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Pop quiz time! What do charity: water, The National Wildlife Federation, and the Special Olympics all have in common? Gold star for you if you said a stand out brand. These organizations and others in the nonprofit sector are household names. They’re memorable and recognizable, which has helped them build huge communities of support. Now, you might be thinking that it’s easy for these organizations to have a great brand because they’re large national orgs with big budgets, right? Well, that might be true, but there are some great branding lessons to be learned from them that you can use at your nonprofit.

Let’s start with the basics—what does branding even mean, bro?

We turned to the pros at Brandingmag who shared this helpful definition: “Branding, by definition, is a marketing practice in which a company creates a name, symbol or design that is easily identifiable as belonging to the company. This helps to identify a product and distinguish it from other products and services.”

So, what exactly does that mean for nonprofits?

Well, we’re operating in a space of more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. alone. Nonprofits need beneficiaries, donors, advocates, and other constituents to be able to distinguish themselves from all the others. Being distinguishable means that you can help more people, raise more awareness, and raise more money. Sounds pretty darn good, right?

Unfortunately, for a lot of nonprofits branding starts and stops with visual identity. Think logo, color scheme, and tagline. But branding is so much more than that! If you think about some of the most distinguishable nonprofits out there, it’s way more than their logo and color scheme that makes them stand out.

Let’s talk about some of those ways and how you can use them to help your nonprofit stand out above the rest.

It’s all about the experience

Think about your favorite corporate brand for a sec. Lululemon, for example, has great brand recognition. Part of what stands out with the Lululemon brand is the experience customers have when buying new active gear. That in-store experience is very similar no matter which store you visit. It’s memorable and contributes to brand loyalty.

Your nonprofit also has an opportunity to create an experience for people who interact with it. Think about the experience donors have when making a gift. Is there anything in your current process that makes the experience surprising, delightful, or memorable? It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture. Sometimes the little things can make a difference, like your thank you page.

Here’s a great example from Conservation International that includes customization, a great video, and share buttons.

Let go of “best practices”

If you want to stand out, you need to question why everyone approaches branding in certain ways in the sector. In the quest to create a “professional” brand, many nonprofits end up sounding the same. What can you do to disrupt typical nonprofit branding practices to stand out?

Fuck Cancer is an example of a disruptive nonprofit brand that starts with embracing the four letter word we all hate to love right in their name. They captured the anger cancer patients and their families feel when diagnosed, which is very different from other nonprofit cancer agencies. They own that they do things differently and that even filters into their approach to cancer. Rather than search for a cure, they focus on early detection and prevention.

Walk the walk

We all know it’s easy to have the best of intentions for something like branding. But then work gets the best of us and it becomes a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must.’ If we’re being really honest with you, stand out nonprofit brands happen because branding is prioritized and ridiculously consistent. On top of that, these brands have top-notch integrity, meaning they always stay aligned with their values and personality.

You can help your organization walk its brand walk by integrating a “brand check” into everything you do. You can ask questions like:

  • Does this project reflect our brand values?
  • Have we captured the brand personality in our approach and execution?
  • Is the visual identity present and consistent?
  • Are all staff using the right materials?
  • When was the last time we did a random brand audit to ensure consistency?

Using these questions and others you may come up with can help you stay on the path to a memorable, consistent, funding awesome brand.

Be known for something

Perhaps one of the most important principles of a standout brand is that it strives to be known for something. These brands put a stake in the ground and unapologetically stand by it. This isn’t something best left to corporate brands. Nonprofits can 100% do this, too. A classic example of being known for something is charity: water. We’d be willing to bet that if we surveyed some random people, we get some consistent answers about what charity: water is known for.

Being known for something in charity: water’s case starts with their mission. It’s focused in a way that allows the rest of their brand to be just as focused. They bring this focus to their content and storytelling, too. Their founder, Scott Harrison, also reinforces what they’re known for with his own thought leadership like his book Thirst. But your CEO doesn’t have to publish a book to support your organization’s thought leadership. Nonprofit Marketing Guide has a great example of how one ED tweets like a boss to support their organization.

Co-branded partnerships that shine

One of the goals of great branding is to create awareness and name recognition. Of course, your organization can go it alone on branding initiatives. But if you want to kick it up a notch, you can also look at creating co-branded partnerships that double your branding power. Nonprofit MarCommunity shares, “co-branding partnerships offer a scalable way to create buzz, build audience reach, and gain new supporters, all while saving on advertising costs.” Sounds awesome, right?

One example of a co-branded partnership done right is between UN Women and Elizabeth Arden. Together, they launched the March On campaign in 2018. They have a great connection in that Elizabeth Arden’s founder marched down 5th Avenue in 1912 for equality and handed out red lipstick to the suffragettes as a symbol of solidarity. Coupled with the choice of Reese Witherspoon (co-founder of Time’s Up Initiative) as their campaign ambassador, you’ve got a solid partnership that makes sense.

There are really so many ways to enhance your nonprofit’s brand to stand out from the pack. Think about taking one unique initiative that could help strengthen your organization’s brand and elevate it to new heights. We know you’ve got it in you. Shine bright and shine on!

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