The Power of BRANDS

By Sargeant, Adrian; Ford, John B. | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Power of BRANDS


Sargeant, Adrian, Ford, John B., Stanford Social Innovation Review


MOST PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE VALUE THAT strong brands bring to the business sector. Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Toyota, and FedEx are just a few examples of megabrands, each with distinctive personality traits, powering huge corporations. What many people don't realize is that strong brands are equally important in the nonprofit sector.

Ask a typical nonprofit executive to describe the personality of his or her brand, and you are likely to hear traits like "caring," "supportive," and "sympathetic." Or you might hear traits like "pioneering," "transforming," and "engaging." These are all wonderful traits, ones that most people in the social sector would embrace. But therein lies the problem. Brand personality traits like caring, pioneering, and engaging are certainly good ones to have, but these traits are shared by so many other nonprofits that they are almost a given.

To be successful, nonprofits, just like their business counterparts, need to develop brands that convey not only an attractive personality, but also a distinctive one. With more than 1.5 million 501(c)(3) nonprofits in the United States, and another 170,000 in the United Kingdom (where much of the research for this article was conducted), the need to stand out from the crowd has never been greater.

Some nonprofits have done a terrific job developing original and powerful brands, and they have benefited from doing so. Two of the most successful nonprofits in the U.K. are the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

The NSPCC launched its "Full Stop" campaign in 1999 - rebranding the organization around its central mission: ending child cruelty. Its distinctive green "Full Stop" logo is known throughout the country. All aspects of the organization's activities and communications reflect its brand personality authoritative, warm, passionate, and confident. Full Stop has gone on to become one of the leading campaigns in the U.K. It is on target in 2006 to provide more than $400 million worth of programs aimed at protecting children from abuse.

The RSPCA began life in 1824 and is now one of the largest and best-known charities in the UK. - ranking among the top 10 charities for the highest levels of public awareness and recall. The organization's $ 150 million annual budget comes exclusively from donations and bequests, supporting 323 uniformed RSPCA inspectors and 146 animal collection officers who work around the clock to save animals in distress. The use of a blue color palette in its promotional materials positions the charity as a professional "emergency service" in the U.K. The brand is projected as heroic - tough on neglect and cruelty (and those who perpetrate it) - but caring and responsible with regard to their animal clients.

In spite of the success that these and other organizations have had, strongly differentiated nonprofit brands are surprisingly rare. Our research1 shows that most people have a great deal of difficulty discriminating between the personalities of even leading nonprofit brands, seeing most as identical in many respects. Brand values such as caring, supportive, and sympathetic might be worthy ones, but the public sees them as "nonprofit" values that are shared with the rest of the sector. Nonprofit leaders and board members might believe strongly that these sorts of traits are essential to their organizations' identities, but they convey little that is genuinely unique about one's own organization.

If the general public has a favorable perception of the nonprofit sector, does this lack of distinctiveness really matter? Our research indicates that it does. A favorable perception is not enough to get donors' attention. Brands need to be distinctive to cut through the clutter of other nonprofits' communications and the distractions of everyday life. And, as we shall show, differentiation is the key to this task. …

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