Unmanaged nonprofit brands: The Sharpie speaks

I was talking to a friend at a good-sized nonprofit here in DC last week. “We don’t really have a brand,” he said.

Don’t really have a brand, I thought. That’s not possible.

A organization’s brand is, simply, what someone thinks of that organization. Those “someones” are everyone who uses your services, donates money, sees your newsletter, reads your newsletter, stumbles on your website, hears about you in line at the coffee shop. Your brand is their perception of you.

So it’s not that you don’t have a brand. It may be that you aren’t managing your brand.

Think about it. You’ve got a Sharpie on your desk. Oooh, you think: Bright colors, thick lines, artwork on the pen looks like it’s from the 70s, great for posters, stays on the wall when the two-year-old gets hold of it. But basically, it’s the pen you want when you’re addressing the outside of a package. You and I may have reached that conclusion ourselves, but I am also pretty darn certain that Sharpie figured out their niche and has been telling us that they are the go-to pen for shipping. Sharpie (or Sanford) is managing their brand.

“Ah,” you say. “We are not a Sharpie, we are a nonprofit.” Yet are you not trying to do roughly the same sorts of things: Be the organization to fill a certain function or niche, have people buy into your message, have people recommend you and come back to you again and again?

You don’t have to manage your brand the same way the Sharpie brand-manager does. You don’t even have to call it “brand management.” But you are competing with Sharpie and all the other advertising messages out there for the limited time and attention of your audiences, and you’re probably doing that with a lot less in marketing dollars. Managing your brand is not just smart, it’s efficient.

So the statement of last week — “we don’t really have a brand” — becomes the question of the moment: “What is our brand, and who’s managing it?”