Nonprofit Branding

Top 5 Nonprofit Branding Mistakes

Branding is at the heart of all forms of marketing. By developing a brand, organizations, companies, and even individuals can promote their products, services, and causes in a consistent and memorable way. Without a strong brand, you’ll spend your days reinventing the wheel, and your customers/donors/funders/audiences will struggle to connect. 

At Media Cause, we work with nonprofits of all shapes and sizes, focused on raising awareness and driving donations for their specific causes. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a shift in how organizations view this idea of “brand.” back in the early 2010s, no one understood why a brand was important. “We’re organizations, not brands!” But more recently, maybe even in the last 3-4 years, more nonprofits are recognizing how having a strategic, and consistent brand can accelerate their impact — and also how the lack of a brand, or an incomplete one, can hold organizations back from reaching their audience and creating change. 

In previous posts, we’ve discussed the importance of creating a brand beyond the logo. And because we’re passionate about seeing nonprofits maximize their brand efforts — and donor dollars — to further their missions, we’ve compiled a list of five brand mistakes nonprofits make and how you can avoid them: 

You don’t see the value in having brand guidelines. 

A brand guidelines document is a set of rules and standards defending the use of different components of your brand. They tell someone what your company/organization sounds like, what you look like, and where you’re headed. They often include things like mission and vision, the voice your brand uses, rules about your logos, color codes, and imagery examples. They are like a blueprint for your organization. Last year, I wrote a post about the five reasons nonprofits need brand guidelines. In the post, I highlighted how brand guidelines help you build sustained support, stick to a budget, and make it easier for anyone at the organization to create essential content before you have the budget to hire a full-time designer. We know that working with small budgets and wearing many hats is common practice in the nonprofit world, and so is not having established brand guidelines. At Media Cause, asking for brand guidelines is one of the first steps as we set out to help organizations with their marketing effort. And often, we find that organizations are operating with no or limited set of guidelines. 

Many nonprofits grow organically from grassroots efforts, and setting rules and standards might be the last thing you’re focused on. But without them, every new marketing task becomes a new mountain to climb…without having the information to know what shoes to put on, which jacket to wear, and in what direction you’re headed. 

You didn’t invest in audience research. 

A big part of your brand creation is developing your mission, vision, values, beliefs, personality, and tone. They help you develop a robust brand strategy — both internally and externally. In the post, The importance of a Nonprofit Brand Strategy, Media Cause’s EVP of Creative, Amy Small, wrote that “without those key building blocks in place, launching any creative campaign or initiative (heck, even writing an email series) is akin to constructing a house without putting down the concrete slab first.”

But to create these core elements, we need to know our audience. Who are the people you’re trying to help (communities, individuals, entities, etc), and who are the people that will help you get there (donors, funders, supporters, etc)? Knowing your audience is about learning their rational and emotional needs, behaviors, mindsets, motivations, barriers, and external influences, all from a sociological, psychological, and cultural perspective. To understand this you need to invest time and resources into Audience Research. And you need to do it before you build your brand. 

This is an area where we consistently see nonprofits struggle. They often don’t have the funds — or want to invest the limited funds they do have — into enough research. They are focused on getting to “the thing,” and the tangible outcome of brand research often does not feel like a “thing” you need to get. But if done the right way, the research and those audience insights are THE thing that informs every decision after that. If you know what your audience is looking for you, can align your brand and offerings to their needs.   

You try to be all things to all people. 

The other day I was driving down the road as a moving truck passed me in the left lane. On the side of the truck were their name and tagline “Mark the Mover — We specialize in everything.” Now you might be asking yourself, what does a moving truck have to do with nonprofit branding? Well, the thing is, Mark the Mover’s tagline explains a common mistake a lot of nonprofits AND for-profits make: trying to be all things to all people. Saying you specialize in everything also says you specialize in nothing. Wanting to reach as many people as possible is natural. More people means more money to support your mission, right? But the problem with being all things to all people is that you will go from having a brand to being so bland that no one will notice you. The marketer Seth Godin talks about finding your “minimum viable audience.” He states that “two things happen when you delight your minimum viable audience: you discover it’s a lot larger group than you expected and they tell the others. On the other hand, if you aim for mass (another word for average), you’ll probably create something average. Which gets you not very far.”

Your brand lacks internal alignment. 

Specifying your brand is important for reaching your external audience. But what’s maybe even more important when it comes to branding is to create internal alignment — something many nonprofits struggle with. Often, different departments within nonprofits (and for-profit organizations) work in isolation from each other. While each department is focused on its specific goals, rather than the overall organizational mission and vision, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Or more detrimental—not consistently being able to articulate what the bigger picture even is. 

IMPACT Poster

So what are some ways that you can make your brand top of mind, quite internally? At Media Cause, we do this by making our company values part of how we evaluate and review employees. Our values — Inclusivity, Metrics Driven, Problem Solving, Accountability, Creativity, and Teamwork — is how we create IMPACT, and each employee is measured against these overall company values. This is just one example of how you can create unity and make sure your brand is front and center internally. Regardless of how you socialize it, the important thing to remember is that our core values — our brand — can’t just be something to put on your website and then forget about. 

Having alignment is also about making sure that the values, mission, and vision you define as part of your brand reflect the beliefs of the people in your organization. In the same way we use the beliefs of our external audience to define our brand, we should also use our internal team to define who we are and where we want to go. Voices from all departments and levels should help shape your brand. Every person at the company is a brand ambassador, and they deserve to be part of shaping the values of your brand, and the bigger picture of defining who you are, and what you stand for. 

 You give in to boredom. 

Maybe you have a brand. You’ve created rules around how your brand is expressed. And then you start to use it. You use the same colors, fonts, and logo over and over again. You paint murals with brand elements in your office. After a while, all you see is your brand — everywhere. And soon enough, you’ll be bored with it. The bright yellow that shined like a star in the beginning inevitably starts to fade as your initial excitement fades, too. This brand boredom often becomes problematic, because once you get bored, you start looking for a change. But the best thing you can do is not give into this temptation. Because even though you’re born and want a change, your audience is not. Your audience is NOT looking at your brand every day. They are bombarded with 10000+ visuals every hour, and they’re spending their energy trying to make sense of it all. 

It’s human psychology: people are more comfortable with what’s familiar. This is something we should lean into when it comes to branding. Instead of trying to be “new and fresh” ALL THE TIME, we should make sure that we give our brands enough longevity to sink-into the minds of our audiences. Bottom line: if you want to stick in the minds of your audience, stick closely to your brand.

Now that we’ve talked through some common mistakes, and how to avoid or address them, we would love to know ways you’ve built and maintained your nonprofit brand. Send us a note at impact@mediacause.org or reach out on social.