Insights

Humanizing Your Brand Starts With Seeing Audiences as People

Embracing the Human Era of Branding

By Laura Staugaitis

We’re in an era of 1-1 connections. From TikTok to reality TV, the opportunity to see, relate to, and understand individual experiences around the world is greater than ever. In the worlds of branding, marketing, and communications, this shift from institutional to personal has been a topic of conversation for several years, reflected in Lippincott’s seminal “Welcome to the Human Era” report. We’ve seen countless resources, and measurable changes, for consumer brands, higher education, and even government.

Audience
Illustration by Merit Myers

But what about social impact? Surprisingly, it’s often overlooked in this obviously emotionally resonant field. Nonprofits and foundations are laser-focused on impact, delivering programs and services to move the needle for your impact groups — as you should be. But amidst these numbers and measurements, demographics and populations are… people. People who are eager to be considered, spoken to, and treated as individual humans with curious minds, unique stories, and emotional motivations.

There are four important groups of people that you’ll want to consider when bringing a more human tone to your messaging. While each group has slightly different priorities, it’s essential to work from a unified brand voice in a variety of circumstances. Generally speaking, every social impact organization addresses these four types of people:

  • Beneficiaries
  • Employees
  • Funders
  • The public

Let’s take a look at how your brand can connect with authenticity and purpose no matter who you’re addressing.

Beneficiaries

Social impact organizations claim to exist in service of people, but can forget to direct their communication to the people they serve. Take a moment to pull up your website’s intake or contact page for your clients, or pick up a pamphlet you distribute at a community center. Does the copy frequently use the word “you”? Does it indicate a direct line of communication between the people at your organization and the person you serve?

In any circumstance, humans find success when met where they’re at; listened to; and treated with respect. While that may seem like a no-brainer, these tenets of relationship-building can get lost in jargon-filled language and bureaucratic procedures. Perhaps it derives from a well-intentioned effort to reassure people that you’re sturdy, official, and therefore dependable. But those language patterns can imply an impersonal distancing, and entrench the already-unequal power dynamic between service provider and beneficiary.

People are coming to you to solve a problem, whether it’s urgent, long-term, or more likely some combination of the two. In fact, many of your beneficiaries might not have chosen you in the first place. That means it’s your job to explain yourself and earn their trust. A key component to earning trust is to open up. Share your why. What drives your organization to do the work that it does? What pisses you off, and what do you hope for? What values do you stand by, no matter what?

Employees

At a large organization with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of employees, your story is necessarily an amalgamation of personal narratives. It would be impossible to include the individual stories of each and every employee in your brand messaging — and not every employee will have a personal or “big picture” narrative about their choice of workplace. But the desire to have a sense of purpose in one’s work is a nearly universal motivator. And people have committed this moment in their careers to your particular organization, doing purpose-driven work that’s demanding of their emotional selves in addition to their professional selves.

Brand messaging is an important opportunity to reunite around a common cause. Internal communications is an obvious focus area for employee engagement. But remember that your team sees, has a stake in, and a relationship to how you present your organization to the world, too. They represent you. They talk about their own work with others, share informational and marketing materials with industry peers, convey your value to folks they provide services to, and not to mention their candor with friends and family — people primed to become part of your supporter network.

Does your organization communicate the hard work and expertise of your team in a respectful and relatable way? Would an employee describe their work in the same way you’ve described it in your informational or marketing materials? Sparking conversation with employees at different levels, and from different angles of your organization can help you better capture the deeply layered character of your organization.

Funders

Funders hold the pursestrings, but behind all those numbers and paperwork are individuals with unique motivations and points of view. It’s on you to listen, identify, interpret, and respond to what makes your funders tick — in a way that respects your own priorities. Lead with why to build a compelling case for the work that you do. By focusing on the motivation that fuels your organization, you can cultivate powerful connections between your, and your funder’s reason for being.

It’s also an important moment to consider your funders because we’re at a critical juncture in funder-grantee relationships. Individual donors, foundations, and grantmakers are recognizing the independent power of their grantees, and many are moving into a role of partner/facilitator, rather than benevolent gatekeeper. Funders are also re-thinking their recurring funding in light of increased attention to equity and inclusion.

Now is the time to consider the strategies behind direct conversations with your funder points of contact; the ways you frame fundraising appeals; and how your brand defines itself more broadly in a way that has implications for funders who’re putting their logo (and their dollars) alongside yours. Examining your presence through the lens of funders will help bring a strategic edge to your brand.

The public

Ahhh, the fabled “everybody else” bucket! Remember, not everyone is your potential supporter. Some folks are apathetic — or even actively opposed to — your cause. Kids? Seniors? High net-worth individuals? All of these people may or may not be part of the public you seek. Putting some parameters around who from the public you’d like to prioritize will help you create more compelling, personal, and relevant messaging. The more specific you can be about who you’re talking to and what points you’d like to make, the more it becomes a conversation, rather than a broadcast.

Learn more about strategies to identity, understand, and reach your target audiences in our Know Your Audience series.

Artwork by Merit Myers

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