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Branding the Non-Profit

by Kristine Kirby Webster  |  
April 30, 2002

The word brand is loaded in meaning and possibility.  One definition of "brand" is "a characteristic or distinctive kind."  Another definition is "a trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or manufacturer".  One of the best definitions of brand has come from Stephen Pidgeon, the Chairman of Target Direct Ltd (UK).  He defines a successful brand as "an identifiable product or service, strengthened because the buyer or user sees relevant, unique added values which match their needs most closely.  Furthermore, its success results from being able to sustain these added values in the face of competition."    

In essence, a brand is a piece of real estate you occupy in a person's mind, and the related impressions it leaves behind.

How important is the brand in marketing, and to success in the marketplace?  Very.  Think about it, people don't say they need an adhesive bandage, they say they need a Band-Aid*.  They don't ask for a tissue, they ask for a Kleenex*, they don't want a cola drink, they want a Coke*.  A brand at its strongest "owns" the concept of the generic product in many consumers' minds.     

To a non-profit organization, the brand is perhaps the most important asset they have. Many corporations actually carry the worth of the brand on their balance sheets; for example, the Coca-Cola* brand is said to be worth $13 billion.   However, non-profits are often at a disadvantage when it comes to branding.  After all, they don't have the deep pockets of corporations who can afford to hire brand specialists, nor do they have staffers whose job is to protect the integrity of the brand, and promoting it at every turn.  But successful branding of the charity can have a great effect on the awareness and fundraising of the charity and its mission.  If you have built and promoted the brand well, it is like having an introduction in the person's mind, or having a door opened.  A strong brand creates trust and builds recognition, which can - properly managed - be parlayed into affinity, loyalty, and a relationship.      

Let's say you go to the store to buy potato chips.  There are several types available, a brand known to you, like Ruffles, and two lesser known brands.  Which one will you choose?  If you are like most people, you will choose the Ruffles; you know the name, and the inherent quality and taste you associate with it.  Now, let's say you get several appeals from relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross, Friends in the West, and ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).  However, if you have only $20 to give to a relief charity, who do you choose?  Chances are you would choose the Red Cross, due to the strong brand equity they hold in your mind.  

The Red Cross brand is strong, and well-managed.  They consistently use the same logo, the same color, the same mission, and the same general message in all communications, whether they are in direct mail, print ads, TV ads, web pages, email, billboards, etc.  Everyone can recognize the red cross on the white background.  This has in turn given them incredibly strong brand equity in the public's mind.  When people turn on the news, and hear about a natural disaster - hurricanes, earthquakes, floods - many people go to the Red Cross to offer assistance and support - without even being contacted directly by the charity.  They "own" the concept of disaster relief, and to a great deal due to effective branding.  The Red Cross, and its mission, are greater than a single direct mail appeal, commercial, or email.  The Red Cross is a wonderful example of a sum being greater than its parts.

So if you are a non-profit, how do you mimic the success of a charity such as the Red Cross when it comes to brand building and equity?  To be blunt, there is no shortcut, no quick answer.  A strong brand is the result of good experiences; consistent messages; and positive, reinforcing images over time.  Inherent in this brand strength are things such as trust and reliability.  Neither are created overnight, whether with a donor or with a consumer.  It takes time and effort to create a brand image, and to make it a bankable asset.  People buy brands for the halo effect they perceive they get from it.  Gucci suggests style; the Nissan Xterra suggests a rugged, adventurous spirit; Jaguar suggests wealth; and the Red Cross suggests relief and compassion.  

While a strong brand and its resulting effects can't be created and happen overnight, it can happen, if a clear plan exists and - more importantly - the charity is committed to the process of brand building.  The following tips are a good starting point.

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at

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