Dare to Be Bold: Making a Case for Better Social Impact Branding
Bland communications and brand expressions often fail to get attention. Go bold and your advocates and funders are more likely to support your cause.
Leading our clients to make choices that help them win in the attention economy is one of our primary responsibilities. When we’re creating a brand or rebranding an organization, we frequently present options that are intentionally bold, unexpected, and courageous.
Our goal behind pushing the envelope with our clients is rooted in sound strategy. Many — perhaps even most — social impact organizations would benefit from a bold brand expression. As a social impact leader, you can help your organization by understanding the benefits of being bold in your branding and communications.
Be Bold. Build Awareness.
We often strategize with our clients about how to raise awareness. An awareness campaign could be thought of as an attention campaign. You are competing for your supporters’ attention against TikTok, 24/7 news, Twitter, Netflix, retailers, and every other platform and company out there. That’s some tough competition.
But you have something they don’t have. You have a cause that your supporters care about. Still, you need to attract and hold their attention. When your next communication, call to action, or fundraiser hits their device, it needs to be something they want to engage with.
This is where a bold brand comes in. When a brand’s communication and visual identity is distinctive, it can rise above the digital noise. It can be something people look forward to receiving — even something they enjoy over their Sunday morning coffee.
Go Big or Go Home.
Bland communications and brand expressions often fail to get attention. A ‘safe’ brand expression might feel like the right choice. But in the attention economy ‘safe’ might well equate with invisible. Go bold and your advocates and funders are more likely to support your cause.
We believe that social impact organizations can be bold without being offensive. In fact, it's our opinion that the social impact sector's aversion to being bold is hurting many organization's ability to realize their mission.
The Many Flavors of Bold
Bold can be expressed in many forms. Finding the flavor(s) that are right for your organization is critical to being a type of bold that aligns with your values.
Over the years we’ve seen some very different ways of being bold. Here are some examples:
Be Memorable: We often tell clients that one of the primary strategic functions of a brand is to have a visual brand expression that people instantly recognize. This goes beyond a memorable logo or wordmark. Companies and social enterprises whose brand expression you recognize unconsciously have worked to achieve that status. They had done this by having a brand expression that people remember.
Be Distinct: Your brand is only one part of a larger network of social impact organizations. When we do landscape analyses, we often see brands that look very much alike. They use color palettes and imagery that fit safely in the ‘space’. If your brand looks like everyone else’s it’s unlikely to get the attention you need to attract, keep, and expand your audience.
If you walked into a Target store and there was no logo on the building or inside, it would still look like a Target. Their distinct brand expression comes across in everything they do across the store from the color of the signs to the layout, to the type of products that they carry.
Be Controversial: To be clear, we don’t mean aggressive. It’s possible to use imagery and a communication style that is visually striking and gets people to take a step back and look at what you’re trying to say. We often talk about this as creating a “scroll-stopping” experience. Controversy gets people talking and that creates opportunities for you to engage with them.
Be Rebellious: One bold brand we worked with is MYNT. When we were helping them rebrand, they brought some powerful adjectives to our discussions — Daring, Bold, Electric, Distinct, Legit, Visionary, and Cutting Edge. They wanted a visual proclamation of who they are as an organization. At their core, MYNT is a construction company. But they are also a rebellious and visionary company on a mission to build the new energy future. We worked with them to create a brand and messaging that stands out in construction. It’s like nothing else in their industry. They are rebels at heart, paving a new path in sustainable building, and their brand proudly conveys their stance.
Be Human: If your organization works on big system changes from a policy perspective, it can be easy to forget about the human aspect of your work and only communicate about large initiatives. Go bold and get down to the personal level with the people most impacted by your work. In the policy space, where brand expression can feel like an organization is trying to be a serious authority, a brand that affirms the human element of their work can feel bold.
Be Ambitious: We worked with the Romero Institute to create a brand and messaging for their Let’s Green California initiative. The LGCA brand is as bold as their ambitions — to create and pass comprehensive California Green New Deal legislation — a statewide effort to address the climate crisis. Everything about the wordmark from its bright colors, to font, waveform, and exclamation point are intended to suggest a classic California good vibrations aesthetic. The brand stands out in the climate activist space, creates a sense of urgency and motivation, and implies the forward motion of a movement while avoiding the gloom and doom common in climate advocacy.
Be Unexpected: We had the honor of working with the Stanford History Education Group on their Civic Online Reasoning (COR) initiative. The COR brand jumps out at you immediately. It’s a callback to basic geometry with a saturated primary color palette and illustration style that evokes a school vibe while being unique in the digital literacy space. It’s unexpected for the education space, friendly, and human. As a Stanford sub-brand, it’s unique and memorable. This is important for getting new teachers to notice the brand when they’re looking for digital literacy materials for their classrooms and for established teachers to remember where to go each year.
A Bold Brand is Swagable
A bold brand grabs attention wherever it goes. We often do mockups of swag and even full designs for swag as a way of demonstrating the power of a bold brand.
A swagable brand can get people to stop on the street and ask you about it. If you have an online store, your brand can be a way to grab someone’s attention and get them to visit your website. We have to admit that we wanted to be early in line to get a MYNT hoodie when they became available.
People Rally Around Bold Brands
When you have a brand that people want to be associated with, you have a building block for uniting a community. Of course it takes more than a good looking hoodie to establish, build, and activate a community, but a carefully curated, bold brand can be an important tool in your activist toolkit that gets your supporters and your organization noticed.
The Sunrise Movement has a bold and unmistakable brand. It’s bright yellow and black without looking like a bumble bee. The icon evokes a sunrise, but is in the shape of a shield. It conveys strength of purpose. If you search for Sunrise Movement images, you’ll find pictures of protesters holding up just the icon. You’ll see photos of people marching with three-foot tall icons held out in front of them like a shield. It’s bold, powerful, and at the heart of a community that’s fighting for a livable future.
A Bold Brand is Intriguing
A brand can create a sense of curiosity. If your brand is bold enough to get people to say to you, “That’s cool looking. What is it?” You have an opening to start a conversation about your organization and your cause. Even without splashing a URL across your swag or other brand materials, a brand that makes people want to Google it is winning in the attention economy.
It’s Time to Embrace Going Bold
You’ve probably heard the declaration, “Go Big or Go Home!” In branding, going bold is a strategy to avoid getting lost. It’s a way of grabbing attention and raising awareness, rather than being invisible.
As a social impact leader, it can feel safer to be conservative in your branding. We understand this inclination and know that it can be uncomfortable to be daring. But as the Latin translation of the proverb audentes fortuna iuvat tells us; Fortune favors the bold. Were they talking about fundraising all the way back then?
We see a lot of upsides to having a bold brand. It helps people remember your organization and cause and can act as a starting point in a conversation that attracts funders and grassroots supporters. Whether you’re just getting started, looking to rebrand to be more modern, or launching a sub-brand for a new campaign or initiative, we heartily recommend that you consider going bold. It may feel audacious at first, but we’ve seen that the risk is well worth the reward.
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