If you’ve ever researched branding you’ve probably heard jargony terms like “brand proposition”, “brand promise”, ‘positioning”, “personality”, “voice”, or “unique selling proposition (USP)” tossed around. Any rigorous rebranding process typically starts by establishing a clear strategy, using at least one, if not many, of these approaches. There are a lot of approaches for developing brand strategy, any one of which can help your team get clear on what you’re trying to communicate.
A well-developed brand strategy should help everyone see how your strategic plan or mission comes to life in day-to-day communications, both inside your organization and outside of it. But too often, nonprofits and businesses view their brand strategy as something that’s only useful when creating a new logo or tagline-- not as something that can help transform how everyone in your organization communicates every day. When folks criticize branding as “navel-gazing”, decorative, or extraneous, it’s usually because the team behind it has developed it in a vacuum. A solid nonprofit brand must originate from and be deeply tied to its vision, mission, and values, and bring them to life in dynamic ways that inspire the hearts and minds of people inside and outside of the organization.
BIg Duck’s model for building strong nonprofit brands, which we call “brandraising”, uses two simple brand strategy concepts: Positioning and Personality. Both can help anyone on your staff– from your staff leadership and board to to your programs team and beyond– write, speak, and behave in ways that bring your mission to life and create a truly on-brand experience of your organization, head-to-toe.
Positioning is the primary idea you want people to associate with your organization, and it’s a North Star everyone on your team can use to guide their actions daily. It’s closely related to your mission, but more focused on and oriented toward how you want to be perceived, not what you do.
For example, Auburn’s mission is, “Auburn equips leaders with the organizational skills and spiritual resilience required to create lasting, positive impact in local communities, on the national stage, and around the world. We amplify voices and visions of faith and moral courage. We convene diverse leaders and cross-sector organizations for generative collaboration and multifaith understanding. And we research what’s working — and not — in theological education and social change-making.”
Walk into their office or meet with their team and you’ll see that mission is used rigorously to inform their work. But that language isn’t easy for staff to remember and use with every interaction. Their positioning—“Auburn is the premier leadership development center for the multifaith movement for justice.”
Publicly, Auburn shares and promotes its mission. Internally, its positioning statement gives staff a tool to express their big idea so they can be sure that everything they do supports and advances it.
Positioning is often reductive: a simplification of what you actually do. It’s hard to get it right, but when you do, it’s a useful pocket-tool you can grab handily on the fly.
When developing your organization’s positioning statement, make sure yours is simple, clear, and usefully distinguishing from others in your space. Remember, it’s not always something you state publicly, so you can get away with things like “the leading organization...”, for instance, which could be problematic in public-facing language.
Got your positioning pinned down? Here’s a few ways it can be used inside your organization for maximum value.
- Integrate an overview of your mission and positioning into your onboarding trainings for new staff and board members. Make sure everyone is clear what they are and how to use them. Consider developing a set of role plays that give them a chance to practice.
- Use positioning to guide how you write and speak. For example, give the positioning to the board member who’s going to speak at your upcoming event and frame it as the ‘cheat sheet’ for what they need to communicate about your organization.
- Use positioning to help determine if new materials your vendors develop are on strategy. Does that new brochure or website, at a glance, support your positioning?
Personality is the tone and style your organization uses to communicate. It’s relatively easy to develop and can have a transformative effect; suddenly, everyone’s writing, speaking, and representing your organization consistently. (Read Farra’s article The Power of Brand Personality at your Nonprofit for more.)
If positioning is a more perception, or communication-oriented way to think about your mission, than personality is a more perception or communication-oriented way to live and express your organization’s values for many (but not all) organizations.
If you’ve ever taken a class at Soul Cycle you know their staff are dynamic examples of living the brand. No matter which location you visit, Soul Cycle staffers are unrelentingly friendly, helpful, and upbeat, no matter their role or level of seniority. Sure, they have bad days, but they are clearly trained to turn on the charm whenever a customer walks in. Wouldn’t it be nice if your staff were perceived that way by your donors, clients, and board members too? They can be-- but first you need to hire and train them to do so– otherwise, they’ll continue to do what most people do naturally, just be themselves, for better and for worse.
Auburn’s personality is Loving, Entrepreneurial, Courageous, Multifaith, Progressive, and Respected. This list of guiding attributes is distinguishing and practically useful for writing, speaking, and other external communications.
Some of my favorite organizational personalities have had words in them like, “menschy” and “fierce”– unexpected, memorable, and useful words that staff can connect with and that help differentiate.
Once you’ve established a list of about five adjectives that reflect the personality you’d like your organization to express consistently, consider bringing it to life in these ways.
- Integrate your personality into hiring practices and training programs. Want to establish your organization as welcoming, warm, and embracing? Doing so means you need to hire people who are, themselves, likely to be those things, or at least know how to act that way.
- Create on-personality spaces, events, and partnerships. Paint the walls and put up artwork in your public spaces that reflect your personality. Pick event venues and partners whose personalities are “on brand” for you.
- Celebrate in personality-centric ways. Each week, a staff member at Big Duck gets to annoint next week’s “Duck of the Week”, an honorary, celebratory title with no responsibilities at all. The Duck of the Week celebration, along with others we integrate into our weekly Team Time, help us live our friendly personality trait. Similarly, sharing industry research, great case studies, and other resources each week keeps our team on our toes and better able to live our smart personality trait.
- Use personality to guide which social media channels you use and how you use them. Is your organization inclusive, perhaps you should convene an online community. Do you want to get your supporters to see you as energetic and gutsy? Consider hosting a takeover of your Instagram or Twitter accounts. Intellectual and inquisitive? Ask questions and moderate spirited debates via comments or Facebook Live.
Ready to get started putting positioning and personality into action? Read more on how to create a winning brand strategy on Big Duck’s blog or in my book, “Brandraising”, learn how we brought Auburn’s brand strategy to life, or give us a call.