Building Powerful Brand Identities

By Alan Siegel, Founder, and President, Siegelvision

The rapid, unrelenting pace and overwhelming quantity of information in our society makes it a difficult time to communicate, to cut through the noise, clutter, and falsehoods. It is challenging for institutions in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors to define who they are, what they stand for and why they should be supported. Not-for-profits are struggling to differentiate their organizations from competitors in the same space, to attract supportive board members, to meet their budget requirements and raise their visibility and relevance.

The cornerstone of an authentic and distinctive identity is a clearly defined purpose

An organization’s purpose is its reason for being in business – the problems and opportunities it seeks to address. Purpose replaces the generic, predictable, and uninspired mission and vision statements that employees can’t remember, or don’t pay attention to when making decisions.

Putting effort into defining a crisp, dynamic purpose statement provides a framework for making strategic decisions. By fashioning a bold position that differentiates you from the competition, you can create a penetrating brand voice and foster a culture.

Take time to construct a bold and even passionate positioning

Positioning is the cornerstone of your marketing communications program. When well-crafted, it should raise visibility and relevance by clearly stating what you stand for in ways that are meaningful for both employees and external audiences. It is a standard bearer – a rallying cry for making strategic decisions, dramatically setting your organization apart from its competitors and engaging your staff to live the brand.

Unfortunately, we are often bombarded by unintelligible taglines masquerading as purpose-based positioning. Always strive to construct a positioning statement that captures the passion, personality, essential strengths and future vision of your institution.

Defining your brand voice

The overwhelming number of advertising campaigns and related marketing communications programs produced by all types of organizations are uncoordinated and fragmented, don’t reflect their distinctive personalities and certainly have no consistent message across various media platforms.

Most of the branding programs I have observed and even built in recent years have a nucleus of four or five words selected to define the tone and character of their brand communications. Calibrating an organization’s voice to project the right pitch, tone, and volume is only part of the equation. This wildly disruptive environment requires a more robust approach to build a voice program. The program must not only embrace how you speak (the tone and character of your verbal and visual communications) but what you say (the messages and content of your communications), as well as how you behave (how you interact with your core audiences to live the brand). This more expansive definition of brand voice reinforces that brand voice has been elevated from one of the many components used to define a brand to the focal point for expressing the brand.

In an environment where speed, novelty, distraction and noise rule, a brand voice program faces new challenges. Consideration must be given to personalize communications, provide for two-way conversations, respond instantaneously to social media rumors, and create customized communications on expanding digital platforms.

We all acknowledge that social media shapes the news. For many people, social media is the new TV. These media platforms don’t allow room for nuanced portraits or artistic layouts. It takes a lot of imagination to generate quick snatches of graphic imagery that captures your voice. Anything that can create that “red thread” in every touchpoint, is a crucial ingredient in your voice.

Other components of an effective voice program must include personalizing your voice, using what you already know about someone to enrich each interaction. This means addressing your employees, donors, and service recipients with communications that recognize your relationship with them. As AI technology continues to advance, these individuals will expect confirmation that they are not merely a number.

Brand narrative

There is a growing body of evidence that a brand narrative is more effective than a fact-rich, rational presentation. Not-for-profits should aim to transform their strategic framework into a coherent, emotional story that projects the positioning in a proud, bold voice. A good example of a brand narrative is from the City University of New York:

There’s a statue in our harbor that welcomes the world, promises hope, opportunity and a better life.

And there is a unique institution in our city that helps all New Yorkers achieve just that.

The City University of New York.

It has lifted generations of families. Educated millions of people. A recent in-depth study showed that CUNY propels almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford, and Chicago, combined. It is one of the most noble, worthy and just creations that this city has ever constructed.

It is one of the wonders of this city and the envy of the world.

Use it. Support it. Brag about it. But never underestimate it.

There is nothing like a powerful story of demonstrated success to make the point.

How to go about building your branding program

As you begin thinking about your successful branding program, consider an inside-out approach to developing the foundation elements of the brand. This is when an internal team sometimes supported by an outside consultant tap into the intellectual firepower of the organization to develop the purpose, position, voice and messaging. Too many organizations look to market research with external audiences to lead them to a solution. Steve Jobs expressed the weakness in this approach when he said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new…It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Once strategies have been developed, validation research is appropriate to confirm that what has been developed is clear (people understand it), credible (it is believable), and most importantly, that it generates supportive behavior (stimulates fundraising, attracts employees, aligns the organization’s activities, reassures board members and raises external visibility).

It is also important to establish clear criteria for measuring the achievements of the program over time. This will mitigate subjective reaction and maintain focus. To keep the program current, it is wise to conduct periodic research to check brand performance.

One of the major obstacles to creating and implementing first-rate brand identity programs is the approval process. Strong leadership is required to present the program to the Board, donors, and employees with confidence and conviction. Too many first-rate programs deteriorate when people in the organization resist progress because they fear change. David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy Advertising, who helped build modern advertising, explained the importance of leadership for any successful communications program: “How many statues do you see in Central Park of committees?” Great ideas and distinctive voices are not produced by committees. Decisive leadership inspires, supports and builds distinctive voices.

Everyone in the organization is a brand ambassador whether generating correspondence, answering phones, writing e-mails, creating presentations, greeting the public, drafting proposals or developing marketing materials. It is not the sole responsibility of marketing, communications and public affairs departments to communicate the brand voice. It’s really important to provide a training program—including senior management. To break through noise and complexity there is no substitute for streamlining communications.

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough the credo that I live by, clarity above all. A clear brand voice is essential in all organizations, philanthropies among them.

(Special to the Philanthropy Journal)