Lessons in Branding from Non-Profit Organizations

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Inspiration can come from a wide array of industries...or not even industries at all.

One useful tool for growing within your specialty is to learn from those with more challenging roles within that sector. Since this blog mostly discusses marketing and branding, there are a few sectors that have an unusually uphill battle. Let's learn from some of the most challenging marketing and branding sectors — non-profit organizations. 

Why is Branding in the Non-Profit Sector So Challenging?

Imagine trying to craft marketing endeavors whose transaction only materially benefits your organization. That’s right — a conversion just means money in your pocket with no “thing” to show for it on the audience’s end. Yep, non-profit organizations face this challenge every day.

Non-profit marketing campaigns have to transcend. While they may be able to offer branded coffee mugs, tote bags, and other small tokens of their appreciation, these are mere niceties and not the reason why people give.

When it comes to convincing their target audience to donate their hard-earned money to their cause, the marketing objectives of a non-profit can't lean on product or service satisfaction. They have to rely on influence, on heart-string plucking and differentiating themselves from their "competition." Let’s look at a few of their tactics and see how we can apply these in a commercial space. 

Making Connections as Personal as Possible

One of the issues that non-profit organizations have faced for decades was the disconnect between the donor’s support and the difference being made. To combat this, many organizations offered ways for donors to witness the difference they were making.

One such example is letting donors decide precisely how their donations are being spent within the organizations. Another example is connecting a donor with a specific recipient and providing updates on the impact being made. When a donor can see their gifts making a difference and feel like they are part of an appreciated community, they are inspired to keep donating or even to increase their donations. 

How it applies to for-profits: Just like donors like to feel appreciated, customers do so as well. They want to be referred to by name, thanked for their efforts, and feel like they’re a part of the company’s patron community. In addition to their products, they enjoy receiving exclusive savings, rewards, and other tokens of appreciation. These personal touches can turn a one-time customer into a repeat customer. 

Being Relatable Fosters Connection

Celebrity endorsements certainly help non-profit organizations if the target audience is celebrity-driven. A non-profit may use a blurb from an A-list celebrity talking about a non-profit organization and how they and their fellow celebrity friends support this cause. While this can inspire some to give, it can alienate others, causing them to think, “It sounds like that non-profit is in good hands. They probably don’t need my help.” Many non-profits realize this and also strive to balance their branding with relatable personalities — people closer to their socio-economic level with similar lifestyles (aka, someone you could "have a beer with"). This is to reinforce the idea of, “Yes, we need help from people just like you.” 

How it applies to for-profits: Let’s say that you’re marketing a product or service on Instagram using celebrity endorsements. Indeed, you will likely draw the immediate attention of your target audience. However, if the only branding you provide is the image of perfection, there’s a chance of alienating your audience. They may feel that because they don’t have six-pack abs or a six-figure salary, that your product simply isn’t for them. Make your marketing as relatable to the lives of your target audience as possible. 

Every Brand Needs a Story

Alex Honnold is a world-renowned mountain climber. He’s most famous for free-solo climbing (climbing without any safety gear) the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. His climbing endeavors take him all over in the world. During many of his expeditions, he couldn’t help but notice the lack of electricity in many third-world villages. The use of homemade kerosene lanterns used for light is expensive, dangerous, and have hazardous emissions to villagers and the environment alike. To help these families, Alex founded Solar Aid — a nonprofit dedicated to providing solar-powered lighting systems to as many third-world villages as possible. These lights not only keep families safe but allow them to use the money they save on fuel for additional food and education for their children.

What a tremendous story, right? Like Solar Aid, every non-profit organization has to have a compelling story. A brand story is an essential part of the marketing experience. 

How it applies to for-profits: Like non-profits, commercial businesses need a similar brand story that clients will want to share with other friends. JD Young started as a simple print shop in downtown Tulsa, OK over 70 years ago and has grown to meet most business needs of thousands of clients in Northeastern Oklahoma. Brookside Studios started out as a web developer meeting a salesman in a local watering hole. The two partnered to bring websites to businesses all over the Tulsa area. Over 20 years later, they’ve since grown into a full-service marketing firm capable of providing a full suite of marketing services to their clients. Despite this, the company is still founded on friendship. Team members frequently spend time together outside of work and call many of their clients “friends” even beyond their business relationships. 

The story of a brand is more potent than any billboard, website, or video. It is an inspiring tale that can be retold from client to audience member in a palatable, relatable, intrigue-inducing fashion. It’s for this reason that cash-strapped non-profits have mastered leveraging brand stories to promote giving. 

In Conclusion

Having no tangible product and limited budget put non-profits at a disadvantage in the world of marketing and branding. However, this has forced non-profits to become incredibly inventive with their branding efforts — an ingenuity from which commercial marketing specialists can continue to learn.

Is your organization in need of a marketing makeover? 

Learn more about the full-service marketing solutions from Tulsa’s own Brookside Studios. 

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