The Ruthless Search for Your Nonprofit Brand’s Core Idea

Brand strategy results from synthesizing, distilling, and pruning to get down to a foundational idea. So how do you know when you’ve landed on the ideal strategy?

By Sruthi Sadhujan, Senior Strategy Director at Hyperakt

Your nonprofit organization embodies so many elements: programs, initiatives, issues, teams, passions. And it has so many stakeholders: funders, clients, staffers, partners, community leaders. You’re a lot of things to a lot of people.

But when it comes to branding, your brand needs to communicate one single idea – layered and dimensional of course, but still one that can be boiled down into a short phrase or sentence. Even if you attempt to communicate 20 percent of all the things you are, you risk watering the brand down into a bland discourse about nothing.

A vibrant illustration depicts a star shining brightly in the sky, casting light between two red, rock-like formations adorned with swirling patterns. The background transitions from deep blue to a lighter blue near the star, creating a sense of depth and focus.

Illustration by Merit Myers

Branding is an inherently courageous undertaking that will ask you to make tough decisions, accept complicated tradeoffs, and ruthlessly prioritize. So it’s essential to recognize that when your organization undertakes the huge task of building or renovating your brand, you are implicitly taking on the challenge of simplifying and distilling.

What Does Successful Brand Strategy Look Like?

Most people can identify what the initial phases of brand strategy look like: research, interviews, workshops, competitor analysis. These first steps can feel exciting (“We’ve always wanted to do this!”), illuminating (“I had no idea our team and audiences thought that.”), or magical (“Wow, how did they do that?”).

You’ve checked all the boxes—understood the past, present and future of the organization, you’re familiar with who’s who when it comes to peers and competitors, surveyed your staff, held robust workshops with key stakeholders, interviewed experts and trusted advisors. Is it time to start designing yet?

Research is not the same as a brand strategy. The difference is stark to those of us who do this work regularly, but it can be sometimes challenging for clients to understand. As a nonprofit communications leader, how do you know whether the job is complete and whether you're looking at a successful brand strategy?

To give a simple answer, the easiest test is this: Have you landed on a simple, core brand idea? Are you able to boil the essence of your brand down into a phrase or sentence?

In Search of Tension

To be truly insightful, research has to be filtered through multiple sieves in order to extract meaning. If research is the process of collecting dots, synthesis is the art of connecting them. What patterns and relationships lie hidden in the findings? What story is it telling? Likely, there are hundreds of stories buried inside the research, the art is not just seeing them, but deciding which ones to elevate.

With each round of sieving, we’re prioritizing, making calls, and deciding to leave the less important stuff behind. The more we sieve, deeper layers of information start floating to the surface. Specifically, we’re looking for those unexpectedly shiny nuggets that we call tensions.

Tension is a brand strategist’s not-so-hidden agenda. All of brand strategy is about finding the tension, the challenge, the dissonance in your brand. Where is there discomfort? Where is the challenge and the stakes? It may sound counter intuitive, but when we’ve found the tension, we can breathe easy. While it feels natural to run away from tension, it is actually a sign of untapped momentum you could be leveraging but aren’t because you're stuck and unsure how to resolve it.

There’s interesting stuff in this tension between seemingly either-or choices. It yields the eye-opening, thought-provoking, head-scratching question—who are we, really?–and how might we leverage our brand to minimize misperceptions and emphasize our strengths? How might we use the brand to correct the dissonance?

Enter the Brand Idea

What is tension? How does it show up? And what do we do with it? Here are a few concrete examples of how we've helped clients turn tensions into core brand ideas that in turn fundamentally transformed how they think about themselves and express themselves through their brand.

Brooklyn Defenders

Tension: BDS lawyers provide world class legal support to their clients and fight for justice in the courtroom, in communities, and in the halls of congress. After years of building out their advocacy capabilities, BDS was at a juncture. Were they a legal services provider that also engaged in advocacy? Or were they an advocacy organization that also provide legal services?

Opportunity: Lean into their legal chops, demystify what public defense is, and elevate the humanity, values, and expertise underpinning the 360-degree nature of their work.

Core idea: “Defending you from all sides”

Pete for America

Tension: Campaign brands are the ultimate personal brand, but they almost always feel bland. In an election cycle filled with the most diverse candidate pool ever, how could we leverage the brand to help a relatively unknown candidate breakthrough onto the national stage?

Opportunity: Pete Buttigieg is an unexpected candidate – immigrant parents, openly gay, served in the military, Harvard-educated, mayor of his hometown, child of a small, post-industrial, midwestern city in a predominantly red state. In a time of extreme political polarization, he symbolized a chance to unite the different stripes of America.

Core idea: “Bridging divides”

The Core Idea Unlocks Your Identity

The core brand idea informs every aspect of how the organization presents itself to the world. It provides guardrails and parameters for creative exploration and fuels decision-making based on objective strategic goals. With strategy as the benchmark, the organization can move swiftly and confidently.

Translating from brand strategy to design (both verbal and visual) is both complex and critical. Good strategy is ruthless and runs the ball all the way from research through to the core brand idea. At the end of the day, the best nonprofit brands are clear, simple, and powerful.

If your team is stuck, aiming in the dark, unable to make decisions and uncertain of direction, then we can help. Let us walk you through the branding process with confidence and enthusiasm.

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