Think Fast: What is Your Nonprofit Brand Strategy?
It is not just a mission or vision. A nonprofit brand strategy is how your organization shows up in the world, and how you want existing and potential members to see and feel about you. It is a promise about who you will be to them, and a promise they expect you to fulfill.
Far more than a logo or tagline, a great brand strategy is a compass by which you navigate your future.
Our research has shown that most organizations never think about their brand promise, but high-performing organizations are invested in their brand strategy and intentionally orient to it in every big decision they make.
In fact, our most recent research report found that 4 out of 5 organizations that came through 2020 the strongest did so by explicitly leaning into their brand promise as the No. 1 yardstick of what they would and would not do.
So, how can you create your own nonprofit brand strategy?
Step 1: Build a Pyramid
When building your brand strategy from the ground up, think about it taking the shape of a pyramid, with a line drawn in the middle from top to bottom.
On one side of the pyramid, you have the rational aspects — the “thinking” reasons a member would join. That is, your value exchange of benefits. Most organizations stop there with a list of what members get for their dues; that’s important, but it is only half of your brand story.
On the other side of the pyramid, you have the emotional aspects of your strategy — the “feeling” reasons members are drawn to you and want to belong. These are harder to think about but they are actually the first reasons members are drawn to you. It is why they even consider the benefits you offer. People want to belong, to connect, to have a sense of identity, to feel influential. How does your organization feel for potential members? How does it feel to belong?
The way the rational and emotional converge at the peak of the pyramid is your brand promise. It should boil down to one clear, compelling umbrella statement that ties everything you do together.
For example, Subaru tells us that “Love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Everything they say and do shows they don’t only care about making you love your Subaru, they care about supporting you in loving your family and community, as well. Subaru owners know that and they feel that. As a result, Subaru has some of the most loyal customers in the world.
Great association brands have that power, too.
Step 2: Show, Don't Tell
Think about your brand promise and ask yourself, why should members believe you?
What do you do every day that “pays off” on that promise? Our research shows that for more than 80% of associations, the overwhelming majority of members don’t really know what the organization does. But when they do learn about it, their feelings are far more positive and they are much more likely to belong.
Think about your “proof points” – strong, simple examples of how you deliver on your promise to your members. The most powerful proof you have is the great work you do. Most organizations underuse it. Tell stories about how you make a difference. Don’t just tell them who you are, show them.
Let’s go back to our Subaru example. Subaru shares not just their safety awards but stories of how their cars have protected real people. They show you examples of people doing what they love because their Subaru made it possible. They show you that love really does make a Subaru a Subaru.
Highlighting your proof points makes your brand tangible and relatable. It helps your members “get” you and makes them feel drawn to know more.
Step 3: Live It
How do you put your promise and your proof points to work?
Sure, you show it on your website but it goes much further than that. Your brand is not just about how you talk. It is about the things you choose to do. A great brand lives its strategy. Their people feel it and believe it and put it to work every day as they serve their members. This becomes crystal clear in times of crisis when tough choices must be made. The strongest organizations ask themselves out loud “what is the best way to keep our brand promise?”
Before the crisis, the American Medical Association rebuilt their nonprofit brand strategy around the promise to be: “The Physician’s Powerful Ally in Health Care.” They have 20 clear and compelling proof points of how they do that in their work fighting the opioid crisis, reducing hypertension, advocating for physician confidentiality and fair reimbursements, and much more. They make sure physicians hear them and give them reasons every day to believe them. Their renewed brand focus has led to a massive shift in physicians’ perceptions of AMA — and their strongest member growth ever.
The power of a strong nonprofit brand strategy is just one of the success lessons in our most recent research. You can read more about nonprofit brand strategy and other lessons in our full report.