By Deroy Peraza
Let’s be real: Branding is expensive. On average, our team puts between 750 and 1,500 hours of work into every branding project we undertake for our nonprofit clients, and the collective group of people representing our client also invests hundreds of hours participating in the process. For large, established nonprofits, full-scale branding projects and all they entail are easily six-figure investments.
As you’re probably aware, a brand is much more than a logo. In fact, the visual design system (logo, color, typography, imagery) is just one facet of branding.
Before even getting to visual design there is research, facilitated collaborative workshops, synthesis, positioning, verbal identity — a sequence of steps specifically designed to create alignment and build a firm, strategic foundation for the brand and requiring the feedback and participation of many stakeholders.
Then after the visual design system is developed, there are many more things to consider: your website, signage, social accounts, swag, events, marketing.
In short, branding is no small task. To do it thoughtfully and well, yes, it’s expensive. Because it takes time.
If you work for a risk-averse, cost-conscious nonprofit committed to using as much of your funding to pursue mission-related activities as possible, it’s hard to imagine making this kind of investment in your organization’s brand. Yet you see other nonprofits launching new brands. So there must be a good reason for such a substantial investment.
Well, don’t take our word for it. We asked some of our clients, who now have the benefit of hindsight, to tell us what convinced them to invest in branding to begin with, and what value their organizations have benefitted from in return for their investment. Here’s what they told us.
Rebranding happens at moments of big transition
Rebranding is not the kind of thing you do on a whim. There needs to be a powerful case for undertaking this kind of endeavor and it needs to be approached with clear-eyed expectations of what it will do for your organization. If you’re looking for a rebrand to transform your organization, maybe you need to pause for a minute and take stock of what is happening within your organization. Rebranding is usually an opportunity to reflect a change that has already happened or one that is underway rather than being the catalyst for a change.
Danielle Kristine Toussaint, former Managing Director of Communications at iMentor and current Chief External Affairs Officer at NewSchools Venture Fund, says “It's time to rebrand when you notice confusion or misalignment with how your key audiences perceive you and how you wish to be seen or when it starts to feel that your current brand is no longer conveying the full story and impact of your work. In most cases, nothing will be broken. But you might notice the current brand language and visuals aren't hitting the mark. One clue that it's time is when you find yourself having to overexplain because your work has evolved to include new dimensions that are not captured.”
An anticipated change in leadership is another major transformation that can prompt the need for rebranding. That was the case with Osborne Association, an organization established in 1933 with a track record of supporting individuals, families, and communities affected by the criminal legal system in New York.
Elizabeth Gaynes, former President and CEO of the, Osborne Association, was then Executive Director and nearing “retirement” (those are her air-quotes; she’s still working on justice reform) after leading the organization for nearly 40 years. She tells us: “The organization had been engaged in a strategic planning process, and was getting closer to searching for a successor, and also had grown in some new areas. We had also been focused more on the issues raised from our work on race equity — both internally and system-wide — and had been looking at the need for a new website, including new mission and core values, and a process to engage staff in these efforts.”
Another example of change that may warrant rebranding might come from the natural evolution of your organization’s work. Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender office that represents over 25,000 Brooklynites a year, tells us “We had been growing and added a number of practice areas since our last website update. The opportunity to bring all the various unit heads and staff from across the organization was very attractive—to unify our mission and find where we had commonality.”
Often, clients come to us with a specific need — often a website overhaul — that pretty quickly reveals itself as something bigger. As Aubrey Fox, Executive Director, New York City Criminal Justice Agency recalls, “We had a legacy website that was built for a very different purpose.” As a government funded, non-partisan agency, they constantly suffered from having their reputation and agenda defined for them. Through the process of redesigning their website, which led to a full scale rebrand of the organization, they realized that their bipartisan status didn’t mean they couldn’t take control of how they defined themselves through their values and purpose.
Other clients are motivated by a series of red flags pointing to the need. Christopher Pearsall, VP of Brand & Communication, DonorsChoose, says: “This need to refresh our brand came from multiple sources in the organization. Our marketing team wanted to set ambitious goals for the coming year around new donor growth, which meant we planned to invest more in brand awareness tactics. Our business development team was scaling up its lead generation benefits, and had heard from prospects and current corporate partners that our brand assets were good but not strong, memorable, and recognizable. On our own team, we spent a lot of time designing collateral for our various internal and external clients, because we didn't have a strong brand foundation — just a collection of fonts, colors, and treatments for our logo. We knew that, before we launched large-scale efforts to reach new audiences, we needed to be ‘ready for primetime’ with a consistent brand look and feel.”
Going into rebranding with clear expectations
“Rebranding is expensive, but it costs much more over time to not invest in putting your best face forward. I always approach the question of when and how much to invest in this process by thinking about what the organization stands to gain in terms of attracting the resources it needs to achieve its mission” says Danielle Kristine Toussaint. “To achieve buy-in around making the investment and to pave the way for adoption across the organization, the rebrand must be positioned not as something that's being done to the staff, but something being done with them. It can't just be lip-service. By far, the costliest investment in this process comes from the commitment of time and thought from various team members and stakeholders to ensure all the decisions made along the way are strategically aligned with the overall vision of the organization. Failure to do this undermines the entire process.”
Lisa Schreibersdorf brings up some important questions all organizations should ask themselves when considering a rebrand: “I think it’s important to decide what your purpose is when starting a rebranding exercise— Who is your audience? What are you trying to accomplish?”
“We were seeking a whole new look, new vibe, new visual personality. And we wanted it to be sensational.” says Alex Steele of Gotham Writers Workshop.
Going into a rebranding project with clear ambitions is important to setting expectations for the effort within your organization. After all, this is an effort that will affect everyone on your team in one way or another. Justifying the expense of rebranding requires a leap of faith so you can help your team envision what life after your rebrand can unlock for your organization.
Yet there is still a lot of apprehension to even using the word rebranding in the nonprofit sector. Elizabeth Gaynes says “I would never have used the word 'rebranded' which seems weird to me.”
It’s pretty typical that nonprofit leaders aren’t thinking about the larger brand when they first come to us and instead begin the process with a more concrete, tactical challenge – redesigning their website. As I mentioned, branding feels like a luxury, something a sneaker or tech company would spend money on, but not an organization that channels its resources to the work. After engaging in the website redesign process, and beginning to wrestle with reframing and reorganizing how Osborne’s work now fits within their organizational strategy, the need for change became more evident. Gaynes says “it seemed important to consider whether our logo and tagline and colors worked well, and how to best describe the work in the short, crisp language that websites require.”
Going through the brand strategy process — getting to the foundational, core idea of the brand — was essential to creating that short, crisp language they were looking for.
Christopher Pearsall tells us, “We wanted to get a professional, polished look and feel for our visual brand, with an asset library that brought to life the work we do. We knew that would be a critical part of reaching our growth goals and deepening our connections and relationships with our stakeholders.”
How our clients have benefited after rebranding
Improved public perception is one of the more direct outcomes of a new nonprofit brand. Says Alex Steele of Gotham Writers, “Our new branding made a big impact on how our company was perceived all over the world, directly increasing our revenue and recruiting, and lifting the spirits of all who worked with us.”
Danielle Kristine Toussaint tells us: “In a previous nonprofit role where I shepherded the rebrand process, [iMentor] had missed its fundraising and program recruitment goals for three consecutive years and staff and board members struggled to tell a clear and compelling story. The rebrand turned everything around. The year following the brand launch, they exceeded their fundraising goals and executed a series of marketing campaigns that reenergized their volunteer base, staff, and board.”
Two years after launching their new brand in 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice had more than doubled visits to their sites and unique visitors. Their development team had been able to leverage their new brand to raise unprecedented funding, doubling the organization’s operating revenue in two years and beginning a trajectory of growth that has been unstopped since.
But ROI isn’t always measured in dollars, and it emerges over time. Value can be expressed in many ways, some more quantitative, some more qualitative: growth in audience reach, fundraising, operating budget, influence, impact, quality recruiting, staff size, team motivation, internal alignment, communication clarity, etc.
Lisa Schreibersdorf says that rebranding “not only was a benefit to Brooklyn Defenders externally, it also helped solidify how we envisioned ourselves internally and became a touchpoint for a unified view of our mission. Creating the tagline “Defend, Advocate, Change” became a way for people to understand us quickly. We use it a lot, including on swag that our staff loves and uses. Our name and purpose has become more familiar and that helps get the support for the many aspects of our organization.
Christopher Pearsall says that DonorsChoose tracked the ROI from investing in their brand in several ways — including the cost- and time-saving that comes when a streamlined brand strategy enables quick visual asset production. He recounts one example from their experience:
“Just after we launched the new brand, COVID-19 hit and we had to reimagine our marketing approach. A national public service announcement (PSA) campaign that we'd been planning had to be scrapped because we couldn't film in classrooms; however, because we had such a comprehensive brand library, our PSA producers were able to pivot and produce an animated PSA using our new brand assets. The PSA production costs were lower because we had such a strong new brand, and the reach was fantastic: our PSA was one of the top in the country, and over 18 months generated over $100 million in free ad placements.”
Lisa Shreibersdorf, of Brooklyn Defenders, echoes this benefit. “One unexpected use of the branding is the color scheme and fonts. The continuity across the many digital platforms and the repetition of the design elements has a way of reinforcing our identity. It’s also time saving when we have to plan something, like what color to paint an office!”
Is it worth it?
Across the board, our clients tell us the investment of time and dollars in a new brand was worthwhile. Elizabeth Gaynes says she’s “proud“ of our work together. Aubrey Fox says the project was “absolutely” worth the investment.
Christopher Pearsall says the new brand has boosted impact, clearly communicated mission and vision, and created a vivid and memorable impression among DonorsChoose’s stakeholders.
Danielle Kristine Toussaint, formerly at iMentor and currently at NewSchools Venture Fund tells us: “When done in the right way with the right partner, a rebrand and breathe new life into an organization and open new possibilities for partnership.”
Lisa Schreibersdorf of Brooklyn Defenders says: “I don’t doubt [rebranding was] worth the time and effort. Our updated brand and website has made a positive impact in a variety of ways, such as attracting the best staff, helping our funders convey their goals and values and being a point of pride for our employees.”
When asked the question of whether he would have made the decision to rebrand knowing what he knows now, Alex Steele from Gotham Writers Workshop puts it succinctly: “Yes and yes and, again, yes.”
If you’d like to learn more about the impact rebranding can have on nonprofit organizations, and what you can expect from your investment, we’re happy to connect.