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Ideas for Differentiation of Nonprofit Brands

Brands gain strength and equity because of their association with product attributes and associated company attributes like reliability and customer service. Research by Berg, Matthews and O'Hare published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2007, found, (over 7000 surveys), that the most frequently mentioned strong brands, like Apple, Microsoft, GE, Sony, Nike and Disney were defined as strong because they represented attributes like a "taint-free reputation", "cares about its reputation and consumers", "products back up the image" and "delivers what it promises".

Sure, the actual brand, wordmark or logo, should be stylish, memorable and user friendly, but it is the associations with product delivery that make it strong. The Head of Marketing at GE, Len Vickers is quoted as saying, "It's not what we say, but what we do (that builds a brand)". Advertising alone does not build a brand. It is not possible to build a strong brand without linking it to product, or in your case program, attributes. The role of the brand is to conjure up these associations, remind the consumer of past experiences and company values. A brand cannot work as a stand-alone entity.

There are also some differences between nonprofit brands and for-profit consumer brands. Nonprofit brands must express "value-dimensions" as much as program attributes. The values of an organization must be projected if the brand is to be effective in a charitable context. Helen Stride, in an article for the International Journal of Voluntary Sector and Nonprofit Marketing in May 2006, suggests that business brands act as mirrors, reflecting the consumer's needs and desires. Nonprofit brands should be thought of using another metaphor, a lens that is transparent and illuminates the organization's values.

But illumination of the organization's values leads to the problem of brand differentiation. When describing the personality of a nonprofit brand, people are likely to identify value dimensions with adjectives like "caring" and "engaging". The problem is that these attributes are positive for brand associations, but also make it impossible for people to differentiate between one organization and another. The nonprofit organization seeking to develop a successful brand must not only develop a brand that communicates its values, but must also develop a brand that is distinctive from other organizations with similar values.

Because of this problem, nonprofit organizations that have strongly differentiated brands are rare. Research done by Sargeant and Ford, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2007), shows that most people have difficulty discriminating between nonprofit brands. They provide some insights into how nonprofit organizations can differentiate their brands. One of the keys to differentiation is to focus on the ways that an organization is different from other similar organizations.

In the research, four dimensions were identified that can be used to differentiate a nonprofit organization brand:

1. stimulating a variety of emotions in their donors - these include emotionally charged traits like heroic, innovative and inspiring 2. having a distinctive media voice - largely determined by the tone used in media communications, something difficult to measure 3. offering a different type of service - this may be as much a matter of style or philosophy as it is tangible program offerings 4. evoking a sense of tradition - if an organization has evolved over a number of years, there is likely an audience for the loyalty this invokes

While brand differentiation is important, the research also indicates that it is only one of many factors that contribute to an individual's decision to support an organization.