Branding Nonprofits

In the new issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, there is an article called The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector. (Also see Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations)

I had two initial thoughts when seeing this article. First, I thought of the marketing and branding of religion–something that might broadly be considered part of the nonprofit realm. As I noted in Brands of Faith, religious organizations need to market, and more specifically brand, themselves in order to remain relevant in a society where we see 3000+ marketing messages per day. I see parallels here as many are opposed to faith branding, just as many might have qualms about nonprofit branding.

Second, I thought about what happened when the Komen Foundation fiercely protected its brand like a mother bear protects her cubs. Anyone using “(fill in the blank) for the Cure” found itself on the wrong side of a law suit (see the Huffington Post). Evidence, one would think, that the organization was taking itself too seriously and losing sight of its ultimate mission–to help alleviate cancer–and not to promote itself.

Thus, branding nonprofits in and of itself is not a bad thing; it might be quite good and the authors of the SSIR take a balanced approach in their thinking. I particularly like that they address trademark protection (Komen’s issue), under the concept of brand democracy.

Brand democracy requires a fundamental shift in the traditional approach to brand management. Organizations aspiring to brand democracy do not police their brands, trying to suppress unauthorized graphics or other representations of the organization, but strive instead to implement a participatory form of brand management. They provide resources, such as sample text and online templates, that all staff can access and adapt to communicate the mission, strategy, work, and values of the organization.

Much of what appears in the article, however, seems to be about integrated marketing communications (IMC) as applied to nonprofits. Again, that might be a good thing. My fear is that nonprofits might take on the mission to brand themselves so that can become big enough to co-brand with the for- profit sector. Let’s hope that is not the goal.

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