Cosmic

Want to Scale Your Social Impact? Your Brand is the Fuel.

Social impact leaders, your brand is as critical to your mission as your programs. Learn how branding paves the way toward your true impact potential.

Eric Ressler
August 11, 2020
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As a social impact leader, you are single-mindedly driven by your mission. Your vision for transformational change sustains your passion and keeps you going. In your quest to achieve impact, you’re laser-focused on your programs. After all, it’s this deeply important work that will move the needle toward a more just and equitable society.

But what about your organization’s brand? If yours is like many social impact organizations, you may see your brand as a limited asset — necessary, perhaps, but not truly vital to your mission.

What if we told you that the complete opposite is true?

Brand Matters in the Social Impact Space

Social impact leaders often see “branding” as the domain of profit-driven corporations. Sure, their organizations have a logo. But they don’t see the value in investing deeply in brand-building when those same resources could be funneled to programs instead.

That line of thinking may have made sense for pre-information-era charities. But it won’t fly in today’s digital-first world.

Here’s the reality: Regardless of where you sit in the social impact ecosystem, your brand is at the heart of your ability to scale your impact. It’s what enables you to spread awareness, lead big conversations, forge connections, and inspire action.

In short, your brand is now as critical to your mission as the program work it supports.

The Purpose of Social Impact Brands

The fundamental job of any brand is to build awareness and loyalty. That’s true for both corporate brands and social impact brands. In both cases, brands inspire cult-like loyalty when they tell an authentic story that ties into their audience's identities in some meaningful way. Brands are a big reason why some purchases feel more relational than transactional.

Of course, corporate brands are always tied to transactions. In the context of profit-driven organizations, brand loyalty is used to propel sales and grow markets. Market-driven social enterprises leverage their brands in a similar fashion — but with an altruistic ulterior motive.

But when it comes to nonprofits, brand loyalty serves a different purpose. Rather than products and services, it’s your mission you “sell.”

Of course, social impact organizations have long informed, educated, and advocated in their efforts to build a coalition of support. But in today’s digital-first attention economy, you need to go further. You need to build a compelling, recognizable brand and bottle your educational information and calls to action in the form of scroll-stopping content (content your supporters would never mindlessly scroll past).

If progress is your product, then brand loyalty is the glue that holds together your broad community of supporters — people who are “all in” on your vision of a better future. It’s what inspires them to deepen their relationship with your cause by reengaging time after time.

Rather than fueling purchases with your brand loyalty, your job is to stoke engagement. That engagement could take the form of donations, advocacy, volunteer work, and other actions. The more your supporters reengage, the bigger your actions can become and the more progress you can make on your mission.

One other thing to keep in mind: Your brand already “speaks” for your organization, whether you invest in it or not. The truth is that supporters and funders alike will judge your organization's effectiveness based on your brand, consciously or subconsciously. If your brand (and the components that flow from it, such as your website and communications) look ad hoc, people will draw similar conclusions about your organization. In that sense, your brand is an important reflection of your organization’s capabilities and level of legitimacy.

The Benefits of Investing in Your Social Impact Brand

You already have the vision. Investing in a brand means packaging that vision and using it to scale your impact. If your mission is the engine, your brand is the rocket fuel. When you invest in your social impact brand, you stand to:

  • Create a cohesive experience among all of your organization’s marketing touchpoints, from your website and thought leadership content to your social media and email.
  • Raise your organization’s profile — and that of your mission.
  • Expand your network of supporters.
  • Forge deeper relationships with your community of supporters.
  • Build trust among supporters and funders.
  • Mobilize your coalition of supporters to take action.
  • Lead the conversation in your niche of the social impact ecosystem.
  • Activate systems-level change.
  • Realize your organization’s true impact potential.
  • Generate a more robust and sustainable revenue stream.

What’s in a Social Impact Brand?

If you’ve done much thinking about your brand, then you probably already know it’s much more than “just” a logo and a set of corresponding colors and typefaces. Your brand definitely includes a visual identity system, but it should go way beyond than that.

Think of your brand as a vessel for who you are, what you do, and why it matters. In that sense, your brand includes (and is informed by) your:

  • Mission (what are you trying to accomplish)
  • Vision (what the future looks like from your perspective)
  • Values (what you commit to and won't compromise on under any circumstances)
  • Theory of change (your unique approach to achieving change)

When you ground your brand in your organization’s core values and express them via coherent visuals and messaging, you are on the right path. It’s the only way to create a social impact brand that feels trustworthy, real, and legitimate.

Consider, for example, Black Lives Matter (BLM). As a now-global movement, BLM is broad-based and grassroots in nature. But it all takes place under the mantle of (and points back to) the Black Lives Matter brand. The strength of the brand is, in large part, what allowed the organization to build such a broad coalition, lead the conversation around racial justice, and push for once-in-a-generation change.

Today, the BLM brand is ubiquitous. It’s as iconic as Apple or Netflix, with all the attendant emotional connections — and controversy. The brand helps grow the movement, and the movement helps grow the brand. It’s symbiotic. Mutually reinforcing. That’s the true power of a social impact brand in full effect.

Ask yourself: Does your brand encapsulate your purpose and values? Does it forge meaningful connections with your supporters? And does it tell a unified story that leads conversations and compels people to take action? If not, you have work to do — work that paves the way for your organization to reach its true impact potential.

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