The Maple Syrup Approach to Nonprofit Branding

How to develop a Grade A brand that distills your organization's pure authenticity.

By Deroy Peraza, Partner at Hyperakt

There are cheaper, faster shortcuts for everything. But the real question is: Are they worth the tradeoff?

I’m a big fan of metaphors and I have a serious sweet tooth, so I’m going to bring those two loves together to make my point a little tastier.

I love maple syrup. Not the crappy generic kind labeled “syrup” (and formerly named after a racist stereotype) that most Americans grew up with — that’s just corn syrup. I love the real thing made from actual maple trees. Admittedly, the real stuff is expensive and not as widely available as the fake stuff. It’s so good, though, that I’d rather have real maple syrup once a year than have the fake stuff once a week.

Illustration by Merit Myers

Making maple syrup is a blend of science, patience, and intuition. It takes 10 gallons of maple sap to make 4 cups of real maple syrup. It takes a week to collect that much sap from a single large maple tree. On a cold day it takes 9 hours to evaporate 10 gallons of sap over an outdoor fire, and another 2 hours on a stove to reduce it to syrup. The whole process has to happen at just the right time of year, with just the right tree (any maple tree that’s over 10” in diameter), with specialized tools (drill, tap, hook, bucket, pots, pans, hydrometer, thermometer, filters, bottles), and most of all, a ton of patience and perseverance. It can’t be mass produced. This is why good quality maple syrup isn’t cheap: It involves a lot of effort and time, and shortcuts are hard to come by.

The result is liquid magic. There are few things on this planet that taste better than real Grade-A maple syrup.

The Maple Syrup Approach to Branding

So, what does syrup have to do with branding?

With both, there’s a cheap, fast route that yields similarly unsatisfying end products.

When mission-driven organizations like yours condense the branding process, there isn’t time to allow your people or your clients to be involved. You won’t hear different perspectives, you won’t tackle existing tensions that prevent your team from being on the same page, you won’t hear new ideas from all the smart, thoughtful, experienced people that make up your organization. The fast route sets all that aside and focuses instead on a select group of leaders’ vision for the organization. Or worse, it focuses on the visual cosmetics of the brand. But it’ll be fast and cheap.

Think about it: The “products” that your nonprofit offers are the ideas of the people who work on your team. The only way, then, to create an authentic, resonant brand is to meaningfully include them in the process. To create the time and space for them to be heard, for conversations to unfold, for ideas to sync. The sap needs to come from a real tree.

Take Time, Build Momentum

Often, nonprofits come to us in something of a rush to develop or redevelop their brand. Maybe there’s external pressure, like an upcoming event that serves as an artificial deadline to get the work done.

And we understand that nonprofit leaders feel deliberation fatigue. Everything in the nonprofit world takes time: to discuss, research, build consensus, decide. When the world moves faster than your decision-making system does, you risk getting left behind.

Brand development is a big, lengthy project, and you’d like to move fast, to make quicker decisions. But there’s a process to follow, with few shortcuts. Like making pure maple syrup.

Branding is one area where your organization’s natural tendency toward thoughtful, informed decision making is the right path. Because your people are the core of the process, their input is essential.

When we guide nonprofits through the branding process, we impose some urgency – we keep the sap flowing. We take the time it requires, knowing that we can’t wait for the perfect answer to surface. We have to stop boiling the sap at some point or you'll be left with no syrup.

For example, we are very deliberate about who we talk to and the kind of feedback we invite; it’s not about quantity but quality. We gain buy in from stakeholders along the way so that we don’t just unveil the brand and expect them to be excited and to get it. If everyone in the organization doesn’t understand where the brand comes from, what it’s about, and what it means, then we won’t have their commitment to bringing the brand to life. Everyone in the organization has to be an expression of the brand.

And most important, a strong brand makes every decision easier, because you’ve sharpened the pencil, created a tight framework for making strategic and tactical moves.

How Long Does Branding Take?

So that’s your question: How much time should my organization expect to invest in a brand or rebrand? In our experience, it takes around 3 months to lay the strategic foundation through research, deep conversations, and workshopping. The strategy work always feels like the longest part of the process because you don’t see something tangible. Anticipate another 3 months to refine the verbal and visual expression of the brand. Tactical deliverables like a website might then take 6-9 months.

Here’s the important thing to know: As with maple syrup, the process gains momentum over time. Gathering sap takes a week or more — but once the fire starts burning and the liquid begins to condense to its essence, evaporation happens faster and faster. Brand development is the same way. Doing the difficult work early makes the rest of the process more efficient. Start with a lot of raw material, then boil it all down until you have something that’s pure and authentic.

Maybe you’re concerned that the new brand — which you know you need — will require a long, exhausting process with unsatisfactory results. We understand that the fear is real. But that’s not our way. So let’s have a conversation to get started. We’ll bring the pancakes.

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