I’ve worked with numerous charities and NGOs over the last 30 plus years – organisations that are ‘for purpose’ – and it’s the work I’m proudest of. I know that together we made a difference.
A subject that often came up for discussion with these clients was branding. Many of them were suspicious of the whole idea – and I understood why. Branding seemed to be the preserve of big corporations with huge budgets, which they would spend with flashy ad agencies and the like. It felt like an alien world to people who were tackling child abuse, poverty, climate change or species extinctions. It looked like a waste of precious resources.
Also, my clients often felt that any branding exercise would inevitably end up reducing complex purposes to simplistic statements. This would be a travesty – making complex political and economic issues into a soundbite for people with little time or patience. The feeling was that these people must be made to stop and think and pay more attention, understand the complexity, and then, of course, commit their support.
I sympathised, but this was and is still a futile argument. Yes, it’s hard to capture an organisation’s purpose in a single short phrase. But we have to try. And as for the argument that branding is an expensive business, and wasteful of scarce resources – I disagree. In the long run, a clear brand will save you time and money, and attract more support at a lower cost. And you don’t need to spend a fortune with a bunch of people in expensive suits to get your brand sorted out. You can do it yourself, with a little help from one or two experienced consultants, who don’t have to cost the earth.
Why do you need any outside help at all? Because you will need a translator.
The process of defining a brand will involve a version of the following: writing a mission statement; distilling a proposition for your customers/donors/ supporters; and expressing a vision.
You have probably done some or all of this. You probably have some research, too, plus an idea about your audiences, and their media preferences.
In my experience, two things will have happened to all of this. One, the clear and simple purpose which led to the founding or your organisation will have become cloudier and more convoluted over time. Because the world is always more complicated than you think. For example, I worked with a charity who wanted to save tigers. Everyone loves tigers (from a safe distance), so it’s an easy brand vision to sell, right?
But wait. Why do the tigers need saving? Because of human beings doing things like farming, or poaching, selling tiger bones for medicine, or avenging the death of their friends who a tiger has killed. Or changing the climate, or chopping down forests, or killing off prey species. In other words, to save the tiger you have to engage with all kinds of political and economic problems, and also deal with the history of the British Empire, post-colonialism and racist attitudes towards the people who live nearest to the tigers.
And as a result, a wildlife charity can find itself expressing its brand purpose as something along the lines of ‘helping people in poor communities in rural areas to change their farming practices in order to accommodate the needs of the local charismatic mega-fauna, while developing eco-tourism in a non-destructive way as an ancillary economic activity.’
Or something like that.
And thus the second thing to happen is that the organisation now spends more time arguing with itself about what it’s trying to do than going out and getting support to tackle the problem, whatever it now is.
The translator’s job is to cut through all this, and see the wood for the trees. They will remind you of two definitions of a brand. One, a brand is a promise. We will save tigers. The rest of the stuff is for later. Footnotes and appendices. When your supporters have been with you for a few years, some of them – maybe many of them – will be happy to hear about and get behind more complex goals, including political ones. But the brand is still promising to save tigers.
The second definition of a brand is that it is what your customers tell each other it is. And they won’t use terms like ‘capacity building’, or whatever you talk about inside the organisation. They will use words like ‘they save tigers’. Not because they’re simple-minded, but because it’s how non-specialists think.
You must find a simple, emotive way to express your purpose in the words people use when they talk to each other. And to make a promise they can understand.
I said emotive – and here I know I am in dangerous waters, for some organisations. But the whole point here is for you to find a way for your brand to make an emotional connection.
Then people will carry it with them in their hearts. And that’s far more important for a for purpose organisation than a fizzy drink brand, or a car brand, or a bank. You need to push those brands out, and claim your place. Our future depends on it.