By Sruthi Sadhujan, Senior Strategy Director at Hyperakt
Our prospective clients come to us in all shapes and sizes. Some are looking for a website refresh (“we want to tell a more compelling story through digital") while others are looking to spruce up their visual brand (“we want to look as powerful as we feel”). Naturally, as a branding studio, we ask to review everything—their brand strategy (the often-invisible underpinning and rationale that drives the brand), their visual brand (logo, colors, typography, etc.) and their verbal brand (the language they use to express themselves to the world).
The nonprofit sector has come a long way from believing that a brand is a logo and that to rebrand is to simply redesign it. More and more, communications and brand professionals in the space understand that branding—primarily composed of a strategy, a visual identity, and a verbal identity—is a complex web of tangible and intangible elements. For the sake of this piece, let’s focus on brand strategy and verbal identity, the masterplan and the expression of that plan through words and language.
Many organizations underestimate what it means to have a brand strategy and verbal identity. The prevailing wisdom goes something like this: “We have a mission statement. We have values. And our website has language to explain how we work. We don’t need any brand strategy or verbal brand work; we’re all set.”
Not surprisingly, the gap between what an organization believes to be a good-enough brand and the reality…is a canyon, to put it mildly. We have seen self-professed “brands” that are barely documented. We have seen “brands” where the CEO, the director of development, and the junior staff have conflicting ideas about what the organization stands for. We have seen brand language that is as long as a white paper, and as short as a few sentences.
A brand is not just about having the words—whether a few or a lot—on hand. What you choose to say needs to tell a comprehensive (and captivating) story about why your organization deserves to exist in an ever-crowded nonprofit space, how you see the world and how it informs your work, your abiding promise to your stakeholders, and why they should put their faith in you. Put another way, your brand needs to be: concise, clear, consequential, complete, and coherent.
We’ve written before about the ruthless search for your brand’s core. A brand should stand for one thing—a simple, but significant idea that illuminates and informs all the ideas that follow. To get to this shining core of your brand, you have to decide: what is the single most important thing we want to say to the world? Choices abound when building a brand. When you’ve built a habit of saying everything, everywhere, to everyone, always, saying one thing feels scary. But remember, saying everything costs a lot—in attention span, in clarity, in influence. Being concise pays. When you excavate the core idea at the center of your brand, you’ll find focus and confidence in abundance.
Once you’ve boiled down your brand into a singular and simple idea, the next step is to express it clearly. Words are simply the externalization of your thoughts. If your words are not clear, then your thinking is not clear. A good test of whether you have a good grasp of the essence of your brand is to state it in plain language (free of jargon, abstract terms, or elaborate ideas) as if you are explaining it to a child or a grandparent.
A brand is more than a collection of factual statements; it is a persuasive case for why your sector and your cause are better off with your organization in it. A consequential brand is, as a result, ownable, has a specific point of view on the world, and drives a bold stake in the ground in order to distinguish you from the rest. Nonprofits may not be hard-wired to compete in the same way that commercial brands are, but there is a finite amount of funding, donations, and attention spans to tap into. Differentiation is essential to survival, and making sure your brand is consequential is the first step.
A brand cannot be contained in any one thing—not a logo, a tagline, or a mission statement. It’s a load that has to be borne by lots of different pieces. Each piece is carefully designed to play a specific role and together, they tell a complete story of your organization. In the very least, your brand should hit on the following:
Purpose: why do you exist? The emphasis is on “you”, not on “why”. What makes your organization uniquely valuable and worth paying attention?
Differentiator: how do you do the work? What’s your unique approach?
Value proposition: what are the concrete things that you do or provide?
Superpowers: what makes you powerful? What unique abilities do you bring to the work?
Personality: how do you show up in the world?? Are you methodical and discerning? Are you bold and visionary?
When you start assembling these pieces together, a more complex and layered story about your work and organization starts to emerge.
You’ve identified the essence of what you want to say. You’ve boiled it down to simple language. You’ve made sure it's bold yet defensible. You’ve built out all the accompanying pieces. Now…does it all hang together? Like the different instruments in an orchestra, everyone has a different role to play and tune to carry. Together, they all add up to one idea, one experience, and one coherent and singular story.
The five C’s outlined here are not a series of sequential checkpoints. We think of them more like dials that have to be calibrated against each other. When you find that harmonious balance, your brand feels simple, powerful, and compelling. Crafting a powerful brand—its strategy, verbal identity, and its visual identity (which we didn’t touch on as much in this piece)—is akin to lassoing your influence and your reputation, two things that may have otherwise felt outside of your control until now. Finally, you can confidently say that you control your brand, you tell the stories you want to tell, and you leverage your influence to strategically advance your mission. A brand is the superpower you never knew you had, until now. If you're ready to dig into your five C's, let's chat.