Five words I hate the most.
“We’re the best-kept secret.” These five words have been spoken in almost every first meeting I’ve ever had with a nonprofit client. When I give workshops and seminars on the subject of nonprofit branding, someone in the audience always utters these words. Sometimes this phrase is stated with a tinge of frustration. Often it’s verbalized with some sense of shame. More often, this phrase is declared – emphatically – with pride.

The first two revelations are understandable. But to say this phrase with any pride is completely confusing, and frankly, misguided.

Not only are these words a sign of failure, they’re a badge of irresponsibility. 

As such, I believe it is essential that nonprofit organizations – and their leaders – understand what branding is and why it’s important to the viability and vitality of their organization.

What is branding? And does it work for nonprofits?
When it comes to branding, most nonprofit leaders want to ask these two questions. In my experience, most won’t ask the first question because they believe they should or already do know about the topic. The second question is one they wish they had an answer for, but if they’re honest with themselves, they have always struggled to articulate one.

For whatever reason, branding is one of the least understood, but most important organizational functions. Adding to the confusion, branding goes by several names that many would define as interchangeable: marketing, development, fundraising, PR, advertising, communications, just to name few.

But make no mistake, other than the services rendered by a nonprofit or faith-based organization, branding is the lifeblood of any successful organization.

In the organization-growing food chain, branding sits on top.

According to Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of the international advertising agency DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach), “Advertising does something, a brand is something.”

That quote can be applied to all the other labels typically given to branding efforts – PR, communications, marketing, fundraising, etc. They all do something, but they also all serve, impact and build a brand. And a brand is the sum of all the contacts, connections and content created on its behalf.

The marketing faculty of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management have another take in their book, Kellogg on Branding: “A brand is a set of associations linked to a name, mark or symbol …” They continue their definition to include, “… a brand is much like a reputation.”

When a brand is framed in this way – as an organization’s reputation – it’s hard to argue that branding and all its service components (marketing, advertising, PR, etc.) are not fundamental to an organization’s success. Yet, organizations seem to put other priorities ahead of branding.

Is branding an expense or an investment?
“An organization has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and Innovation produce results; all other organizational functions are a cost,” wrote management guru Peter Drucker.

What I like about Drucker’s statement is not just that he elevates marketing and innovation to a high level of importance, but that it’s coming from him. Peter Drucker is considered by many to be the forefather of modern management. He was not a “marketing guy” or an “advertising creative” or a “PR practitioner.” He had no agenda or bias other than to say that marketing and innovation are the underlying purpose of any organization. Everything else, he said, “… exists to support an organization’s ability to carry out its primary purpose.”

In short, Drucker was conveying that people in human resources, accounting and management are costs, much like buildings, supplies and utilities. They’re costs of providing an organization’s services. On the other hand, marketing and innovation are investments into supporting all costs and growing the organization.

In marketing terms, though, product and service innovations are a function of marketing. So, if you look at Drucker’s quote in this way, an organization only has one purpose … marketing. And given that marketing is a component serving the brand, I believe that branding is the ultimate purpose of any organization.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree that branding is, essentially, the ultimate purpose of any organization?

 –       Bill McKendry