What Makes a Socially-Focused Brand Unique?

While I don’t really agree or abide by the traditional divide that’s espoused for mission-driven (largely nonprofits) organizations versus for-profit organizations, I think there’s a need to discuss how communications practices might differ when your goals surround social good and/or public services.

One of the first things I dove into making sense of during graduate school was how (if) mission-driven organizations communicated differently than organizations driven by something else (profit, most often). What came up was not necessarily a clear answer. Instead what I found was the difficulty mission-driven organizations had in communicating their focus and outcomes in a way that was concrete, clear, and easy to understand. Which makes sense–society is complex, and if you’re about changing society your communications are thusly complex as well.

Organizations branded around trying to address, educate about, and change social conditions are tasked with not only everything that goes into branding in general, but also with finding a way to communicate about inherently complex topics. Further, the “product” they’re trying to sell? It’s ever-changing, full of points at which you might stick your foot in your mouth, and often contested and politicized. And while a more traditional organization simply trying to sell a physical product can easily segment their audiences to help clarify campaign goals, methods, and metrics to track, segmenting when you’re trying to reach a whole varied community is difficult.

So how can socially-focused and mission-driven organizations set up some structure to help them simplify this complexity and move forward with a cohesive, informed brand and communications strategy? There are a few keys aspects I’ve found:

  • Productize your programs. If you look at your organization’s programs and use their intended outcomes and goals to understand them as a product, it’s much easier to craft and refine key messages. Products often have a few, key identifying characteristics. List out the outcomes and goals, then list them in order of importance–the top few are your foundational aspects to focus on with generalized messaging. It is so much easier to work with a small handful rather than the umpteen aspects a program necessarily has to function. Identifying what the point (even if it’s a day dream sort of goal) of a given program is gives you a more solid base to work with than trying to talk about every minute detail of a program. Focus in, refine, be flexible and update as necessary.
  • Segment based on why you want the person interacting with your organization. A for-profit brand generally starts with “we want them to purchase a good” and then gets to segment from there. Mission driven organizations have many more entry points for contact. Depending on what you all do, you’ll have folks who are accessing services, large scale funders, individual givers, volunteers, partnering businesses and organizations, etc. What is the outcome you’re hoping for here in terms of interaction? How do you tie that outcome to the first point of productized programs to give that person a reason to interact with your organization? There’s how you start to segment. Once you’re comfortable with this, you can start to refine more based on identity and affinity groups.
  • Budget. Then budget again. A key aspect of communications and marketing for socially focused organizations is that you’re likely working with a much more constrained budget for these tasks. In my work with nonprofits I’m often on a hairline budget, so everything I do needs to have proven impact and be as close to evergreen as I can get it. I definitely still design campaigns and collateral that are incredibly specific and one-time use, but the more I can create structure, graphics, and plans that can be continually used or easily updated to be re-used, the more my work is aligned with the core ethics all socially-focused organizations really have: use the resources provided by the community of givers and funders to have the best impact you can. For me, this looks like avoiding ultra-specific advertising and collateral that can only be used once, playing around until I find ways to extend organic reach on digital media, and being willing to scale all projects to realistically fit funding realities.

Finally, don’t feel overwhelmed. No communication is perfect, and so long as you enter into it with an open mind, clear intentions, and some careful planning you’re already working towards creating the foundation to your brand. If you need some help along the way, Quince Communications is ready to help you whether that be writing copy, helping you strategize, or finding ways to use digital media to reach your audiences.

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