In the nonprofit sector, the various functions of communication often get blurred, especially when it comes to branding and marketing. While related and interdependent, these are entirely different stages of communication that require different approaches.
Because I love a metaphor, I want to look at how these two stages relate to each other in a way many of you may be able to relate to. I’ll be drawing from two areas of personal experience— I am a father of three kids, and I lead a design studio that has guided dozens of nonprofits through the process of branding (or rebranding). After many years of playing both of these roles in parallel, I started noticing some striking similarities between expecting and nurturing children and expecting and nurturing brands.
You and your partner have decided that you are ready to try to have a baby. It feels like the right moment in your life to take the leap, and you are determined.
When it comes to your nonprofit, you and the communications team are anxiously and eagerly embarking on the process of growing and nurturing an organizational brand. You’ve secured internal buy-in, you’ve identified your stakeholder team, and you’ve got a budget ready to go.
You’re a ball of emotions. You feel scared, expectant, hopeful! You’re entering uncharted territory and you know it will change your future. Already, you feel the weight of enormous responsibility on your shoulders.
The journey will be long. Nine months seems like forever— and also like an impossibly short time for all the things that need to line up to pull this off. You have so much to learn, and you immediately feel overwhelmed by the situation, so you seek comfort and support.
First, you seek advice from your close ones. What will the process look like? What lies ahead? What should you look out for? Who should you talk to? Some of their responses are helpful, others just confuse you further and give you agita. But you want to be as prepared as possible for the endeavor that lies ahead of you.
Your research and the more knowledgeable advice givers help you realize that there are experts who have been through this a million times and know all the ins and outs.
For both expecting parents and brand managers, deciding on a team that provides the right mix of coaching, emotional care, and subject-matter expertise will be one of your first big decisions. These professionals are there to guide you through the process: to bring clarity to the surface, to help you and your team through the wondrous moments and the anxious ones, to be at your side when your brand is born, and to provide ongoing support beyond that. Trusting you’re in good hands will allow you to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The first three months are full of new milestones. This is real! It’s happening. It’s all slowly taking shape. It’s really intense at times, but the progress is palpable, meaningful. It’s so exhilarating to imagine the future. This newborn will be the quintessential reflection of everything that you stand for in the world— so no pressure!
Throughout the brand strategy phase, you and your team will reflect deeply and have discussions together that you’ve never had the opportunity to have in earnest. You’ll reconcile different perspectives, and you’ll align on the values you’ll want to instill in your baby from day one. You’ll also realize how much your work matters to your people— how deep, complex, and impressive it is. Ultimately, guided by your organization’s values and the expertise of your agency partner, everything will begin to crystalize.
Everyone knows you’re expecting and has paid you a visit to share memories, to commemorate this landmark moment. These stakeholders in your life journey have witnessed so much. They provide a wealth of knowledge— some of it validating, some of it humbling, some of it eye-opening. Coupled with what you’ve learned so far, things are starting to come into focus, and you can identify some key learnings. You’re feeling better about how things are progressing.
You’re starting to see fuzzy, abstract pictures that help you imagine what your child is going to look like, and you’ve downloaded a baby name app to start brainstorming. Your core brand idea and creative brief will anchor the work moving forward and help you imagine what your brand will ultimately look and sound like. They will serve as the foundation for the verbal and visual identity design phase of the journey.
You’re in the homestretch now. You’re now at a point when your new brand is almost fully developed— the strategy and idea are clearly reflected in a strong verbal and visual identity. You’re convinced your baby waved a peace sign at you with their tiny fingers in the latest sonogram. You’ve gotten to see some convincingly real 3D renderings that help you picture what they’ll look like someday. You can’t wait for the world to be able to see what you’ve gotten to see so far!
But first, you must prepare for delivery day. You pack your bag with all the essentials: comfy pillow, changes of clothes, a good book, a tightly designed brand guide, and all the templates you need to breathe life into your new brand. You even put together a new website to share this special moment with everyone you know. You’ve done all your last minute quality assurance to make sure everything is ship-shape.
You’re also ready to tell the world! You’ve queued up your social media launch posts and scheduled the newsletter blast you’re going to send to the thousands of people on your mailing list once your baby is born. Contractions start kicking in. Let the brand rollout begin. This kid is ready for the world!
Congratulations! You have a healthy new brand with curly toes, big cheeks, and real loud pipes. Everyone you’ve shared images with has swooned. Your team is so proud and so invested in what you’ve made together. You feel more synergy than you ever have before.
Then you realize you have to teach this baby how to do everything. Factory settings are limited to crying, sleeping, and waste removal. Walking, talking, drinking, eating, thinking, strong values, empathy, making a living— that’s all up to you now. Buckle up: It took you nine months just to get to the starting line. Now that you have this baby, what are you going to teach them?
How are you going to guide them as they evolve and grow?
Your new brand will help focus your team’s culture and communication like never before. It will inspire your people to publish more content and share more ideas. It will help you attract new funders and talent. But accomplishing these things will require consistent, careful stewardship. Your new brand is the tool your organization has been waiting for. You and your team now have to make sure it’s always a living brand that never forgets what you stand for.
How will you leverage it to continue building on the ideals at the heart of your organization? How will it inform people about your work, and inspire them to support it? How will your new brand help you rally and strengthen your community? How will you use it to help you change the world?
You have a big responsibility ahead of you to shepherd this newborn through the world, but the potential is endless. Let the parenting fun begin.
My years as a parent have taught me the importance of having everything we communicate to our kids be rooted in a clear, consistent, shared understanding of what we value most. When we veer off and behave in unexpected ways, they spot and question it immediately.
Some nonprofits pay little attention to branding, thinking their dollars are better spent on marketing— or, they speed through a surface-level rebranding effort that ignores the absence of internal alignment and clarity about how you communicate your work. These organizations run all kinds of siloed campaigns and events without a strategic or visual foundation. Their communication ends up feeling inconsistent and dispersed. Their teams waste precious time and energy searching in the dark for a unifying idea and tone to guide their work.
Others invest resources and energy in a rebrand, but lack the discipline and long-term commitment to communicate it to the world and truly leverage their investment.
Branding— and I promise this is my last swing at the metaphor— takes a village. Your team, your board and funders, your community, and a group of experienced and compassionate professionals who can shepherd your organization safely and confidently through the process. We are those professionals, your designated care team. If you’re in the early stages of this life-changing experience for your organization, we should talk right away.
Marketing is the expression of your organization’s DNA, as it is encoded in your brand. It has the potential to enhance and activate your organization’s behavior. And, like parenting, it doesn’t ever really stop, not even when your nonprofit has reached maturity and is succeeding in living up to its mission.
This essay was originally posted in the newsletter Insights by Hyperakt, a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. Illustration by Merit Myers.
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