When is the Right Time to Brand a Nonprofit?

This past Wednesday I spent with my Leadership Southern Indiana Class traipsing around Jeffersonville, New Albany and Clarksville learning about different companies and economic development in the region.

Companies we visited included Briova (a specialty pharmacy), VC (steel processing), American Commercial Barge Lines (shipping), Flat 12 Bierworks (yes – a bar) and Samtec (a technology firm – I was so impressed with their company culture that I snagged one of their employee newsletters – hopefully they didn’t mind!).

Samtec was impressive. With a commitment to great service they grew from a home-based operation to a multi-national corporation with a presence around the world. Sales are anticipated to reach $625 million by the end of this year to 23,000 customers worldwide.

In their brief overview, John Haynes, a Senior Manager, shared about some core marketing concepts they believe have helped them be successful. This is paraphrasing but I think you’ll get the gist:

  • Find a concept or category to own (for them it was service – as defined by the market being served).
  • Attack on a focused, narrow front (especially as a small or emerging business or nonprofit we can’t try to be all things to all people).
  • Understand the context and environment we’re operating in (no one operates in a vacuum).
  • Customers define the brand.

Customers defining the brand makes a lot of sense. And it helps some things I’ve been thinking through fall into place. Too often, especially in the nonprofit world, it’s easy to feel like we need to define our brand too early. This makes sense because we often have large companies represented on our boards, and those board members (consciously or not) may expect small organizations to have the same things in place that their companies (with much bigger budgets) do. That includes branding. It’s expecting Stage IV or Stage V behavior from an organization that’s in Stage I or Stage II (I’ll be sharing more about life stage in future posts).

So back to my initial thought – when is the right time to identify the brand of an organization? If, as Samtec suggests, the brand is defined by the customer, then it makes sense that an organization not jump into a firm idea of a brand too early.

However, over the course of 20 years of working with nonprofits, I’ve seen cases where organizations don’t have a clear brand defined (although do have a general unwritten idea of what they think it might be). If new board members come in without the benefit of a clear brand, it is possible they could pull the organization in a different direction altogether. So with that in mind it is important to have something in place.

Perhaps the answer is to start with some minimal early minimal branding (appropriate to the life stage of the organization) and then, as the organization grows, a more permanent brand develops.

What are your thoughts? Right away? Wait awhile? or a hybrid? Please share your thoughts below.

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