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Seven Steps to Building a Strong Nonprofit Brand

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In the nonprofit sector, marketing is often considered a dirty word, a necessary evil that no one admits spending too much time or money on. But to build a successful nonprofit organization to help people, you still need to follow the laws of branding. Because powerful nonprofit brands will raise more money, attract more volunteers and help more people.

Kate Atwood started a nonprofit organization in Atlanta. I met her through a mutual friend, Thomas Smith, from Northwestern, and I have been overwhelmed by her instincts and guts every since.

Still in her mid-twenties, she has already been built a strong brand in just a few years. The brand is Kate's Club, and its mission is to offer hope, community, and fun for children who have had to face the death of a parent. Like many nonprofit founders, Kate started the club after her own experience with childhood grief.

When Kate was six years old, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and died when Kate was 12. Losing a parent at any age is difficult, but it is especially traumatic for a child.

I understand this first hand. My mom lost her father when she was 14 years old. My best friend Amy lost her father in high school. My friend Perry lost his father in middle school. And Thomas lost both his mother and father in high school. It is a terrible, lonely, frightening journey. Thank goodness that Kate's Club is here to help guide and empower such children on their grief journey.


So here are my Seven Steps for Building a Strong Nonprofit Brand. (They are really the same as building a strong for-profit brand, since the goal is the same: to own a position in others' minds.)

1. The name

This is the first and most important decision that any nonprofit has to make. Too many charities have generic names that describe what they do but lack the ability to distinguish them from similar organizations in the mind. How many American Associations of this or that are there? Too many, in my opinion.

Of course there are some powerful brands with generic names like the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. But these brands have been around forever and were first in the mind. The American Cancer Society was founded in 1913, The American Heart Association in 1924. What you could do back then and what you can do right now are two different things.

Consider General Electric. You couldn't build a company with that generic a brand name today. GE is successful despite its weak name because it was founded over 114 years ago and was the innovator of many technologies, including light bulbs.

I love the name Kate's Club. It does not say exactly what it is about. But that is OK. What it does do is build a unique brand name in the mind. It also personifies the brand using Kate's name, and "Club" says it is for kids and is fun.

2. The spokesperson

All brands need a spokesperson, but having one is incredibility important for a nonprofit. Ideally, the founder is the best person to take on this role. He or she has a powerful connection to the brand and can sell the story to the media, donors, volunteers, and supporters.

A celebrity with a personal connection to the cause can make an excellent spokesperson. Think Michael J. Fox and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Lance Armstrong and Livestrong Lance Armstrong Foundation, Elizabeth Taylor and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation.

Or sometimes just a regular person becomes the celebrity for the brand like Elizabeth Glaser for the Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS foundation. In 1981, Elizabeth contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and unwittingly passed it on to her two children in utero and via breast milk. Even though she lost her battle with AIDS in 1988, her memory and her story live on in the name of the organization.

Charity brands can also have a CEO who serves as the brand's spokesperson, one who will give credibility and accountability to the brand. There is always a concern that money is being wasted by charities, so the presence of a professional at the helm can help allay such fears.

Kate Atwood, of course, is the perfect spokesperson for her brand. She is young, passionate, and brave. You know you are supporting Kate's mission when you give to Kate's Club. And one day I think she will be a big celebrity for her cause.

Kate could also benefit from a high-profile celebrity's endorsement of her brand. My vote is for Stephen Colbert. When he was 10 years old, he lost his father and two of his brothers (he is one of 11 children) in an Eastern Airlines crash. Such a loss must have had an enormous impact on him. Supporting Kate's Club might be particularly rewarding for him, and his celebrity would certainly help shine the PR spotlight on the Club. I have written to Stephen about Kate's Club, but so far no response. If anyone reading this works at Comedy Central, please tell Mr. Colbert to check out www.KatesClub.org.

Another possibility is Katie Couric. Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 42, leaving two young daughters and Katie behind. Today Katie is a prominent spokeswoman for colon cancer awareness. She underwent a colonoscopy on-air in March 2000, which inspired many others to get checked as well. Katie and her daughters support for Kate's Club might be rewarding for them as well.

3. The position

Every brand needs a focus. For a nonprofit that wants to be as inclusive as possible, this is a very difficult task. But the only way to get your brand into the mind is with a narrow focus.

Take the American Heart Association. We think they need a more narrow focus, one on a single danger signal for heart disease. One of the biggest health problems in America—one directly connected to heart disease, and one that people can do something about—is obesity. The organization should therefore focus on obesity, the greatest threat to the health of your heart. The AHA can of course still support many other programs, such as like CPR training and stroke prevention. But the focus being referred to is your message—and is not necessarily inclusive of all your work.

Kate's Club has done a good job of focusing. The current position is: Empowering the Lives of Grieving Children. But I am always advising Kate to focus more. The more focused the message, the more powerful it becomes and the easier it is to get into the mind. I really think of Kate's Club as the place for kids grieving the loss of a parent. It might also make sense to focus the message on losing a parent to cancer, since this is the leading cause of death for adults 35-54 years of age.

4. The enemy

Every strong brand needs an enemy. This is something nonprofits by nature tend to avoid discussing. But strong brands are built by figuring out who the enemy is, and what the enemy stands for, and then building a brand that stands for the opposite.

Mercedes cars are big and comfortable. So BMW positioned itself as the ultimate driving machine with smaller, lighter, more-nimble cars. Listerine is the bad-tasting mouthwash, so Scope positioned itself as the good-tasting mouthwash. Home Depot is messy and male oriented, so Lowe's positioned itself as neat and female oriented.

Who is the "enemy" of Kate's Club? I think it is the American Cancer Society and other groups that focus on cancer patients and cancer survivors. Kate's Club is for the children left behind, the children whose parents were not survivors and who at a critical developmental stage have a hole left in their lives.

The situation is much like that of ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), an organization that helps support those affected by the mayhem of growing up as the child of an alcoholic, and Alcoholics Anonymous, which supports only the drinker as society often forgets about collateral damage.

5. PR, PR, PR

Not much to say here, except that PR builds brand. The spokesperson needs to spend the majority of his or her time doing PR for the charity, leaving the managerial duties to someone else.

The most important thing for Kate or any other brand leader is to spend tireless hours looking for that one PR breakthrough. One mention in USA Today, Wall Street Journal, or Oprah can put you on the nonprofit map. And once you get one, the others usually come rolling in.

6. A signature event

All charities, schools, clubs, and teams have endless fundraisers. Hardly a day goes by that some organization isn't trying to shake me down for money for some good cause. Instead of a nonprofit's spending thousands of hours on multiple new programs every year, a better strategy is to focus on one or two big events, and do them every year, forever.

Consistency is the key to success. Look at what the Girl Scouts have done with cookies and Jerry Lewis with his Labor Day MDA telethon.

Kate's Club is following the same strategy with much success. Every August, Kate has a big Kate's Club Cabaret in Atlanta. There is a silent auction, music, food, and lots of fun. It has become one of the hot parties of the year, especially for young people.

This year was the third annual Cabaret, an event that was able to raise over $100,000 for the charity.

7. Color and logo

Any brand can benefit from the use of a strong, singular color they can own in the mind. Pink and breast cancer is the best example of such an association; you see pink, and you know what it means. The American Heart Association uses red. Lance Armstrong uses yellow, the color of the leader's jersey in the Tour de France.

Kate's Club colors are light blue and yellow. While Kate's Club doesn't use a single color, it has a nice logo and uses the colors consistently. Once the brand is well known, the light blue might have a strong connection with the brand.

* * *

Good luck building your nonprofit brand, Kate. And good luck to all the other wonderful people out there doing great things for the world with their nonprofit brands.


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Laura Ries is president of Ries & Ries (www.ries.com), an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm that she runs with her father and partner Al Ries.

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  • by Jason Sun Apr 4, 2010 via web

    Great piece of info!! keep it rollin

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