Brand is a magnet for opportunity

This article will share some of my thoughts about value of branding for social enterprises and non-profit organizations, and how a good brand exerts a magnetic force around them.

Those organizations that have stronger brands are more likely to attract good funding, business opportunities and partnerships. This is a simple truth I’ve come to realize in my 20+ years of consulting.

A good brand is an asset that will enable your organization to be noticed amidst the 150,000 non-profit organizations and social enterprises around you.

Submitting a proposal in the absence of a good brand is much more difficult – such organizations will require much more innovation and tenacity to succeed.

In sharp contrast are those organizations which are approached by most of their donors and customers. It may seem unbelievable, but I’ve worked with these organizations and seen how they do things.

I’ve recently worked with a brand designer and public relations (PR) specialist on some projects and have gained recent insights into the value of this discipline. Here is some of what I’ve learnt.

Defining a brand

I define a “brand” as a sense or feeling about an organization. A good brand is an asset and a poor brand a handicap. I believe that a good brand engenders trust that an organization is everything it claims to be and therefore able to deliver on its promises. A brand is experienced by all stakeholders, regardless of whether they are employees, partners, customers, donors or investors.

People can easily see through a superficial or incongruent brand. Strong brands are congruent; they are truthfully experienced by all involved.

Building a brand

Organizations build their brands primarily through doing good work and fulfilling their promises to their stakeholders. No amount of marketing activities can substitute for poor performance or a lack of integrity.

However, it is possible for organizations to use PR to promote themselves through their communication channels. This helps to amplify their brands – communicate them more widely and regularly.

Benefits of building a brand

I’ve noticed several benefits of investing in marketing and PR and building a good brand. Here are five of the main benefits I’ve observed.

First, your organization is more likely to be approached by donors, partners and customers directly. These stakeholders would have heard about the good work of your organization and want to support you. For example, I work with Steps, a small non-profit organization that has worked with its partners to treat over 8,500 children born with clubfoot in Southern Africa. Because of its good work, and the way it markets itself, this organization is directly approached by most of its donors.

Second, if your funding proposal is submitted to a corporate social investment (CSI) department and foundations along with 20,000 other proposals, then it’s more likely to be identified and added to the shortlist for more detailed consideration. CSI departments and foundations tend to be risk averse. This makes them reluctant to fund unknown organizations. They also want to associate their own brands with success, and don’t want to miss out on a ground-breaking project.

Third, you will have much more success getting an email or phone-call through gate keepers such as receptionists and personal assistants. For example, I’ve supported Dr Wasserman, a social entrepreneur and celebrity (“Dr Eve“), who has spent a couple decades advocating for open conversations about sexual health in South Africa. I’m always amazed at how easily she gets through gatekeepers when she has an important message to share.

Four, a good brand means that the people working with you, and even the people consuming your goods and services, are more likely to sell your organization on your behalf. They will act as brand ambassadors. For example, I use a piece of task management software called Nozbe and carry a rucksack called Goruck. The members of these communities are so loyal to these brands that they consistently promote them and support other users.

Five, a strong brand can give your organization an advantage in negotiations, assuming it has the required skills and has planned its negotiating strategy. I’ve recently worked with a non-profit organization that was doing essential work with women in the human rights field. But among donors who had not heard of them, their ability to negotiate favourable terms was undermined.

Next steps: what can you do?

I suggest you start by reflecting on the power of brand and its ability to attract opportunity and open doors. How strong is your brand, and to what extent is it supporting or undermining you?

Then think about the central messages that you want everyone who works with your organization to experience. How does this compare with people’s experiences and the messages currently being transmitted? Is it congruent?

Think about what your organization stands for in the world. How does it seek to position itself in people’s minds? I love what Paul Jarvis says:

“I like the idea of focusing your work around a “rallying point.” It’s more than simply branding, messaging or even business goals. It’s a line in the sand, with your work and the values it represents on one side and everyone or everything else that doesn’t fit on the other side. It immediately illustrates who’s part of your small army.”

What he is saying is that you can’t please everyone or compromise your values. You must take a stand.

Finally, consider what are one or two marketing and PR activities that will be most effective at amplifying the brand of your organization. It is much better to be focused and choose a limited number of tactics than diffuse your efforts among too many tactics. I’ll be unpacking this further in a subsequent article.

Social enterprises and non-profit organizations should learn how to use the magnetic force of branding to open doors and attract opportunities. This is a powerful but overlooked opportunity.

Thanks for Andy Simpson (Imani Development) and Philip Anastasiadis for useful feedback on this article.

Cultivating strategic clarity.

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