The anatomy of a social sector brand.
Our Four A’s framework for nonprofits & social enterprises to define their ambition, approach, amplification & alignment
A brand is the heart and soul of an NGO or social enterprise. It’s the brain and DNA too. A brand is also an organization’s rich internal life, and its resulting spirit and style. The personality. And the outward appearance to boot.
In this sense, a brand is the sum of many parts. Like us humans.
But while humans have been studied extensively, brand is still an undeveloped practice in the social sector. A brand affects every aspect of a company. Yet the discipline often takes a backseat in the hierarchy of needs – behind fundraising, staffing, and M&E.
It’s possible that leaders often deprioritize brand because it’s hard to understand. Our clients express a range of challenges as they try to grow. They’ve lost momentum. They don’t know how to differentiate themselves to donors and customers. Their messaging is falling flat. Their team is misaligned internally. Their visual identity is bland.
All these issues seem disconnected at first, but are actually symptoms pointing to a larger problem. As a consultancy that takes an expansive look at a business, we know these problems are interconnected and deeply rooted. These organizations struggle holistically with knowing who they are, where they belong, and how to create habits to support their aims.
Mighty Ally Four A’s framework
To create a strong social sector brand, follow our proven framework – ambition, approach, amplification, and alignment.
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But first, what is a brand?
A simple question, but an important one to nail before we move on…
The term ‘brand’ originated as a verb in the 17th-century. It was something cattle ranchers did, and it literally meant ‘mark with a hot iron’ to distinguish livestock. These brands delineated ‘my cow’ from ‘your cow.’
Later, brand became a way to differentiate one consumer product from another – like a mark on a bottle of ale or package of soap. This mark signaled ideas like ‘great taste’ and ‘dependable cleaning power’ to tavern goers and housewives.
Now we’re in a hyper-globalized world with unlimited products, services, and organizations. Brand has become a simple noun referring to a complicated set of attributes, benefits, values, and personalities. A way to attach many ideas to a single entity – and to make sense of them.
In other words, a brand used to be limited to external markings. Now, a brand represents complex, multi-dimensional, and nuanced ideas. A combination of physical realities and environment, beliefs and mindset, personality and appearance. An entity that lives at the intersection of practical reality and visionary possibility. One that has to be backed with the muscle of habit, and projected by a distinct voice and clear messaging.
“Branding is more than a name and symbol. A brand is created and influenced by people, visuals, culture, style, perception, words, messages, PR, opinions, news, and social media. Like when a child is born and given a name, a brand needs nurturing, support, development, and continuous care in order to thrive and grow.”
And what are the Four A’s? Ambition, approach, amplification & alignment.
You can’t build a brand overnight. It requires years of cultivation by your leaders, team, and constituents in different ways.
Here’s a framework to help.
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Ambition is the germ from which all growth of nobleness proceeds.” That’s precisely why this foundational core is at the center of a brand. Your theory of change.
A sense of purpose and deeply-held belief systems: the mental, emotional, and spiritual hallmarks of a healthy human are also ones of a successful brand. The first step for any social sector organization is to ensure they’re building a brand with clearly stated ambition.
Social sector orgs are inherently founded on some of the highest-order reasons. Unlike, say a fast-food chain, their brands are underpinned by authenticity and truth. So, it’s more a matter of pausing, turning inward, asking questions, and emerging with definition and clarity:
What is the specific need you serve in the world?
This is the problem, the people, and the reason behind your work.
What is your organization’s work?
Here you define your inputs, interventions, partners, behaviors, big idea, and mission.
What are the desired results of your model?
In this step, document your outputs, outcomes, 10-year target, pathways, and vision.
Even in the social sector – where meaning and motivation abound – it’s important for teams to rally around a singular greater ambition. If you set a clear vision, you and your teams will ultimately find the right strategy. But if you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Now that your vision is clear, it’s time to determine how you fit in the big picture and in the minds of your audiences. This is considering the limitations of external realities against your core ambition – and deciding how your brand should approach the world. Your positioning strategy.
While this part of brand isn’t easy, it requires less soul-searching and more comparison against the larger landscape. With eyes wide open to your industry vertical and environment, take stock of similar organizations and what you experience with their brands.
Then answer these questions:
What makes you unique and different from others?
What audiences do you want your brand to reach and how do you promise to make their lives better?
What is your external personality – character, traits, style, and tradition?
It’s worth a reminder that for your stakeholders, funders, prospects, partners, employees, supporters, and even beneficiaries… you are not the only option. You compete in some way for time, attention, investment, sales, grants, awards, speaker lists, or employees. So, this is where your approach pairs your promises to an audience’s needs: through good positioning and a compelling identity. If you don’t define your brand, some sort of personality will come through regardless. So it’s best to think about it now. Who do you want your brand to be?
“Positioning is a deeply wasteful exercise. It’s driven by saying ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ as you decide how to proceed with courage.”
With the inner core of your brand in place, you can confidently begin to amplify your brand to the outer world – with marketing communications. And make smart decisions about how and where to speak while communicating your value.
Your words will resonate, because they are the final extension of your carefully crafted brand. Not a false veneer hiding a distracted, disjointed, or disingenuous organization.
Insufficient or ineffective marcom is usually the primary symptom driving organizations to seek help with brand. The irony is: this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It’s akin to getting all dressed up in a fancy outfit and new shoes, but having no place to go and nothing to say.
You can think of amplification via four big questions:
How should you design your visual identity – the look and feel of logo, colors, typography, iconography, and photography?
Which messaging will resonate best – the written companion to visuals which details the exact wording needed to tell your story?
What channels should you use – the tactical touchpoints and interactions in the market where you’ll reach audiences?
And finally, how do you form mutually beneficial corporate partnerships – maximizing the platforms of private sector brands?
This is where many social sector orgs miss the mark. Most have a compelling ambition. Many have the right approach. But their exterior is weak – their message is confusing, website and comms materials dated, and there’s no cohesive plan for driving awareness and interest with audiences.
This results in a lack of funding or sales. Sadly, an organization could be driving great impact with a scalable model. But when a ‘tree falls in the woods’, an org’s growth stagnates.
“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.”
The social sector is full of big dreams. There’s plenty of great ambition, no doubt. The same social ventures could map out all the right approaches. But if they don’t develop a strategic plan that will turn ideas into action, no great vision will be realized.
Alignment is the most overlooked part of building a strong brand (as visual identity and messaging often steal the thunder). But it’s possibly the most critical. Because strategic planning is the art and science of aligning leadership, people, and structures with your theory of change and positioning strategy – to drive outcomes like org health, efficiency, resiliency, and scale.
It puts a more systems-thinking lens on the legacy term ‘brand management.’ And it’s where you have to decide:
Which organizational core values and winning moves give you the best chance of success?
How do you get the right people in the right seats to drive towards your brand ambition and approach?
How do you bring the vision down to earth via three-year picture, annual goals, and quarterly priorities?
What are your internal communication methods and proven process, designed to achieve impact?
Which organizational KPIs are you tracking regularly in a quarterly dashboard and weekly scorecard?
First, strategic planning gives you a way to turn brand strategy into action. Second, it provides mechanisms to evaluate your brand. And third, it ensures you optimize your brand over time. We’ve found that misalignment is a near universal, yet unnamed pain point in the social sector. But funnily enough, despite the discipline being pretty simple, free to all, and available to anyone – it’s ignored by most leaders.
“While a brand can be defined as the outward manifestation of a company’s DNA, culture is where your brand is born.”
Read more articles
Further reading on the Four A’s.
See the three ways we engage.