Amplifying your brand with marketing communications.
Four steps to help you develop visuals, messaging, channels & partnerships to get your story out to the world
We all know the father of evolutionary theory is Charles Darwin, right? He’s the scientist who discovered the concept of genetic adaptation, and coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
Well, not so fast.
There’s actually a co-inventor of evolutionary theory: Alfred Russel Wallace. Like Darwin, Wallace traveled to observe the natural world. He published papers on its many wonders. He even had his own lightbulb moment, realizing animals evolve by adapting to their environment.
So why does history laud Darwin and forget Wallace?
Put simply, Wallace was a poor communicator. He held his discovery close to his vest, while Darwin utilized the most powerful medium of his time – book publishing – to release On the Origin of Species. Wallace wasn’t completely unknown to the wider scientific community, but his ideas didn’t catch on like wildfire the way Darwin’s did. If left up to Wallace, evolutionary biology and all its outshoots might be hundreds of years behind today.
Hard work, smart products and programs, and great impact happen daily in the development world. Much of it going unseen and unheard. You don’t need to amplify your brand to achieve social change. But it’s almost impossible to scale without it.
If a tree falls in a forest?
What would climate change advocacy look like without Greta Thunberg’s appearances on late-night TV? Racial justice without the social media takeover of Black Lives Matter? Global health without Paul Farmer’s Mountains Beyond Mountains?
We applaud those who invest in amplification, even as the majority of the social sector drags behind. But we still see and hear of organizations, leaders, funders, and donors who view marketing communications as a distraction from the work – rather than a core element of the work itself.
The practice of marcom can be overwhelming. Especially when the discipline is shared by many people across the organization. There are no standard marcom frameworks. And myriad ways you could amplify your brand. You have to focus somewhere. But where?
A note before we begin
Amplification is but the visible tip of a brand’s iceberg. And it’s tempting to start with what’s most tangible. But amplification is third in our Four A’s framework for a reason. Before you decide how you will look and feel, act, speak, and engage with audiences – you have to define more fundamental elements of your brand.
If you haven’t already, get started with our The anatomy of a social sector brand post.
One step at a time.
In this post, we’ll walk you through four key steps to building a stronger marcom practice – and amplifying your brand: visual identity, messaging, channels, and partnerships. We’ll also share an effective template to help you plan the marcom activities your organization will undertake.
Step 1 – Visual identity: How to manage the design process for your logo, colors, typography, iconography, and photography?
Step 2 – Messaging: What is the exact wording that will resonate best and serve as a companion to visuals when storytelling?
Step 3 – Channels: What are the tactical touchpoints and interactions in the market where you’ll reach audiences?
Step 4 – Partnerships: How do you form strategic alliances with private sector brands?
“Communications is no longer an appendage to the work, but an integral part. In other words, it is the work. Halting climate change. Eradicating disease. Lifting up the arts. Ending poverty. At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore – it’s a necessity.”
SEAN GIBBONS, COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK
Visual identity: put your best foot forward.
Your brand isn’t your logo, just as ‘the clothes don’t make the person.’ Brand is deeper and more holistic than how it’s represented on a page. But we all make specific choices on how to dress for a job interview or first date. Because appearance can and does matter.
A well-crafted visual representation communicates a lot, immediately. Brands confer many layers of complicated meaning. And since the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, even a quick glance at a visual communicates much.
This section won’t focus on the mechanics of creating a visual identity. Most orgs need outside expertise to get this done anyway. We’ll let designers and graphic artists with university degrees and experience own the nuances of their craft. But what we can do is equip you with tools to guide a successful design process.
LOGO & BRAND SYSTEM
There’s a mantra in the design world: ‘form equals function.’ This means a good visual identity isn’t just a set of marks pleasing to the eye. Or purely decorative.
A brand system should be built on intentional choices. Choices backed by strategy, informed by your brand ambition and approach. Every element has a purpose. And all work together to communicate something – or many things.
At first glance, you might simply describe the refreshed STiR Education brand as pleasing, happy, and bright. But a deeper dive into their visual identity uncovers the intentionality behind each and every visual element.
All told, the STiR brand system reflects principal elements of their impact model and positioning strategy. Doing so in a way that’s memorable and appealing to their various worldwide audiences.
STiR’s logo is clear and readable, regardless of application. It works in color, black and white, reversed out. It can be scaled down while maintaining integrity.
The color palette appeals in all the countries where they work. The colors are bright, vibrant, appropriate for an education nonprofit with a vision of a world where “children love learning.”
Typography balances a clean, professional typeface with a lively, handwritten one. The latter echoing a teacher’s writing on a blackboard.
The photography standards reference their impact and its dynamism. Out with formal shots of meetings. In with vibrant, saturated ones – featuring real teachers and students interacting.
Lastly, the brand is accented by a library of icons – drawn with a loose, organic hand. Approachable elements to accompany copy and language that’s presented with academic rigor.
BRAND EXTENSIONS & ROLLOUT
Creating a brand identity gets you to the starting line. Using it effectively and consistently is where many stumble. Logo files are buried in some unknown folder. Fonts are never downloaded by new employees. The colors used are ‘close enough.’ And the donor packet? It’s from two brands ago.
AT&T was a client in a past life. With millions in marketing budget and creative teams across America, brand consistency was everything. It was important that AT&T set up a centralized ‘brand center,’ and that every pixel put online or ink pressed into paper had to be submitted. And then had to pass.
No, you don’t have to be that draconian. But if you put any time or money into a new or refreshed brand, don’t let it collapse months after your designer hands off the files. Practice organizational discipline, and extract the full value of your investment.
We recently guided Ugandan nonprofit Nyaka through a brand refresh. They wisely adopted these steps to ensure a smooth launch:
We equipped Nyaka with a suite of templates: PowerPoint, Google Slides, Google Docs, social profile avatars, email signatures. All important brand extensions that, as a whole, cover a large percentage of the ways audiences interact with the Nyaka brand.
Before rolling out the brand, Nyaka created a punch list of item to update: building signage, donor collateral, email templates, business cards. Each was rated on importance and effort required. High importance, low-effort items were tackled ASAP. The rest flowed after.
Even though Nyaka doesn’t have an in-house design team, they appointed a ‘brand ambassador’ who checked all external-facing materials against the brand guidelines.
Finally, the Nyaka team clearly labeled and hyper-organized all brand elements on a shared drive to keep tabs on brand assets as people and partners come and go.
WORKING WITH CREATIVE TEAMS
Many growth-stage social ventures bootstrap the basics of marcom except for visual identity design. This work is best left to creative experts, versed in design mechanics and translating strategy into visual systems.
Depending on your needs and budget, you could engage a creative agency. Or you may have access to a volunteer willing to work pro- or low-bono. Services like Catchafire and Taproot Foundation could also be an avenue to connect with professionals willing to donate their expertise for your cause.
Finding your design partner is just the first step. Collaborating with them and shepherding a process to completion is more than half the battle. We put these best practices to work while advising Cycle Connect on their rebranding process:
Dedicate time to bring your designer up to speed on your founding story, business model, and culture. With Zoom now ubiquitous, connecting a creative with your team on the ground is doable, and will help them care about your important work as much as you do!
Again, nail your ambition and approach first. Walk the designer through your theory of change and positioning strategy – helping them frame their creative vision within a solid organizational strategy. Once you communicate the big picture, share specific needs through a one-page creative brief.
Create a RACI matrix upfront to drive internal clarity on who gets to weigh in and when – senior leadership and board members included. Nothing derails a creative project more than someone jumping in at the eleventh hour.
A unified chorus of Nyaka Secondary School students in western Uganda. Nyaka works with communities to nurture and protect children so they can learn, grow, and thrive.
Messaging: tools for telling your brand story.
Now that your visual identity is in place, let’s look at the other side of the same coin in step 2.
In 2019, Mighty Ally was in beautiful western Uganda with new client, Nyaka. We participated in the morning assembly at their secondary school. Rows upon rows of young men and women lined up around the flagpole. After an invocation and announcements, they sang anthems and traditional tribal songs. Hundreds of voices melded in impressive unison – words and melodies handed down from the teachers to the older students to the youngest.
Many social ventures struggle with message cohesion. Their speaking and writing tend towards discord, not harmony. If asked to describe programs and missions, answers vary depending on the person. Some reference outdated or inaccurate language. Some fall silent. And others venture out on their own, a lone soloist among what should be a unified chorus.
We don’t expect robotic recitations of brand messages. We’re all humans, speaking to other humans in our own ways. But good messaging should feel like our experience with the Nyaka student body: consistent, unified, resonant.
Below are some tools to guide cohesion and establish consistency in messaging. Because you have important things to say, and confusion shouldn’t detract.
“So what’s your message? Can you say it easily? Is it simple, relevant, and repeatable? Can your entire team repeat your company’s message in such a way that it is compelling?”
DONALD MILLER, BUILDING A STORYBRAND
You’re at a conference, grabbing coffee during a session break. Someone turns to you as you balance a banana in one hand and a cup in the other. They say “So, tell me about your organization.” We’ve all been there. And chances are, we’ve all struggled in figuring out the best way to clearly and concisely answer.
Your elevator pitch is often the first means of capturing someone’s interest in your organization. It’s rarely an end in itself. But as a first impression, it’s very important.
The good news is there’s a tried and true formula. One that’s designed to specifically captivate your conversational partner to the point where she says: “Wow, that’s great. I’d love to hear more.”
If you’ve already made progress documenting your brand’s ambition, your pitch will come together easily. You’ll have a clearly defined need (reason), work (mission), and desired results (vision). Now just assemble the ingredients.
First, state the problem you’re solving. What’s your reason for existing? E.g. Each year, four million people die because of unsafe home cooking practices.
Then, detail your unique solution with clarity and specificity. E.g. We manufacture and distribute safe, low-cost cookstoves to low-income families using a peer-to-peer sales and education network.
Lastly, end with the payoff for your audience. E.g. We want the hearth to be the heart of every home, cutting premature deaths in half by 2035.
Even leaders intimately familiar with every organizational detail can feel daunted when speaking or writing about their organization. We’ve all probably done this: you sit down to write an intro email, grant proposal, or social media post and feel stuck. You paste paragraphs from old documents, or go to your own website’s ‘about’ page to copy down details.
A visual identity comes with brand guidelines specifying colors, fonts, and logo standards. Your messaging should have such a guide too. One your entire team can reference and use consistently. With accurate, up-to-date content.
A messaging platform is a guide with public-facing, ready-to-use language. Written in a voice and tone true to your brand personality. Language that’s appropriate for all outlets or easily customized to fit. And while it won’t cover every bit of content for every person, it’s a strong foundational starting point.
Consider this a living document. As your organization grows and evolves, your messaging platform will too. Its value lies in being an up-to-date reference tool. So set reminders to re-read and tweak. We suggest you include:
Articulation of your theory of change – the needs you’re meeting, the work you’re doing, and the results you aim to achieve.
Elaboration on what makes you unique, and why.
Basic definition of your product and program elements.
Core impact metrics and top organizational statistics.
Long, medium, and short boilerplates.
Uniform bios of team and board members.
A word bank of words or phrases to use, and those to avoid.
“So, tell me what you do in your job.” It’s a question we hear from friends, acquaintances, interviewers. And chances are, you answer a bit differently each time you’re asked. You probably won’t delve into code-level technicalities with your elderly parents. But you’ll share industry background with someone you meet at an event.
A messaging platform is a standardized foundational comms tool, but we’d be remiss to suggest that a single message fits all audiences. A conversation with a foundation sounds different than a chat with an individual donor. Your talking points at a panel differ from a community event involving beneficiaries. Why? Because the needs and priorities of each audience are different.
A good way to determine talking-point hierarchy and visualize the flow of a conversation is through a message map. And like the elevator pitch, there’s a formula for its construction.
Put the following elements into a simple flow chart, then distribute it, print it, post it – whatever you must do to ensure your entire organization can easily reference and use it to navigate external conversations.
First, always start with your elevator pitch. It should remain consistent for each and every audience you engage with.
Then, communicate your top three uniques and why they matter to your chosen audience. Your commitment to data-driven decision making will reassure an evidence-based funder of your measurable impact. But a potential customer may be more attracted to your ability to deliver cost savings over a competitor.
Lastly, have on hand 2-3 proof points to illustrate each of the uniques you choose to communicate. If your boda boda rideshare app is indeed the leader in customer service, make sure you can back up that claim with proof of fast incident response times and a rising Net Promoter Score.
Channels: knowing where & when to communicate.
Now that you have a good grasp on what to say and how to say it – let’s dig into where to say it.
How do you get from Paris to Hyderabad? Good question. With a multitude of answers. You might make the overland trip in a caravan, cutting through the northern Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Or take a train, dipping into northern Italy. You might hop on one of a dozen flights. Or choose a full sail around the Horn of Africa.
Now, another question. How do you get your brand’s message out to the world?
Your options are as diverse as the travel routes above. In our hyper-connected world, you have many routes – channels – by which you can transport your brand’s messages and ideas to the people you want to reach. It can certainly feel stressful deciding what channels to choose, which to prioritize.
So we’ll break down how you can select the best route to optimize your arrival. In the way that makes the most sense both for you and the individuals whose ears and eyes are your ultimate destination.
“Even when you are marketing to your entire audience or customer base, you are still simply speaking to a single human at any given time.”
TYPES OF CHANNELS
Before you can choose your channels, you have to know your options. Of which there are many! If this guide were written 75 years ago, it would be shorter. You would be limited to radio, TV, newspapers, printed flyers, or mailed letters.
Now, we have more options than we know what to do with.
And to further complicate matters, you have the choice to use each channel yourself or team up with a partner. You might go it alone, investing in messages your org transmits directly. Or, you could rely on partners to help spread the word, like community leaders, influencers, other nonprofits, funders, or brands who mention or feature you on their own channels.
These categories are used the most in the social sector, to give you a sense of options:
Digital marketing – website, social media, email communications, search engine optimization.
Content – podcasts, webinars, white papers, blog posts, contributions to journals or publications.
Paid media – social media ads, search engine ads, print ads, event sponsorships, radio program sponsorships.
Earned media – features or mentions in magazines, books, TV, or radio.
Physical marketing – mailers, staff uniforms, brochures, appeal letters, postcards, signage, branded swag.
Grassroots marketing – community events, market stalls, WhatsApp groups, personal calls, and emails.
Events – speaking at conferences, participation on panels, fundraising dinners, galas, attending conferences.
If you’ve ever watched the show Mad Men, you may have a skewed idea of the magic behind marcom. A team of creatives unveiling a big idea after an all-night working session – sharing the snappy creative tagline, the iconic image.
Of course, interesting copywriting and eye-catching visuals are important. But today’s agencies spend more time focused on spreadsheet pivot tables and analytics dashboards than they do in the darkroom.
Why? Because good marketing starts and ends with data. So before you pick your channels, take the time to do some qualitative and quantitative research. You don’t have to be a statistician or researcher to glean insights.
Competitor analysis – Look at what similar orgs are doing. Examine their online presence to learn how, where, and when they’re communicating. Where are they successful? Or falling short? You may align your channel strategy with theirs, or make it distinctly different.
Historical data analysis – Poke around Google Analytics. How big is your website audience? Where do they live? How long do they spend on your site, and on which pages? Most channels have built-in tools to help you assess performance. Like your email platform: how many people open, click, or unsubscribe?
Set goals & measure progress – If you have historical data to use as a benchmark, great. If not, use industry norms or make your best guess. What’s important is connecting your marcom efforts to data-driven outcomes. And getting the info you need to double down on certain channels, or abandon others.
RULE OF TWO
“We need to start posting on Instagram, right?”
“I know we should be sending out more emails each month.”
“That organization always has great brochures, and we have none!”
We hear statements like these all the time. Clients come to us feeling inundated by all the channels available to them – unsure of where and how to start. Here’s some more good news: you don’t have to do it all.
For channel selection, we like the rule of two. For each quarter, campaign, or even your overall marketing effort – pick a primary channel. Then choose a secondary channel to augment the first.
Perhaps you know email appeals drive individual donations. So create an email campaign strategy and supplement it with social media posts. Focused on advocacy or advancing the conversation in your sector? Make a hit list of conference speaking opportunities. Then commit to sharing that presentation content during quarterly webinars. You get the point.
And because you’re looking at the data now, you’ll know how and where to adjust next time.
With channels in place, let’s move into how strategic corporate partnerships can help turn up the volume.
Partnerships: tapping into the power of private sector brands.
With channels in place, let’s move into how strategic corporate partnerships can help turn up the volume.
Nonprofits beg for money, desperate for any funding. And for-profit companies donate, pulling cash from their overflowing coffers. We’re conditioned to expect this dance. It’s ingrained in our sector, underscored by scarcity mindsets, upheld by power imbalances, cemented by inequitable relationships with funders.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The relationships brokered between for-impact and for-profit organizations can be mutually beneficial – a powerful tool to help bring your brand to the world.
Like any other element of marcom, brand partnerships don’t happen overnight. But they can and should be considered as part of your long-term success strategy – generating returns both tangible and intangible.
“Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.”
MICHAEL E. PORTER
SHARED VALUE FOR AMPLIFICATION
The concept of shared value was initially coined in 2011 by Michael E. Porter and Mark Kramer. And the idea that companies should fulfill a purpose beyond profit has reverberated through board rooms ever since.
Shared value can structure the relationship between for-profit and nonprofit. Instead of creating net-new initiatives for delivering on social good, companies can work alongside existing organizations. Trading value for value, and sharing in the positive outcomes.
A PARTNERSHIP FRAMEWORK
Speaking confidently about shared value is important when approaching brands for possible partnerships. Our partnership framework below can help. It’s broad enough to cover almost every type of brand/cause relationship. And gives useful buckets to organize details of a co-amplification partnership.
Here are some examples:
People – Reach a Hand Uganda is a sexual health and reproductive rights education nonprofit in Uganda. Lucky Bloke is an international condom retailer with vast expertise around safe sex practices. Instead of just donating money and product (which they did), Lucky Bloke spent time with the RAHU team – sharing their knowledge and training them on the latest trends in SRHR.
Platform – Waves For Water has partnered with global travel brand Tumi for years. Besides funding, Tumi helps capture images, stories, and videos. Then broadcasts this content across their digital and social channels. Tumi’s brand marketing team promotes core attributes of adventure and exploration, while Waves For Water reaches vast new audiences.
Product – Kenyan nonprofit Ubuntu Life has brokered a mutually beneficial partnership with African restaurant chain Java House. Through Ubuntu Life’s social enterprise arm, they sell co-labeled bottled spring water to the cafés. This delivers earned revenue and brand recognition to the nonprofit, while Java House is able to access a good product at a fair price.
Philanthropy – For large corporates, philanthropic money will flow through their foundation. And it’s a great place to start (take that cash!). But, tapping into their people, platform, and product can be just as valuable – strengthening your mutually beneficial relationship. If you’re on the receiving end of a grant or donation, ask your contact within for a connection to other functions of the company: HR, people and culture, marketing, to name a few.
Regardless, think more strategically about how you can provide ongoing value even with a straight donation. Trumpet the brand on your own social and digital platforms. Dedicate signage or a room. And over-communicate the specific impact their money made.
Visual identity. Messaging. Channels. And a mutually beneficial relationship with corporate brands. Time to turn all this strategy into action.
People – Foster employee engagement by designing integrated learning and skills-based volunteering opportunities.
Platform – Strengthen the corporate brand’s positioning by telling their partnership stories to their audiences. Communicating impact beyond surface-level cause marketing is a powerful differentiator.
Product – Leverage the partner’s core business at the service of others. Giving and integrating their product into the fabric of your work can yield insights, returns, and tremendous value.
Philanthropy – Ask them to make thoughtful, strategic, and aligned investments. Savvy injection of much-needed capital yields substantial social change returns.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
Creating a marcom plan.
Whew, you’ve made it through our four steps of amplification. Congratulations!
You’re armed with a memorable visual identity. You’re on message, saying the right thing consistently. And you’ve prioritized marcom channels, connecting you to your target audiences. With a few lucrative brand partnerships shaping up in the background.
It’s time to put these pieces to work, guided by a plan.
There’s no single right way to draft a marcom plan. We’ve seen plans dozens of pages long. Multi-tabbed Excel sheets parsing out every detail of customer data. Informal captures of bullets scrawled on whiteboards.
But we’ve developed a marcom plan template we think strikes the right balance between comprehensive and streamlined. Your team is likely stretched thin, doing a lot with a little. No need to go overboard here.
Free marcom plan template.
You can access the Mighty Ally marcom plan template via the form below. Then we’ll take you through how to complete it.
MARCOM PLAN OUTLINE
Set a goal.
What are you trying to accomplish? One sentence, keep it simple and concrete. You might decide to set a monthly goal, quarterly goal, or a goal that’s specific to a discrete campaign.
Increase individual donations through a holiday giving campaign.
Improve outreach in order to build relationships with government officials.
Determine your key messages.
You know your organizational messaging already. But what are the specific ideas this marketing effort should communicate? They can range from narrow to broad.
Learn how we’re shifting our priorities in the face of COVID-19.
Your donation will power the launch of our women’s health clinic.
Target your audiences.
You may have a range of stakeholders, from institutional funders to program beneficiaries. But for the purposes of this plan, get specific about who you want to reach.
Program officers for European trusts and foundations.
Lapsed donors who have previously contributed £500 or more.
Define your strategies.
With directional pillars in place, figure out how you’ll engage. Note that a strategy is broader than a channel, but starts to focus on ‘what’ you’ll be doing.
Launch a blog as a centralized platform for a regular cadence of thought leadership.
Conduct a PR campaign to increase the general public’s level of awareness of our services, and to increase our credibility.
Pick your channels.
Until you have a fully functional marketing machine, streamline your channels. Choose a primary one that’s your main focus. And a secondary one to support.
Email & social media.
Annual gala fundraiser & word-of-mouth marketing.
Goals set high-level outcomes. Whereas objectives are granular and highly measurable. Use benchmark data from past efforts if you have it. Or start with general targets and get precise as you go.
A 3% increase in click-through rates, with a less than 1% unsubscribe rate.
5 new high-net-worth donors contributing more than $10k.
Get tactical with deliverables, budgets, and to-dos.
A good marketing plan is detailed enough to garner consensus and sign-off. What are the deliverables needed in order to execute on this strategy? A designed mailer? A cleaned-up list of lapsed donors? A landing page for a downloadable white paper?
What’s your budget? Estimate hard costs for things like graphic design, hosting, event fees, or ad spend. And outline how much time your internal team will spend on executing against the plan. Both pieces are important. Without a sense of your investment, you won’t know if your results were worth it.
We’re now 10 years away from 2030 – the date our sector set to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. And we’re behind. Despite the tireless work of millions of people around the world to improve our collective quality of life, we have a long way to go.
We can’t claim that committing to marcom will let us meet the SDGs. But we do know that without a commitment to amplifying the brands of those making an impact, we’ll never get there.
So get to it. Tell your story. Share your expertise. Connect with supporters. Raise awareness. Do this with confidence, knowing the effort isn’t a distraction from or an addendum to your work. It’s part of the work itself.
Amplify your brand. Because there’s too much at stake not to.
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