Five Myths About Branding

Free-Range Thinking | September 2002

Some still resist it, others embrace it and get it wrong. Why are so many nonprofits and foundations struggling with branding? It starts with the stories we tell ourselves.

Scott Bedbury knows something about branding. He ran brand-building campaigns for Nike and Starbucks and wrote, A New Brand World, a highly acclaimed book on the subject. “In an age of accelerating product proliferation, enormous customer choice, and growing clutter and clamor in the marketplace,” Bedbury says, “a great brand is a necessity, not a luxury.”

That’s conventional wisdom in the commercial sector, but many public interest organizations continue to wrestle with “the B-word.” In talking to nonprofits and foundations of all sizes and in all regions, I’ve come to the conclusion that five myths underlie this problem:

Myth #1: Branding is for Procter & Gamble, not us.
Face it: Bedbury’s statement holds equally true for public interest groups. Nonprofits and foundations have proliferated rapidly, too, and your audience is probably just as overwhelmed with the number of groups working on your issue. Increasing media clutter affects your message just as much as commercial ones. Branding is a necessity because, at its essence, it’s about establishing a genuine relationship with the audience, and what kind of organization doesn’t need that?

Myth #2: We define our brand. 
You’re half-right. Consciously or not, every organization sends messages about itself to its target audience. In ads, newsletters, annual reports, or just door-to-door canvassing, you may be telling your audience you’re a leader, you get results, you’re competent, you care. But that’s not your brand! There’s another half to this equation: the audience’s experience. Your brand lives in their heads. A strong brand is a strong relationship, which generally implies respect, trust, and some degree of affection.

“Anyone who wants to build a great brand first has to understand who they are,” says Bedbury. “You don’t do this by getting a bunch of executive schmucks in a room so they can reach some consensus on what they think the brand means. The real starting point is to go out to consumers and find out what they like or dislike about the brand and what they associate as the very core of the brand concept.”

Myth #3: We’ve got an identity system. We’re covered.
R. Christine Hershey has worked on such international brands as Disney, Coca-Cola, and AT&T, and through her nonprofit design firm, Cause Communications, she has strengthened the identities of The James Irvine Foundation, Los Angeles Urban Funders, and Liberty Hill Foundation. When it comes to designing logos, picking company colors, or selecting just the right paper stock, Chris is an award-winner, but she’ll be the first to tell you that branding doesn’t end there.

“Branding is your organizational DNA,” says Hershey. “It is everything that represents you to the world. It’s how you get the phone, how your office looks, how you look, your website – it’s not just your printed stuff.” In Chris’ office, providing personal client service is such an intrinsic value that she ruled out a voicemail system. “Our clients demand a high level of accountability. They want a live person,” she says, so when they call, they get one – every time.

Myth #4: We’re a foundation. The audience is competing for our attention!
Granted, when you’re handing out money, people will always beat a path to your door. But consider the experience of The California Wellness Foundation (TCWF), which disburses up to $40 million a year to groups that improve the health of Californians. In 1996, TCWF surveyed grantees past and present to ensure that the foundation was properly serving its audience. The feedback was mostly positive, but when asked to evaluate the foundation’s communication materials, some of the respondents described them as “intimidating,” “hard to understand,” and “slick in an HMO way.”

With the help of Cause Communications, TCWF gave itself a makeover that affected all aspects of its visual identity (color, typeface, style of photography, paper stock) and every communications tool (website, newsletter, annual report, stationery, signage, et. al.). The intent was to “warm up” the foundation’s image and make it more accessible to worthy applicants – i.e., community groups that might otherwise have shied away from what they perceived to be a huge, impersonal institution. And it worked: according to VP of Communications Magdalena Beltr�n-del Olmo, more grant applications are coming in, and a higher percentage conform to foundation guidelines, indicating clearer communication with the target audience.

Myth #5: We’re a small nonprofit. We can’t afford it.
Presenting a consistent image to your constituents does not have to be a costly affair. Chris Hershey tells do-it-yourselfers who want to reevaluate their organization’s look to take a piece of paper and divide it into four columns:

  • In column one, list what your organization does – the services you provide, issues you cover, audiences you serve, etc. No judgments or adjectives here – this column is simply for the facts about your work.
  • In column two, list words that describe how your organization approaches these issues and serves its audiences. Are you new and confrontational, established and collaborative, multidisciplinary or single-issue focused? Find the adjectives that your audience would be most likely to use to describe you and list them here.
  • In column three, translate these adjectives into colors, textures, typefaces, and photographic styles. At this stage, it may be useful to have samples to look at (design books or even magazines can help) so you can point to particular shades, fonts, or photos that feel like your organization.
  • In column four, list all your communication tools, from simple door-hangers to television PSAs. Now consider how your list in column three can guide the design of each tool so that all communications materials consistently reflect your image.

A former professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Business, Michael Rothschild now serves as associate editor for Social Marketing Quarterly. “As social marketers, I feel that we have not been concerned enough with developing brands or bonds,” says Rothschild. “We have been more concerned with telling people how to behave and less concerned with building relationships.” Perhaps if we all tried thinking of branding as relationship building, our entire sector will stop being held back by myths.


 free-range follow-up


Branding: Read More About It

The June 2001 issue of Social Marketing Quarterly is devoted entirely to branding in the public interest sector and includes a fascinating study of how the Center for Disease Control revamped its brand. Back issues of SMQ can be ordered by sending an email request To read more about branding on the Internet, two web sites that are chock full of interesting articles are and

Four Questions About Your Logo

In evaluating a logo, Chris Hershey says, most organizations have learned to ask the big question: does it visually embody who we are? Unfortunately, these same organizations often forget to ask several smaller questions that directly affect how the logo appears to their audience, such as:

  • Does it reduce well? In many cases, people will see your logo on a business card or at the bottom of a newspaper ad – locations in which it may appear quite small. If it doesn’t work in those dimensions, it doesn’t work, period.
  • Does it fax clearly? Consider how much of your communication takes place via the fax machine, and then take a look at your logo from the recipient’s perspective. If it’s a gray smudge at their end, you’ve got a problem.
  • Does it work in black and white? If you cannot afford color in every placement, your logo will eventually be rendered in black and white, most notably in newspaper ads. Make sure the image is as clear and striking in this rendition, too.
  • Does it require white space around it? If your logo seems to disappear when surrounded by text or images, you must factor in white space for every placement. That empty field around your logo can be as important as the logo itself.

By definition, your logo stands as the symbol of your organization. Asking these four questions can ensure it’s a symbol your audience will actually see.