a placeholder, a label waiting to earn some meaning.

You can agonize all day and night about getting a logo just right, but you'll be barking up the wrong tree. Your logo will never bring a lot of meaning to the table. The best logo gets out of the way and lets reality do the work.

Instead, work on making your organization the best one around -- the one that everyone talks about, that people seek out to get involved with. Do that, and unless you really screwed up, your logo will be great. Because it stands for something great, not because it made you great.

And take some comfort: No matter how awful your logo accidentally ends up being, I'm pretty sure it won't be as bad as this one, which not only looks terrible and communicates nothing, but is reputed to trigger epileptic seizures, and was created at a cost of $796,000.

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Do you want what your donors want?

Sometimes you wonder if nonprofits and their donors inhabit the same planet.

A recent study in the UK points out the perceptual gap.

Charities described themselves as passionate, caring, independent, inspiring, challenging, inclusive.

Where have I seen lists of those words before? Oh yes -- in nonprofits' brand guidelines!

Donors, asked to describe desirable qualities in charities, said trustworthy, honest, effective, helpful, friendly.

How boring! Old fashioned. Off-brand.

Read about the study here: Sector at odds with public over the 'ideal' charity (registration required).

The Whitewater blog skewers this in Death to 'Char-gon':

It says a lot that people in the charitable sector, who are entirely dependent on the public's goodwill for their livelihoods, would rather be seen as 'inclusive' than 'helpful' (which didn't even feature in their top ten.) This is a sector dangerously in love with its own cheesy charity jargon.... Charities! Stop yammering on about how dynamic, innovative and super-sexy you are and just talk like a human being. You'll be amazed how far it'll get you.

You may have noticed in life that the key to successful relationships is to be aware of the other person. It's true in fundraising also.

Look outward. Talk to donors. Think about them. Serve them. That's the key to success.

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You are not the brand

If your donors did you marketing for you, would they get it right?

Sorry: trick question. The answer is no and yes.

Your donors would almost certainly get all your branding "wrong." Wrong colors. Wrong fonts. They'd never quite get your mission/vision/values. They'd make all kinds of mistakes about your marketplace position.

But they'd nail what about you is powerful to them.

Which do you think matters more in motivating donors: to-the-book branding, or people being real?

In the business world, a few companies are starting to learn how to live with this. A recent Washington Post article, Putting the I in Advertising, explores this new world -- where the brand and the customer become interchangeable:

Brands express what we aspire to be and what we believe about ourselves, in a kind of commercial shorthand. Aspirations -- for beauty and coolness and status and joy -- are the stuff of brand loyalty.... So, if a person posts a photo of herself with her Cadillac on the company Web site, she doesn't do it for the company. She does it for herself.

If these things are true about commercial products (and they are), they are 100 times more true for nonprofits!

To you donor, your work only matters to the extent that it's meaningful in her life. You can work all day and night to hammer home why you're so cool and effective, but if you aren't talking about her and what she cares about, you're a long way from getting a gift.

A great brand -- nonprofit or otherwise -- lives in the hearts, minds, and lives of its customers. So if I were you, I'd spend a lot less time figuring out how to express myself, and a lot more trying to figure out who my donors are and how I make their lives more meaningful.

The WaPo article mentions three websites that involve consumers in co-creating a brand. They're worth checking out:

Thanks to The Agitator for the tip.

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How to think like a donor

What do you have to offer donors? According to Todd Baker in a recent FundRaising Success article titled The Pursuit of Brand Happiness, tour brand promise to donors is the meaning you give them when you enable them to make the world better. Just one problem:

... too many organizations focus their core message on their internal processes, such as distributing, coordinating, managing, constructing and facilitating, while the most powerful thing they have to say is left unspoken. People become inspired to join causes because of the impact of nonprofit processes, not the processes themselves.

It's so hard for many nonprofits to get their minds around this. You spend all your energy developing and improving great processes. These processes are what allow you to succeed. They're often what set you apart from similar organizations.

Here's a quick thought experiment you can do to help yourself get mentally and emotionally closer to your donors:

Think back to the time in your life when you were a novice. Before career advancement was important. Before you knew the "rules" and limitations. Before you learned how complicated your cause really is.

Then examine these questions:

  • What was it then that motivated you to get involved in the cause?
  • How did it feel to care the way you did?
  • What did you tell your friends about the cause?
  • Were your motives then any less pure or valuable than they are now?

That's roughly where your donors are. (Though they're likely less committed than you.) If you can get back into that old mindset, you can communicate better with donors about the thing they actually care about.

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How to position yourself as human

What are you doing to persuade your donors that you aren't human?

If you're doing that, there's a good chance it's your tagline or positioning statement.

The What's Your Brand Mantra takes a good look at this issue in Succinct Positioning, giving three rules for positioning a brand (go see, it's worth reading). I want to focus on one of them:

Use consumer language. Too many times I've worked with clients who've insisted that we use certain phrases in the positioning that make sense internally but not to customers....

Sound familiar? Many nonprofits have a carefully worded positioning, and -- by golly -- they're going to hammer home those exact words at every possible opportunity. Even if they make little sense to donors. Even if it's something no mentally healthy person would ever say out loud.

It seems with many organizations, the harder they work to articulate their position, the more awkward and un-human it sounds. But the harder (and/or more expensive) it was to do it, the more committed they are to it -- meaning they repeat a robotic phrase over and over as if to emphasize their status as a non-human organization.

Consider this: a positioning reality-check. Get a tape recorder, and record a lot of different people (mainly people who aren't organization insiders) saying your tagline or positioning statement. Look for three things:

  1. Do people make funny faces when they say it? That's a sign that it makes them feel stupid, weird, or unnatural to say it. It's not in normal language.
  2. Do they stumble over the words? That's a sign that it's not well articulated and not enough like normal speech.
  3. When you listen to the recording, does it start to sound ridiculous or false? These qualities may not be obvious when you see it on paper, but they'll stand out as you hear it repeated.

      (For a treasure-trove of good, bad, and ugly taglines, see What your tagline should do for you.)

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Donors can reinvent your brand

Where is your brand? In a document you created, or in your donors' lives?

The Brands Create Customers blogs takes a look at this issue in The glorious (non-linear) essence of brands.

According to the post, some brand-owners see their brand as "straight-line beams of context and meaning that we project upon the world, with the power to bind customers to them." The reality, though is that brands "derive much of their energy, imagination and innovation from customers, in ways that are perfectly unpredictable."

So why fight it? Instead:

... design your brand as a creative engagement with customers. It's a free-form riff, not a ball and chain with your name attached. Your brand is a way for customers to invent themselves, and through the brand dialectic, to re-invent you.

To a lot of nonprofit brandmeisters, talk like this sounds like gibberish. The belief that a good brand is a tightly controlled one is strong.

The smart organizations are getting their heads around this more complex notion that a great brand isn't a one-way street. It's also not a two-way street. It's not even a street. If your organization has the courage to create that kind of brand, you have a bright future ahead.

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Nonprofit branding is reality, not theory

What are you talking about when you're talking about branding?

If it's design and marketing concepts, you are a victim of The Branding Myth, as the Make Marketing History blog put it.

Branding is...

... whatever a product actually delivers that generates real emotional attachments. This originates not just from its functionality but also in terms of packaging, delivery and convenience. Branding hype is not what people want. They want results.

Branding is not something created by marketing. It's not a color palette or a positioning statement. It's something real. Something that happens out there in the world, not just in your marketing and PR.

So next time you get the urge to "improve" your brand, start with this question: Is what we do and how we do it unique, remark-worthy, and materially better than what anyone else does?

If you can say yes to that -- and it's not just mutual back-patting, but really true -- then you can start asking if you're expressing it is power and clarity.

But first things first.

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It's not a popularity contest

In an act of stunning, jaw-dropping stupidity, CareerBuilder has lost its ad agency, Cramer-Krasselt, after the agency's Super Bowl ads fell short of the top 10 in a USA Today viewer poll.

The viewer poll, representing nothing but the stated opinions of a few hundred self-selected people, was apparently more important to CareerBuilder than the fact that they got a 148% increase in traffic to their website on and after game day (as reported in Adweek. So they put their account up for review, and the agency resigned in disgust.

Read more about the sorry spectacle in Advertising Age: Cramer-Krasselt Resigns as CareerBuilder's Agency. Or check out the incredulous buzz around the blogosphere at Technorati.

I could get in line with all the others who want to slap around CareerBuilder. Heaven knows, they deserve it. But I'd rather take a shot at the "wronged" agency, Cramer-Krasselt. For them, this is a clear case of live by the sword, die by the sword.

When you visit their website, you are treated to these emphatically presented words:

Yes ... it is a popularity contest. The brand with the most friends wins.

Sorry, Cramer-Kasselt, you served up a steaming heap of ad agency bull -- and your client believed it!

When they lost a popularity contest, struck out with a few "friends" in a stupid poll, they thought their agency had failed them. And why not? That's what their agency told them what it's all about.

That's the problem with the ad industry. They're promoting a huge lie: that "popularity" is the most important thing. It's a fragile and crumbling lie, but a lot of businesses still believe it -- and pay for it. And so do a few unlucky nonprofits.

Inoculate yourself against the ad agency lie. Follow something more like this:

It's not a popularity contest. The organization that actually motivates people to act positively wins.

The big winners are quietly, humbly, and happily influencing people. They tend not to do as well in bogus polls, focus groups, or other popularity contests. But they win where it matters.

(More on this favored rant topic here: Why advertising is so bad.)

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A great tagline is good, but not good enough

Stop the presses! JCPenney has a new tagline.

If you can stand the excitement, here it is:

Every Day Matters

The company's chief executive is quoted as saying, "We needed a rallying cry that would resonate with our customers." He also hopes the new slogan will be as powerful as Nike's "Just do it."

He really said that. Chances are, he even believes it to be true.

The Brains On Fire blog noted this in A new tagline? That'll change everything!

A rallying cry is great. But a remarkable experience is even better. It transcends tag lines and advertising. . . . Creating a new tagline won't change anything. Try starting with the culture. The experience. The people inside your company.

To be fair to Penney, they're rolling out a lot more than just a tagline. I'm sure they fully intend to make this work. But only their customers can make that happen, and to get that, Penney needs to be better in some way than any other retailer. The end product of all this excitement had better be something truly remarkable for the customers. And pardon me for being cynical but I'll eat my hat if they actually do what it takes to deliver that.

How many nonprofits think they can change everything by redesigning a logo, rewriting a tagline, or dreaming up a shiny new mission statement?

That's just not enough. When you paint your house, it looks good, but it's still the same house.

Marketing can do a lot for you. When done well, it can help you raise a lot more funds and get a lot more attention. But for real and meaningful change, you need to go beyond marketing to reality. Not what you look like or what you say, but who you are.

For a look at nonprofit taglines galore, see What your tagline should do for you.

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As everything changes, a great brand can keep you afloat

Things are changing. Fast. And these changes demand change from fundraisers. The Own Your Brand blog, talking to businesses, says a meaningful brand, one that's powerful, memorable, and deeply connected to customers, is your best tool. The Branding Imperative lays out some of the old ways businesses used to compete, and shows how they no longer exert much leverage:

  • As the world "gets flatter" you won't be able to compete simply on cost of goods -- most of you can't now.
  • As your competitors implement [focus on quality] you won't be able to compete on quality alone. You see this happening already.
  • As the world gets noisier you won't have enough money to buy your customers' attention. The truth is very few of you have the resources to do it now.
  • As the marketplace continues to grow in its appreciation for design, creativity and high-touch service you won't be able to push a "better sameness" strategy on sophisticated markets.
  • As the best and brightest turn away from working inside outdated corporate hierarchies, even for more money/benefits, you won't be able to keep "good people" -- they're leaving even now.

Nonprofits stand in the same place. Probably more so. We never could afford to "buy attention" -- or anything else expansive. The old tried-and-true ways of raising lots of money just don't have the power they used to have.

A strong, clear, compelling, donor-centered brand is the thing that can set you apart. If you are widely known as the organization that fulfills the better aspirations of caring people, you can vault over all that scary stuff. Put that at the center of your thinking.

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How branding destroys your brand

If you've always suspected the "brand police" were up to no good, you're not alone. Brands Create Customers (an excellent and clear-thinking blog) goes as far as to say branding -- as opposed to brand building -- damages your brand.

Check out Adios, "branding." Your day is done:

. . . "branding" burns the value out of brands. It metaphorically assumes the brander has total dominion over the poor wretch about to be seared. While this may be a tonic for sharp stabs of inadequacy affecting those wielding the brand stick, the resulting "brand" never grows beyond its initial mark. More often than not, those who do "branding" sear their own limitations into customers, perhaps permanently.

In other words, if your brand consists of a logo, some prescribed font choices, color palates, and a list of forbidden phrases -- that's all it's going to be.

And that's not just neutral; it's destructive.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Slavish devotion to brand guidelines tends to eliminate real thought. And I can almost guarantee you that anything you do that's radically pro-donor will violate the consistency of the brand!

Your brand is what you do and who you are. What you look like is the smallest part of that. Most branding guidebooks pay lip-service to this fact, but none of them do anything about it. And that's no surprise, because they can't. A brand is bigger than a set of rules you can put down in a spiral-bound book.

If you have a great brand -- one that aligns with the beliefs, hopes, and self-image of your donors -- you can laugh at the puny efforts of the brand police to achieve consistency.

Old-school branding is a lot like the thing it's named after: You burn your logo onto your donor's butt with a red-hot iron. Whether he likes it or not.

New-school brand building is almost exactly opposite that. You discover how you fit into your donor's dreams. Then you articulate that with passion.

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Your brand is too small

Many nonprofits have spent enormous sums of money and organizational energy on "branding." The lucky ones are able to have it done pro bono by a powerhouse commercial ad agency -- though judging from the work you typically see from them, they're giving the job to the interns.

The end product is usually a document -- brand guidelines -- the prescribes fonts, color palates, design practices, and often a short copy stylebook for the organization. The smarter documents also discuss the meaning of the brand. But even that is generally taken care of in a paragraph or two.

In the end, branding -- as practiced in real life by nonprofits -- is just packaging.

Same is often true in the commercial world. And the Brands Create Customers blog takes a useful look at the issue in Don't build a brand. Build a movement.

In building brands you have to look beyond the wrapper. Brands command a canvas that knows no edge. As a brand builder, you use this canvas to connect customers with themselves in new and vastly better places. While fine-tuning the wrapper is important, it's not the most important part of the brand. That distinction goes to where your brand leads the customer—in that vast and fertile canvas you provide.

If a commercial brand is a movement, how much more so is a nonprofit brand?

While commercial brand must struggle to position the shoe, soft drink, or widget they sell as larger than life, your cause is, by definition already a superhuman, larger-than-life thing. Every nonprofit that does fundraising is a movement of idealistic people who want to make the world a better place and put their money where their mouths are.

Is that evident in your brand guidelines? Is your branding energy about building, describing, and sustaining a movement? Or do you have a whole book dedicated to packaging?

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YouTube and OffBrand -- can you handle it?

Guy Kawasaki recently interviewed Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell (who author the excellent Church of the Customer Blog) in Ten Questions With Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell.

He asked them what companies should do when people make videos about them -- like Mentos and Diet Coke. Their answer was wonderful:

  1. Say nothing and let the citizen marketers have their time in the spotlight. It's a safe and conservative approach.
  2. Use your company website or blog to point to the citizen marketers in the spirit of "what people are saying about us." This opens the door to ceding control, and that's a good step. Just remember that citizen marketers don't follow instructions. This approach requires company spokespeople to have a sense of humor. That wasn't the case with the Coke, whose spokesperson was quoted . . . scolding people for not drinking their precious beverage!
  3. Quickly build a program around what's happening. It can be beneficial but also tricky because it can taint the grassroots nature of what's happening. Keep it simple. . . . Follow the lead of the community. And keep the company lawyers locked in a cage.

It must smart a bit when people make a YouTube video about you. Because they won't be brand compliant. In the Mentos/Diet Coke case, they advocated spilling Diet Coke all over the ground -- not drinking it. That's gotta be off brand! And I bet they didn't use the right font.

That's how it's going to be after the marketing revolution: People who really love you will talk about you; they'll spread the word -- free -- with great creativity and passion. They'll spread your name far beyond where you can afford it to go.

But they won't be brand-compliant.

Are you going to accept that loss of control?

Or do you prefer control -- and shrinking fundraising revenue from a public who doesn't know about you or care?

The choice is coming, and we're all going to have to make it to some degree.

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The Gates Foundation challenge to you

Good news or bad? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will accept donations from anyone who wants to give -- not just Warren Buffett. (Story here.) It seems that ordinary donors, inspired by the example of Mr. Buffett -- and no doubt motivated to align themselves with the power and smarts of the Gates Foundation -- have been sending money. The Foundation's Chief Executive, Patty Stonesifer, said:

. . . the foundation won't solicit money and prefers people give directly to charities working in related areas. But those who want to donate to the foundation shouldn't be turned away . . . .

The flurry of news from the Gates Foundation over the past few months has raised the profile of philanthropy and the very idea that we can tackle and even solve huge problems. That's good. Very good for all nonprofit organizations that raise funds.

But this sword cuts two ways.

Without even trying, the Gates Foundation has become a sort of charity superbrand. They're bigger than you. They're smarter than you. What donor wouldn't be attracted to that kind of clout for their charitable giving?

You hardly stand a chance!

Unless you offer something they don't, and probably never will: Donor Power. You can be a place where donors get connected to the causes they care about. Where they get empowerment, choice, community, connectedness, and even fun around the passions they share with you and each other.

If you're willing and able to structure yourself around donors and build your brand around their needs and aspirations, you needn't worry about the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

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The end of branding as we know it

Bob Garfield's blog asks a provocative question: Are Brands Headed for Obsolescence?

It used to be a brand told you something about a product's quality. A well-crafted brand with muscular media support could convince nearly everyone that certain brands were better than others.

Not any more. We can now verify brand claims:

. . . real information is available, instantly, from all manner of sources -- sources without any taint of commercial self-interest. 

Soon enough, you'll be able to go into a store, scan an item with your cell phone and get real-time data about how people like you -- i.e., people you trust -- rate that item vis a vis the competition. . . . But what will disappear is the . . . consumer's willingness to accept a brand's very existence as ample proof of its reason to exist. 

This matters to nonprofits too. The key point is you can't just say you're good. You have to be good!

Branding used to belong to the Marketing Department. Their job was to make the organization seem amazing and unique. But that won't work any more. There's no longer any substitute for simply being amazing and unique. Branding belongs to everyone.

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Liberate your donors

Brands can do two different things, says a great post at the Brands Create Customers blog: Managing the brand agenda for customer growth. They can contain the customer or liberate the customer.

Before you decide which kind of brand you'd rather be, read these descriptions of them:

Container brands

Customers cease being market equals and potential innovation partners in a value network. Instead, they're relegated to the status of passive "consumers," where their consumption can be managed. This is one reason why traditional brands often devote considerable resources to brand spectacle, symbols, icons, emotional drivers and rewards. These are the artificial stimuli for kept consumers.

Liberator brands

These brands intend to free the customer from current brand dependencies and lock-ins, which can impose a virtual lock-down on the customer's ability to move forward. . . . Such an agenda requires a company to be highly innovative, agile and resolutely focused on delivering customer value.

This may look purely commercial, but the issue very much impacts nonprofit brands. A nonprofit container brand relies on long history, high (at least high enough) name recognition, and raw marketing budget. A successful container brand is one to which large numbers of donors can give without thinking about it. All in all, not too bad a place to be, if you can afford it. But that's changing.

A nonprofit liberator brand breaks the pattern. In their mission and in their marketing, they're more interesting, more targeted, and more donor-centered. It's harder work than being a container brand, but the rewards can be much higher. And as time goes on, more and more donors will demand liberator brands for their charitable giving.

It all comes down to this: How much power are you willing to cede to your donors?

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The secret of nonprofit branding

It's pretty simple. A successful brand -- commercial or nonprofit -- is one that connects with the aspirations of its audience. Not one that compellingly describes itself.

A recent article at OnPhilanthropy looks at this issue: Modern Philanthropy: Bring Out the Consumer Brands. Key point:

When we make the decision to give, it is based on a relatively simple checklist of smaller decisions all of which have to do with how we see ourselves in the world. Brand managers in the consumer world have long understood this. . . .

When we make a gift, it is less transactional certainly than a purchase. The desire to fund change, to help the poor, to better society is real . . . . But we also aspire as we give.

We aspire to be part of something bigger.
 We aspire to have our name related to a good cause. 
We aspire to look good in front of our peers. 
We aspire to be like Oprah. . . .

This is about all you need to know about branding. Nonprofit or otherwise. It's about the donor or customer. Not about the organization or company. Period.

When you buy a car, you're not really looking for a machine that gets you from one place to another -- you're looking for an object that says something about you. If you're like me, that something might be "I'm someone who only wants a car that gets me and my stuff from one place to another." (This is my excuse for owning a minivan.)

Since there's almost no utility in charitable giving, giving is even more purely aspirational than buying.

Put it this way: Your donors are giving to you because of what that giving says about them -- to themselves or to others.

They aren't giving because your programs are so brilliant.

They aren't giving because you're so smart (or strategic, or any other great attribute).

They aren't giving because of your long history or superior achievement.

(Though you need to excel at all those things.)

So ask yourself: What about our brand feeds the unique aspirations of our donors? What is it about giving to you that makes them feel proud or happy or cool or validated?

Remember, you don't have to please everyone. But you do need to be square in somebody's sweet spot.

I can almost guarantee you won't be there if your brand is a brilliant expression of yourself -- and not a crystal-clear expression or your donors' aspirations.

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What's wrong with nonprofit branding?

The branding discipline has swept through the nonprofit world in the last few years. This should be a good thing -- after all, clear identity and consistent messaging should make communication better.

Sadly, "branding" has largely been a disaster for fundraising, because it is almost always practiced wrong -- usually by self-styled brand shamans.

All too often, the purpose of nonprofit branding is for the organization to express itself -- not to be relevant to donors. The end product is a messaging platform that leaves donors scratching their heads -- and less engaged. And if that weren't bad enough, the branding exercise also frequently creates graphic standards that reduce readability and require a color palette that's a witches' brew of tasteful but sterile, unreadable, and unmotivating shades. I guess that's what you get when you start out with an anti-donor bias.

Donor-Powered branding is based on donor aspirations, not organizational self-expression. Branding in the commercial world usually understands this: The brand is not about us, it's about our customers. The brand image that speaks to donors may not make your heart sing. That doesn't matter -- not to a donor-powered organization.

Think about it this way: If this is a brand, who's the cow? To what is the brand attached?

The "cow" had better be your donors. Your brand exists in their minds and emotions. If it doesn't -- if it's an abstract concept that you created to please yourself, and it exists only in a guidebook and the mind of your "brand manager" -- it's not a brand. And it will damage your fundraising efforts.

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Steal the secret of the iPod brand

Name a successful brand. Good chance you said, "iPod" the MP3 player that totally dominates the market -- even though, functionally, all players are pretty much the same, and most of them are cheaper than the iPod. Apple really got it right. Partly because of the software. Partly the great design. And largely with slam-dunk branding, the kind hardly anyone ever pulls off.

The Brands Create Customers blog has a great post on this: The iPod changes the game in brand identity. There's a lot there, but pay especially attention to this:

In a traditional brand identity approach, the brand team develops a brand identity that's company-centric. The identity stems from a unique company "essence" that differentiates the brand from competitors and supports marketing goals. Unfortunately, this approach comes with a major problem out of the box: it treats brand identity as a proprietary "package" that's separate from the customer. . . . The customer is simply invited (or persuaded) to embrace it, and to become, in effect, a (passive) brand follower.

Customers care about brand identity when it helps them grow their own identity. In truth, they want their identity, not yours. In other words, effective brand identity is about them, and not exclusively about you.

If you care about your nonprofit's brand, tattoo that last sentence on your forearm.

Nearly every nonprofit branding initiative I've been aware of has been an intense effort to crystallize the organization's self-expression, compounded by adding the design tastes of the relatively young, sophisticated people in charge of it all -- leading to a brand identity that has nothing to do with donors.

We can do better.

A truly donor-centered brand probably won't make your heart sing. Because it'll be about the identity of donors -- who are, on the whole, older, more religious, less hip, and less expert than you are. If you build an identity that make you say Yes! I love it! -- you've probably left them puzzled and cold. Want to do it right? Be prepared to be the once who "doesn't get it."

But you can learn to live with it. The increased revenue will soften the blow to your ego.

(See also Branding: the snake-oil of our time?.)

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You've lost control of your brand!

Quick. Google your organization. Is everything that comes up in your control? Of course not.

Anyone can say anything about you. And what they say is accessible to everyone.

You are not in control of your brand. It's now a mélange of your carefully crafted messages and any random thing anyone else chooses to say. Not that you ever had total control of your brand -- brand is what's in other people's minds about you, not what you say about yourself -- but now, you don't necessarily even have a louder voice than anyone else about who you are.

Nancy Schwartz tackles this tough issue in Everybody's Talking About You -- Why Your Nonprofit Needs to Listen, and Listen Hard:

Your audiences are now participating in shaping the way your nonprofit is perceived via joining in blog and message board conversations. . . . Their content may be viewed as being just as valid as yours is, and is just as easily found via online search engines and links.

This tells you two things:

  1. Branding as a unilateral act is dead. You can no longer publish a book of brand standards that has any meaningful power. If you want to have a consistent brand, you have to live it and be it in every way. You have to paint the brand in the minds of a thousand strangers. Hard work.
  2. You'd better pay attention to the conversation about you. There isn't a whole lot you can do about it, but there's nothing you can do if you don't know. Get to know the blogs that cover your area. Follow them closely. (Join in by making comments.) Check out your name on Google and Technorati regularly. (See also Are you watching the wikis?)

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Branding: the snake-oil of our time?

A strong brand is something everyone should want. And there are Brand Shamans out there who will happily sell one to you. Trouble is, they can't. A piece in Fast Company compares the branding craze to questionable "self-help" fads that promise a lot but can never deliver because they don't address the real issue: Obsessive Branding Disorder points out the obvious, but too-often-lost truth that "branding is not what you say but what you do." To go through some kind of special branding process is pointless:

To brand, in a corporate sense, is no more a verb than "to gorgeous." A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means.

So next time a Brand Shaman tells you he can create a brand for you (usually in the form of a small book that contains lists of vague descriptive words, a font or two that you must never depart from (usually sans-serif), a color pallette, and some surreal rules about logo usage), tell him you already have one, thank you.

If your brand isn't good, or strong, or motivating to your donors, the solution is to work on the things you do, not how you appear. You may need to change what you do. Or focus more. Or make sure what you do is agreed-upon across the organization. That's the hard work it takes to make a strong brand. It can't be imposed by a snake-oil-peddling consultant.

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Nothing but brand

In the mailbox, this piece from my local Salvation Army:

As you see, this piece leans heavily on The Salvation Army's famous shield logo. And that's about it throughout the package. In the letter, it says, "Your generous donation will allow The Salvation Army's Red Shield to remain a symbol of help and hope to struggling people right here in our community." The ask line on the reply device is, "Yes, Colonel Griffin, I want to keep the Red Shield strong for those in need!"

That's it. No specific fundraising offer.

No fundraiser other than The Salvation Army could get away with this appeal. (I don't know how well this appeal does, but I'll guess it's acceptable.) That's because the Army has unmatched brand recognition and positive mind-space. The only other U.S. nonprofits that come close -- Red Cross and United Way -- have suffered scandals and bad press in recent years.

Any other nonprofit that attempted this logo-based appeal would be (deservedly) hung out to dry by their non-responding donors. Everyone else needs to come up with specific fundraising offers that will empower donors to direct their giving to real and compelling things.

Which only begs the question: What if The Salvation Army practiced Donor Power? Suppose they combined their powerful brand with a focus on donors' needs? I think we'd see an unstoppable fundraising juggernaut.

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Maybe you should be attracting enemies

Nonprofits tend to walk on eggshells, deathly afraid at all times of offending someone. A couple of complaints come in, and they go into defensive mode. Just the idea that someone out there could be offended scuttles more innovation than anything but complacency.

Bad idea, says Rick Nobles on in Congratulations -- Someone Hates Your Brand!:

A brand trying to appeal to everyone isn't a brand at all, just a watered-down commodity. And a commodity never attracts a raving fan -- it attracts indifference. In a crowded marketplace, indifference will kill you.... Maybe in your next brainstorming meeting, don't ask how can you appeal to X. Ask how you can annoy the hell out of Y.

In fact, indifference is killing nonprofits even as we speak! It's a bland, bland, bland, bland world. That's not what people want. So jettison fear. Take a stand. Be who you are. And make some enemies!

How to build an "approachable" brand

Your brand is your organization's personality as perceived by your donors. A great nonprofit brand is one that donors feel part of, close to, involved with ... it's approachable. (The opposite is the behemoths that look and act like large government bureaucracies.)

Here's a post on the Wombat (Word of Mouth Basic Training) Blog called How-To: Making Your Brand Approachable. (It's from Scott Ginsberg of the HELLO, my name is BLOG.)

Tip #1. Do something cool (lead the pack in some unique way)

Tip #2. Be "That Guy" (be identified as the only one who does something cool)

Tip #3. Fans not customers (fans think about you even when you aren't talking to them)

Tip #4. Own a word (be completely identified with something good)

Tip #5. Market yourself daily (it's not just about campaigns -- it's a way of life!)

None of these things can be accomplished by creating brand standards guidelines -- in fact, such guidelines usually put up barriers, making you less approachable. These things flow from who you are and what you do every day. But that's the only way to a great brand -- the kind you'll need in order to compete for donors' hearts and minds in the coming years.

How you create a brand: Starbucks method

Starbucks has the brand everyone admires. In a post titled Building the Business Creates the Brand, the Brand Autopsy blog looks at how Starbucks did it. In short, they didn't create a brand; they built a business, and that formed the brand:

Starbucks teaches us that rarely, if ever, can you sprinkle magical branding dust to create an endearing and enduring brand.

But that doesn't stop companies from trying. Instead of spending money to improve the functionality of a product, the quality of services offered, or enhancing the customer's experience, many companies will attempt to build a brand by throwing money into multi-million dollar mass advertising brand image campaigns.

What does this mean to nonprofits? It means save your money on the fancy-pants branding consultants; just work at giving your donor a great experience and a deep connection with what you do. Then you'll have the great brand that attracts, excites, and motivates donors. It doesn't start with a platform and graphics standards. It starts with what you do for donors.

The Attack of the Brand Shamans

You can sense the evil magic in the air. It tickles your nose like an approaching thunderstorm. That's one way you can tell the Brand Shamans are at work with a nonprofit organization.

But there's an even better way to detect the presence of the Brand Shamans: donors are snubbed.

The Brand Shamans practice a sort of "supply side" fundraising. It fails to communicate with donors, because it is built on organizational self-image, aspirations, and design preference, not on donor needs.

Here's one sad but true tale of the Brand Shamans at work:

Back in 2001, United Cerebral Palsy of Tampa Bay "rebranded." This venerable provider of services to the disabled saw the fact that a majority of their clients do not have cerebral palsy as a reason to re-brand and change their name. So far, so good.

(Tampa Bay is not the only UCP chapter to have dropped the cerebral palsy name. In fact, United Cerebral Palsy itself seems to be moving in that direction, favoring "UCP.")

In-house Brand Shamans handled Tampa Bay's re-branding at the cost of around $6,000. And here's what they cooked up:

AdvanceAbility Solutions.

That is not a typo. It is Brand Shamanism. Beside the obvious problem that it looks like a failed software company from the dot-com bubble, it's hard to read, hard to pronounce, and says nothing at all about that fine organization's mission.

How well did the new brand work? The organization's CEO, Karen Ryals, said it best: "No one knew what we did."

So an outside Brand Shaman (also known as a consultant) was brought in to try again. This time at a cost of $32,000. Here's the new name that launched in October 2004:

Achieve Tampa Bay.

More catchy than AdvanceAbility. More readable. But is it any clearer about what the organization does? Would a donor know what her charitable dollar is achieving through this organization? (For what it's worth, Ryals said, "The response has been phenomenal.")

Any organization with an established and respected name like United Cerebral Palsy should think twice before changing it.

If changing it is indeed the right thing to do, the organization must keep their donors (assuming they rely on donors) front and center in their thinking. The great nonprofit brands are the ones that zealously focus on donors' needs, aspirations, and level of understanding.

The Brand Shamans favor an inward-focused, navel-gazing approach that makes the nonprofit feel good about itself, but leaves donors out of the equation.

Read the full 12/20/04 Tampa Tribune story.

You can also visit Achieve Tampa Bay.

What is this blog all about?

If you're serious about raising money from donors, you need to get serious about donors. More than ever before, donors are insisting that you share power with them, not treating them like passive ATMs. This blog is about the ways you can do that -- and the rewards that await you and your donors when you do.

About the Blogger

DonorPower Blog is penned by Merkle's Power Blogging Team, led by Greg Fox, our senior vice president of strategy. Working with Greg is a police line-up of guest "artists", fundraising pros all, who like to pose as blogatorialists when the sun goes down. You can reach this blog, and any of our regular contributors, at
donorpowerblog [at] merkleinc [dot] com. See this blog's policies.

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