Beyond Aesthetics: The ROI of Brand Building

Brand building goes beyond visual aesthetics. As a core pillar of your long-term strategy, it has multiple upsides and the return on investment can benefit every aspect of your organization. Discover the value of brand building and how to measure its ROI.
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Today’s social impact leaders understand that a brand is the face of an organization. This modern-day truth applies equally to social enterprises, foundations, and nonprofits. To grasp the importance of the ramifications of a tarnished brand perception, just conduct a web search for ‘United Way Scandals’. The missteps of this organization have damaged their brand for decades.

In today’s attention economy, building your brand to stand out from the crowd in the right way can make a big difference in your ability to fundraise, grow awareness, attract advocates and supporters, build community, communicate your purpose and vision, and advance your mission.

In this article, we’ll make a case for why brand building goes beyond visual aesthetics and why social impact leaders should make brand building a core pillar of their long-term strategy.

Brand as a Concept

A brand includes, but is more than, the visual identity system that makes your organization distinctive. Put simply, your brand is the perception that people have of your organization. It’s your reputation and your perceived effectiveness. It’s how (and if) they understand your theory of change. It’s the emotional reaction (if any) that they have when your organization’s name is mentioned. It’s neither physical or digital, but exists only in the minds of your funders, advocates, supporters, partners, and the public. A logo is a symbol that stands in for all of that — but it’s not your brand.

Your brand includes your organization's credibility. It includes not only what you say, but what you do. Brands such as Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and EarthRights, have a reputation for taking visible action. Other organizations such as the Lakota People’s Law Project, Nourish California, and the ACLU have a reputation for using the law and government policy work to pursue their goals. Your perception of their tactics and effectiveness is your brand perception of those organizations.

Brand building takes time, a thoughtful strategy, and a dedication to elevating your brand to rise above the noise in the attention economy.

Brand Building Expands Awareness

Every organization we’ve worked with wants to grow awareness of the issue(s) central to their mission. Awareness attracts supporters/donors, advocates, and funders. In order to grow issue awareness, you need to build brand awareness. You need to be known as an organization that’s effective at addressing the issue. That’s what brand building is all about. State your goals. Demonstrate progress. Make verifiable information about your progress readily available. Doing so helps build your brand.

Brand building attracts people to your organization and issue area while introducing them to your theory of change. Once they understand who you are as an organization, you are better positioned to engage them and encourage them to be advocates who further expand awareness.

Brand Building Deepens and Extends Engagement

It can be easy to think that if people know about your issue area, their passion for the cause will keep them engaged in your efforts. The truth is, getting their attention is just the start of your journey with any supporter. You need to have a strategy for expanding their engagement. Brand building is the fuel that powers your engagement pyramid.

There is a reason why people give attention to brands they care about — and causes they care about. They have an emotional connection to them through lifestyle, shared values, similar aesthetics, and a belief in their missions and impact. Social impact brands, especially, are in a great position to make and deepen human connections and engage people emotionally.

As you increase your engagement with supporters you can ask them to act as advocates and spread the word about your organization and cause. That’s brand building.

Everyone in the retail sector is trying to get customers to buy again and again. In the social impact sector, you should be trying to do something similar, increasing the level of interaction that your supporters provide. This doesn’t always mean donations. Many people can give time. They can be organizers. They can hold online fundraisers. They can sign petitions and take action in the real world.

Brand Building Requires Real-World Action

The perception of how you think and act in the world is the heart of your brand. You can express how you think through active content marketing. We are strong proponents of the idea that Marketing is Mission. Promoting thought leadership articles, having a deliberate digital media strategy, and leading the conversation in your issue area helps supporters, funders, and the public understand your specific approach to address the problems you exist to address.

As Helen Keller put it, “Ideas without action are useless.” Build your brand through the actions your organization takes. And communicate those actions. Communicate the results of those actions. When you take action and communicate the results, you are keeping the promises you made to your supporters and funders. This is true even if the results aren’t what you aimed for.

It can be helpful to think of individual donors, advocates, and institutional funders as investors, or customers — even for social enterprises. Investors expect a return on their investment. Your actions and their results are their ROI. Communicate them as part of your overall digital strategy.

As you report results, you are brand building. Be sure to avoid communicating only as a fundraising strategy. Your audiences should be hearing from you regularly, not just during fund drives or during the release of your annual report. Brand building results from a communications cadence that keeps people up to date on your actions and progress but doesn’t overwhelm them.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a Donate call to action at the bottom of your updates. This encourages people to give to an organization that is taking action. It’s one component in building the type of sustainable revenue stream that we believe all social impact organizations should operate with.

Brand Building Drives Revenue

Building a strong brand puts you in an advantageous position to fundraise. Foundations, businesses, and family offices are willing to fund social impact organizations that they recognize and have a history of success. Due to their importance in the social impact sector, your brand has to be on their radar.

Stabilize your revenue stream through brand building. Based on the idea that your brand is what people think when they hear your brand name, you need to be creating positive perceptions loudly and often. In short, you need to be constantly brand building. When you do, you show up again and again. That’s when funders notice you — when you’re top of mind because your brand building efforts put you there.

Brand Building is an Impact Multiplier

Effective brand building makes many of the core elements of operating a social impact organization easier. From fundraising, to growing your supporter list, deepening engagement, inspiring people to take action, increasing your influence, and expanding awareness, brand building functions as a flywheel in your organization’s engine that propels it forward.

Each element builds on the other. They generate the momentum you need to scale and increase the results you achieve. Your delivery of services or products can expand when you have a powerful brand. And each success builds on previous ones, keeping you in the conversation and extending your reach.

Brand Building is a Recruiting & Retention Tool

Who attracts and keeps top talent in the social impact space? Established brands. You’re competing with the traditional business sector as well as with other social impact organizations to attract high-quality employees. Your brand is a key factor in attracting people to join your team. Build your brand if you want to build a top-notch staff.

Brand building happens within organizations as well. Staff members become brand ambassadors when they are proud of the organization they work for. While people support brands that they trust, employees stay at social impact organizations that they believe in — beyond believing in their mission. Building a strong internal culture helps you hold on to institutional knowledge and makes your organization more effective over the long term.

Check in on your staff on a regular basis. Get a pulse for how they feel about the organization. Some organizations use internal surveys to anonymize feedback while giving employees a voice in how to build your brand.

Everyone knows that hiring and training people is time consuming, expensive, and lowers effectiveness and efficiency. If all you do through brand building is reduce turnover, you’re already getting a substantial return on your investment.

Tips For Measuring the ROI of Brand Building

How do you know if your brand building efforts are paying off? Get data in each area.

  • Measure brand awareness by looking at the metrics for your website, newsletter, or action center. It can be tricky to measure open rates for your marketing efforts, but by using strategies that encourage people to interact with your organization, you can see how much your engagement strategy is achieving.

  • Gauge increased engagement by looking at the activities of your supporters. Are people increasing their donation amounts? Are they donating more often? Have downloads from your Activist Toolkit increased? Are you seeing more activity in your Partner Toolkit? All of these areas provide good engagement indicators.

  • Look at the number of people who sign your petitions or email their state and federal representatives through your action center to determine if you are creating more real-world actions. Better yet, see if you can increase the number of people who show up at government events like town hall and city council meetings as well as at street-level events that you host and/or organize.

  • Look at your revenue numbers. And look at more than the big numbers. Look at revenue over time to see if the average is increasing. This will help you determine if your goal of creating a sustainable revenue stream is being reached, or if there’s more work to do.

  • Analyze your turnover rates over a year or more to see if brand building is helping you retain a loyal staff that feels like they’ve landed in a culture that fits them. If it fits your organization’s internal culture, use surveys to judge employee satisfaction.

Brand Building Involves Aesthetics as Well

As a social impact creative agency, we understand how brand identity elements like colors, logo, typography, and other aspects of the visual identity system help build a brand. Every business card, newsletter, social post, website page, pitch deck, t-shirt, and piece of swag helps expose the brand to more people. But from that initial touchpoint, you have to deliver a brand experience that lives up to its promises. A well-built brand does just that.

Put Brand Building at the Center of Your Organization

Social impact organizations invest in a lot of things; people, programs, training, technology, marketing, infrastructure, and more. We believe that one key investment should be in brand building. It affects every corner of your organization. In the information era powered by the attention economy, your brand can help determine if your organization is going to make it to the future you’re trying to create.

No longer is brand building the exclusive domain of traditional businesses. More and more it’s at the core of modern social impact organizations that are using today’s tools to remain relevant and present while scaling their impact.

We recommend that you invest heavily in brand building. As we’ve pointed out, it has a lot of upsides and the return on investment can benefit every aspect of your organization. Start brand building today to take your organization into the more just and equitable world you envision.

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