What Did You Say?: Top 10 Tips for Non-Profit Branding

Decades ago, “snake oil” salesmen dragged their carts from town to town and touted the amazing benefits of their products in order to create a connection with their prospective customers. A tonic to help grow hair back or an elixir to help calm the nerves had to both live up to their claims if the salesman was to return to a town on a positive note and to individuals who wanted more of his products. But, if his products did not do what the salesman said that it would, you can believe that he would not be welcomed back with open arms (or wallets). Today, storytelling for products and organizations are just as important as they were for traveling salesmen. And it is still vital to an organization that it shares an accurate, relatable story in order to attract individuals to its service or product. But what about organizations that aren’t necessarily vying for profits, but rather volunteers to help further their cause? Can storytelling work for their type of brand as well? Consider this: All organizations have a story behind their origin, most especially non-profit organizations. Most non-profit organizations were started to champion a specific cause, so why not share that story? Or better yet, share how that story started and how it is helping and changing the world? Stephen Denning (2013) reminds us that “Just as a personal story can reveal who you are, so a company can present who it is by telling stories about itself” (p.56).

In order to capitalize on storytelling, there are a few things that organizations need to take into consideration:

Know Your Story!




This seems rather silly and obvious, but how can you tell a story that you don’t actually know? Have you ever tried to tell a joke you once heard, only to realize that you forgot the punchline? Or maybe you have read a book or watched a film where the plot was virtually non-existent? You do not want your organization’s story to land the same way. Sit down with you staff, stakeholders, and volunteers and figure out just what your story is. There is an amazing wealth of resources that have been written to help guide organizations and leaders into uncovering their organization’s brand story. In fact, both Smith (2012) in Lead with a story a guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince, and inspire, and Yohn (2014) in What great brands do: The seven brand-building principles that separate the best from the rest, discuss various techniques that can be used to reveal the story behind a particular brand: thinking about the personal stories of the leaders or the consumers, creating a brand map, writing a brand obituary, and identifying a brand’s archetypes, to name a few. As Signorelli (2014) shares, “Plots, like products, must provide some worthwhile experience in order to justify an audience’s expenditure of time and money” (p.32).

Know Your Audience!



Again, this may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many organizations do not really know their audience. However, if an organization that serves young women is not communicating or connecting with those young women, how can the organization expect to survive? As much as you need to know your story in order to share, you also need to know who you will share it with and why those individuals would want to be a part of your story. As Yohn (2014) points out, “We humans are emotional creatures. We make our purchase decisions based on how products promise to make us feel…Either the product satisfies an emotional need” or it provides “access to a self-identity that” individuals want to express or experience.

Get Real!



I touched on this issue in the opening of this post when I mentioned a salesman whose product does not live up to its story. You need to be real with your organization’s story- DO NOT CREATE A STORY JUST TO HAVE A STORY! That is probably the worst thing an organization can do. When individuals connect to your story it is because they find your organization and your services relatable and relevant. If they then come to realize that your organization does not follow through on what it stands for, your loyal individuals will quickly depart. Mathews and Hacker (2008) warn that “Storytelling isn’t just about selling products. Effective storytelling can launch industries”. If you promote a true and relatable story that people can align with, your organization will thrive.

Get Creative



It is also not enough to just share a true story- you need to share it effectively. Imagine you read a book that went like this: “Sam woke up one morning and got out of bed. He got ready for work. It was going to be a long day.” BORING! Where is the action, the emotion, the plot?! In order to create a connection with your audience, you must share your story in creative ways that grab their attention and help them understand the core values behind your organization. For example, look at the Inspiration Corporation’s logo.

Inspiration-Corporation-Logo It is simple but creative. It lets you know, in a few words, what the organization is about. It is creative enough to catch your eye and make you want to know more.

Live your Story, not just your product



This premise echoes my “Get real” concept, but takes it a bit further. In addition to telling a true story, your organization must embody that story and show it in everything that they do. Being able to execute on your brand story is what will serve to distinguish your organization’s culture from those of your competitors. “Delivering brilliant customer experiences depends upon having your employees’ workplace values aligned with each other and with your brand” (Yohn, 2014). One great example of this, even though it is not a non-profit organization, is Disney. Disney truly embodies the essence of a magical experience. From their website, to their stores, to their various theme parks, to multiple resorts around the world, (and beyond!) Disney employees and the company strive to make sure that all of their “guests” have an amazing experience.


Be Flexible



We all know that change is inevitable, we see it all the time in our daily lives. This premise still holds true for organizational identity and branding. Sometimes we find that the stories that organizations tell need to change a bit with the times. Take Girl Scouts for example. The organization originally focused on specific skills for women: cooking, sewing, camping, and first aid. However, as women have progressed in society and have become able to participate in more job fields, so has the Girl Scout organization enhanced their story. Now, girls who participate in scouting can learn computer technology skills, STEM (science technology engineering and math) girls, entrepreneurial skills, and so much more. While the organization’s core values and story have stayed the same, they have been flexible enough to adapt to societal and cultural changes in order to advance their story.


Be Engaging!



Think of one of your own personal favorite brands or organizations. Why do you like them so much? I bet that part of it has to do with their engagement with their consumers. In today’s world, there are numerous other organizations also vying for people’s attention. If an organization has a great story that they share, but do not find ways to engage their audience, those other organizations have opportunity to swoop in and steal individuals away. Crutchfield (2009) states that, brands should adopt a “narrative-based” style of marketing “that can impact multiple platforms to engage customers”. Yohn (2014) echoes that sentiment when he discusses how organizations need to “develop a personal dialogue with your customers on the issues that are most meaningful to them”. Not only does engagement help to keep individuals aware of what is happening within the organization, but it helps the organization be flexible (see what I did there?) if any societal or cultural changes arise that they need to address. Who better to tell you about those trends than the individuals who believe in and contribute to your organization? One great example of this is the United Way organization. Each branch of the United Way fosters different aspects of the brand based on the needs of its specific community. They actively work to make sure that they are engaging their stakeholders, as well as the individuals that they serve, to make sure that they services they are providing are timely and relevant. Last week I was at a United Way Annual meeting and they asked the audience to text a special number with what we felt the organization needed to focus on in the community: housing, health, education, and a few others. This engagement helped the organization get a better idea of what individuals think is timely and important for today.


Connect Online and Offline



There are many ways for organizations to share their stories and engage their audience. With the advancements of communication technology, possibilities in the online digital world are virtually endless. Organizations can create websites, blogs, Twittwer, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram accounts and so much more! These digital tools help connect with individuals who spend time online- most specifically, Stolis’s (2013) Digital and Connected consumers. Digital consumers tend to form their decisions based on research done online via various websites and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Connected consumers are individuals who are constantly connected and who expect a sense of “exclusivity, privilege, and access to special offers” for engaging with a brand on social media (Solis, 2013). However, it is not enough to just engage in the digital world. You must also remember that in order to have a successful, relatable, and reliable brand, you must embody your story in every aspect of your organization. This includes traditional and face-to-face interactions. Traditional consumers are individuals who still rely on print media and word-of-mouth advertising. These are the individuals where the customer service experiences of friends and family play a crucial role in whether or not they will align with an organization. Think about an organization that you felt did not provide exceptional service or did not live up to their brand promise. Did you tell people (by word of mouth) about that experience? I bet you did. Living your brand story and connecting with individuals in positive ways online and offline is crucial to being successful. You don’t want your digital experiences to outweigh your offline ones, only to enhance them.


Create Community



Sharing your story online and offline, embodying your story and creating positive experiences, engaging audiences, and making connections is all about one thing: creating a community. Most especially true for non-profit organizations, creating a community of individuals who champion the same cause or work to provide the same service is crucial to the success of the organization. Take the American Red Cross for instance:

american red criss


If the organization did not foster a community of individuals who were willing to donate blood, platelets, and time, the organization would not be as prominent as it is today. The American Red Cross knows that by sharing stories of donors and those that they have helped, engaging audiences in blood drives, fundraisers, first aid classes, etc. has helped to create and maintain the community of individuals that give to the organization in so many ways. Without that community, the American Red Cross could not help out as many individuals as it has.


Stay True



All of the points mentioned above boil down to one thing: being true to your organization. You do not want your organization to be the “snake oil” salesman who is not welcomed back to town because of false promises. You are so much better than that! As Mueller (2011) states, “Strong company stories reflect human traits that we love to champion: humble beginnings, hands-on schlepping of products or services, creating a better workplace and world. And we root for these companies because their story gives us hope that we too can make it and make a difference”.



Crutchfield, D. (2009). Get Your Story Straight. MediaWeek, 19(26), 5-5. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from Connection EBSCO Host.

Denning, S. (2004). Squirrel Inc a fable of leadership through storytelling. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mathews, R. (2008). What’s your story? Storytelling to move markets, audiences, people, and brands. Upper Saddle River N.J.: FT Press.

Mueller, M. (2011, Marxh 17). Trying to connect with customers? Tell a story – NYTimes.com. The New York Times. Retrieved March 20, 2011, from http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/trying–‐to–‐connect–‐with–‐customers–‐tell–‐a–‐story/?scp=1&sq=%22vineyard%20vines%22&st=cse

Signorelli, J.  (2014).  Storybranding 2.0:  Creating stand out brands through the purpose of story.  Austin, TX:  Greenleaf Book Group.  Chapter 2-3 & 5.

Smith, P. (2012). Lead with a story a guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince, and inspire. New York: AMACOM, American Management Association.

Solis, B. (2013). What’s the future of business? [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Thompson, C.J., Rindfleisch, A, & Arsel, Z. (2006). Emotional branding and the strategic value of the Doppelganger brand image. Journal of Marketing, 70, 50-64.

Yohn, D.L. (2014). What great brands do: The seven brand-building principles that separate the best from the rest. [Kindle DX version}. Retrieved from Amazon.com


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