Branding Nonprofits is Different from Companies. Here’s Why, and Why it Matters.

It’s tempting to look at consumer brands for inspiration when creating a brand for your organization. But are they really a reflection of who you are?

By Deroy Peraza, Partner at Hyperakt

One of the things we love about working with nonprofits is that when we talk with our clients, regardless of their rank within their organization, they convey passion and pride for the work they do.

In the commercial space, this kind of enthusiasm is generally reserved to a founding CEO and their founding team but rarely permeates much further. It might be cool to work for a sneaker company, and the swag is great, and your friends might envy your job. But at the end of the day, you’re selling sneakers, not changing the world.

A stylized illustration showing a person viewing their distorted reflections in different funhouse mirrors. The orange and yellow human figure stands in front of mirrors that warp their shape, set against a purple background.

Illustration by Merit Myers

Goals in the nonprofit world tend to be about helping people lead healthier, safer, happier, more dignified, more fulfilling lives. If you work at a nonprofit, you can claim this goal without an ounce of marketing bullshit; it’s what gets you up in the morning. Sure, there are frustrations related to bureaucracy, the slow pace of change, and lower pay scales, among others, but these are things that plague commercial enterprises as well. At least you are clear on why you do what you do.

This mission-driven work seems like an easy sell from a branding and marketing perspective, right?

Not so fast. The challenge in branding a nonprofit organization lies in the fact that these goals and ideals, no matter how noble, are hard to define and communicate. It’s easy to explain and market a new sneaker.

Branding commercial enterprises and purpose-centric nonprofits are two vastly different projects. The reasons for those differences are important to understand—especially if you’re considering an outside partner with the right kind of expertise for your organization’s branding effort. Let’s look at some of them.

Community, not Customers

The most important difference between branding nonprofits vs. consumer product or service companies is their relationship with their audience. Breaking it down, both the relationship and the audience are far more complex for mission-driven organizations.

For commercial enterprises, this is pretty straightforward: Your audience is your customers and potential customers and your job is to find compelling ways to market your brand and your product to them so you can attract and keep them as long-term buyers. It’s a purely transactional relationship.

As a nonprofit, the closest thing you get to a customer is the visitor to your website who clicks on your Donate button and makes a contribution. More broadly, this audience relationship is more community building than customer harvesting.

What you’re selling is intangible (and we’ll dig into that more below). You’re not marketing to customers, you’re advocating to your community so they can carry your message and help your ideas, your services, your policies reach farther, longer, and higher. You’re building a base to help you support the long term sustainability of your organization. And if your organization’s brand can make them feel something, they’ll be part of your world for years to come. Nonprofits should aim to build focused communities that engage deeply. That requires a different approach to branding than building a massive base of buyers.

What’s more, a nonprofit’s audience profile is wildly complex. The sneaker brand might target a single cohort, like fitness-minded young women or outdoor-adventuring GenX guys. But a nonprofit needs to speak to donors, policy-makers, clients, referring partners, and even a skeptical public—all of whom have vastly different demographic and psychographic profiles. The brand has to address them all, catch their attention, engage their hearts and minds.

People, not Profit

Commercial entities are marketing products or services with the goal of making a profit. For nonprofits, whether you’re focused on publishing research, advocating for policy change, protecting people’s rights, or providing social support services for those who need them, the focus is on the people involved—the people doing the work and the people benefiting from it.

If your people and their ideas are not embedded in the way your organization operates, how you communicate, and how your brand expresses itself—if it’s all just about the whims of a powerful executive director who embodies the collective—it’s time to raise an eyebrow. This isn’t to say that nonprofits can’t have strong, visionary leaders (they should), but they do need a greater degree of accountability, which means people across the organization should have a seat at the table in order to leverage the expertise and experience of those doing the work.

On a branding effort, a commercial entity might have a group of three or four decision makers relying on consumer focus groups and market research. When we lead nonprofits through a branding initiative, we’ll include as many as 20 internal stakeholders in the process. They don’t all hold decision-making power, but they all bring different facets of the work to light. Triangulating ideas from this many stakeholders requires time and patience, but it offers a more nuanced and robust understanding of their role in the world, which is the source material for a robust, resonant nonprofit brand.

Values, not Lifestyle

Your nonprofit competes with slick consumer brands for people’s attention. Explaining what you do is a constant challenge.

For commercial brands, shiny glossy photos of the product, staged with just the right lighting, are the centerpiece of all marketing. Adding some functional benefits of the product and how it’s going to make someone’s life easier is great, but it’s really about how the product fits into, or creates, a desirable lifestyle.

Nonprofits sell ideas, not things. Branding is about values, not lifestyle. And your marketing should build resonance with your audiences so they can imagine the world you’re seeking to create through your work. It should tap into their altruistic moral compass while presenting your beneficiaries through a dignified, positive lens that presents them on their best day rather than their worst.

Complex Ideas, not Simple Products

The day-to-day work of nonprofits is strategic, complicated, nuanced stuff that can get technical and wonky. Nonprofits might have dozens of programs, research areas, and tactics that work one way in some localities and different ways in others. You rely on rows and rows of data and white papers to legitimize your work among your peers. You lobby for hyper-specific policy changes on what might seem to the average person like obscure micro-issues, because they affect broader systemic problems. You have to educate the public about topics they don’t know or misunderstand.

All of this breadth and depth is important to your nonprofit’s brand. The challenge is in unpacking all of this work in ways that don’t confuse, bore, or intimidate your audience.

You need to rummage through that haystack of complexity to find the sharp needle of clarity. Frame your work through relatable human stories that spark emotional connections, explain things in layman’s terms rather than jargon, and organize your work intuitively. Most important, all of this needs to ladder up to a purpose statement and a brand idea that underpins the work of your organization.

Systemic Change, not Instant Gratification

Consumer brands sell products and services with the promise of instantly making consumers feel more attractive, more fit, more connected, more in-the-know, more special. How often does a commercial brand try to sell you a vision of what the world can look like in 5, 25, 50, or 100 years? Take Tesla, for example: They sell beautifully designed and highly covetable cars that happen to be electric. They don’t sell a clean energy future.

If you’re a large nonprofit, philanthropy, or social enterprise, however, you’re playing a long game. You don’t do what you do for quick wins because anyone who works in the nonprofit sector knows how hard those are to come by. Of course, some service providers have immediate impact, but most nonprofits are focused on systemic change. Getting audiences to care about and invest in ideas and changes they might not even live to see, or that they’ll see only moderate progress in, is a daunting task.

Humility, not Ego

Many commercial brands do everything they can to catch attention and prove relevance. Often, they turn to branding, design, and ad agency partners that have portfolios full of flashy, slick consumer product work.

But you know nonprofits are different. Your work is not about you; it’s about them. So your organization’s brand, and the partner you engage to help build it, need to put ego aside and listen. Successful nonprofit brands redirect the spotlight away from the organization itself and onto the clients, partners, or grantees they serve. Branding these mission-focused entities requires patience, humility, respect, and restraint. And a partner with deep experience in this realm.

If you work at a nonprofit, there’s nothing easy about your job or your mission. There’s also nothing easy about undertaking the task of reflecting your work through your organization’s brand in a crowded, hypercompetitive media landscape. It can be tempting to look at consumer brands (and the agencies that produce them) and think, “That’s what we need.”

We’re here to help you fight for the right approach for your organization and make the branding process way less daunting than it needs to be. Let’s talk.

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