The value of brand design for nonprofits or foundations — when done right — is not just in the outcome but in the process. Design is the act of (re)imagining how we see and communicate ideas. It's an opportunity to challenge assumptions, change minds, and test the status quo. Brand design, in particular, is rife with such opportunities and, of course, potential landmines. For organizations that are prepared to embark on the adventure, it can be transformative in unexpected ways. At its best, a brand redesign can reinforce and strengthen an organization's work, increase its engagement with internal and external audiences, and pave the way for real growth.
Clarity, Meet Beauty
Branding is the process of figuring out the clearest, truest manifestation of who you are as an organizationthrough words, images, and graphics. A great brand elucidates the "who" (people and ethos) and the "why" (purpose) succinctly and clearly. And the process of getting to a great brand typically starts with a design firm gathering as much qualitative data as it can about your organization.
By data, I mean the perspectives of internal and external stakeholders; an operational values assessment; deep dives into strategic business goals, personality drivers, competitive landscape, and positioning; and audience identification. It's similar in these respects to how an organization would approach a strategic planning process.
All the insights are then distilled into a strategy that highlights key elements such as organizational personality, values, and market differentiation. This strategy guides the creation of new messaging, tagline, logo, website, and so on.
So, what's the big deal? It seems pretty straightforward.
Branding in the for-profit world is often defined in marketing terms: name recognition and consistency leading to monetary transactions and customer loyalty. Starbucks' ubiquitous global brand presence is based on and contributes to a standardization of its customers' experience. People recognize the brand immediately and know what they are going to get.
Qualitative insights, strategizing, and collateral creation are elements of any good branding process, but the real key to a stellar nonprofit brand is activation of the "purpose" driver. A successful nonprofit brand boldly states what the organization delivers and establishes a recognizable identity through the compelling expression of the organization's core mission — both visually and via messaging. It shares the "awareness" goal of for-profit branding but emphasizes mission.
Let me give you an example. When we were first approached by the Oregon Community Foundation, the organization's identity fell short of expressing its mission and incredible legacy as Oregon's largest foundation. Over the months that followed, we led the foundation through a full rebrand which resulted in a new identity system that conveys the foundation's personality (steadfast, optimistic, approachable) and approach to its work of bringing together Oregonians to create real, community-driven impact.
Change Requires Courage
The process of reimagining an organizational identity can produce both excitement and fear. Going through a rebranding process means holding up a mirror to your organization — and yourself. What you see sometimes can be disconcerting. Often, people realize that their own vision for the organization hasn't been aligned with the organization's goals, or there may be disagreement among colleagues about who gets to define what the organization is and should be.
We started using the term "design therapy" with our clients to prepare them for what they're likely to experience. Undertaking a rebranding project requires courage, patience, and a lot of effort. Any therapeutic process includes some discomfort on the road to success. Whether it's recovering from a torn muscle, processing a momentous life event, or rebranding an organization, therapy involves grappling with, ironing out, and coming to terms with hard truths — and eventually making breakthroughs and arriving at compromises that serve the greater good.
A good agency comes to this work prepared to be a guide and with real empathy and understanding for the challenges that lie ahead. Every project presents a different mix of personalities, history, mission and culture. Inviting clients into the design process builds trust, transparency, and ultimately a powerful partnership that helps organizations embrace the uncertainty inherent in the process.
The real bottom line of any nonprofit branding process, however, is the collective nature of the work. Securing equitable stakeholder buy-in from the executive team, program leaders, and the board from the very beginning ensures that team members have a chance early on to weigh in.
Bringing these (oftentimes) disparate viewpoints into alignment via the branding process usually results in a renewed sense of engagement and belonging for all. Through the work, staff and leadership gain a renewed appreciation for the potential of the organization and are invigorated by it.
The process often results in a transformational shift in the organization's culture that leads staff to see the revived brand as a platform for deeper audience engagement and growth, as well as the "why" behind their commitment to the work. Only then can designers reimagine the visual elements of the brand in ways that capture the organization's aspirations for the future, creating resonance with internal and external audiences for year to come.
When executed well, a brand redesign helps your target audiences better understand what your organization is and does and will have them thinking: "I want to be part of that."
The rest is up to you.
Talie Smith is a partner and creative director at Smith & Connors, where she draws on her background in visual design, literature, and foundation work to help organizations understand who they are and express their identity through brand, web design, and compelling user experiences.