Social impact leaders are often looking for consensus among stakeholders, their internal team, funders, and their community of supporters in order to advance their mission in a unified way. In a previous article, we touched on how “design-by-committee” in a rebranding effort is a common mistake to avoid. But that doesn’t mean that you should always avoid community and stakeholder feedback. When properly integrated, it can be an effective strategy to create buy-in and elevate the results of rebranding projects.
Let’s explore if and when it’s beneficial to seek input on your brand or rebrand from your stakeholders and community.
The Pros & Cons of Community Input
A branding or rebranding project that includes community or broader stakeholder input can certainly have some impactful benefits:
Staff, supporter, partner, and community ownership - These important audiences are more likely to adopt and get behind the new brand if they are part of the creative process. In our experience, you can actually supercharge your staff during a rebrand. Community buy-in is critical to some brands. Advocacy and service organizations are easy examples, but social and environmental justice organizations can also use a rebrand to refuel engagement, build community, and expand awareness.
Test & circulate ideas - Once your brand is released into the wild, it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to backpedal if it’s poorly received. A thoughtful feedback process during the project can lead to a result that is more widely accepted — even championed!
- Data & Insight-based decision making - If you've gone through the process of involving community members and stakeholders in your rebrand process, you can present design and branding concepts to your internal team of decision-makers through a more informed and strategic lens. This can be an especially powerful way to convince stubborn or opinionated decision-makers that a subjective or aesthetic preference is not necessarily right for the brand.
There are also some disadvantages to casting a wide feedback net during a branding project.
Extended project time - You want to optimize the time you spend moving your mission forward. While developing an effective brand needs to be an important part of your overall brand strategy, it shouldn’t consume most of your time for many months on end. If you’re spending countless hours surveying your stakeholders and filtering through their feedback, you’re not reaching the strategic goals of a well orchestrated branding project.
Larger budget - Since time is money, the longer your branding project takes, the more resources it is going to consume.
Analysis paralysis - Hearing from a multitude of voices and opinions can cause you to get overwhelmed. That can make it tough to make decisions, get you stuck in a constant feedback loop, and prevent you from achieving a successful rebrand.
Potential for a messy result - It can be easy to try and include everyone’s feedback in the end results. This can result in a brand that lacks vision, cohesion, and the ability to truly represent your organization.
What Types of Organizations Benefit From Wider Input?
Organizations that connect, represent, or support a broad community, or work on behalf of a group of people benefit most from seeking input from community leaders, partners, and informed stakeholders.
For example, when we worked with the Romero Institute to create a new website for the Lakota People’s Law Project, we updated the logo and wordmark. Throughout the site, we feature custom icons and even created a distinct button style. All of these elements were shared with Lakota people by Chase Iron Eyes, Esq., the organization’s Co-director and Lead Council. Because the website represents aspects of the Lakota people, it was vital to get feedback on the symbolism used as design elements.
If your organization works with or represents a specific community, getting their input is critical to creating a brand that represents your organization, cause, and the people you serve.
It’s easy to understand that respect for their culture made the Lakota People’s Law Project brand refresh a clear choice for community input. But some organizations are less obvious candidates for seeking group feedback.
When we started a rebrand and website project with Cabrillo College, they had been using the same wordmark since their founding — over 40 years ago. You might think that a well-established multi-campus community college would have a top-down approach to the process. While it’s true that we worked primarily with a small group led by the Director of Marketing, Communications, and Public Information, this was by no means the only group that provided input on the process. The core team consulted with faculty, staff, and student groups. We’ll look more closely at this process below.
What Types of Organizations Benefit From Keeping Their Branding Efforts In-house?
In our experience, social enterprises are more likely to achieve better results when their branding is developed internally. External stakeholders have their own agenda and perspective. These well-meaning people typically lack the strategic insight to give useful input into the branding process.
Social enterprises like Wind Harvest, and the Renewal Workshop are most successful in a branding project when their marketing and communications teams or individuals keep the project entirely in-house.
However, some social enterprises derive significant benefits from reaching out to trusted partners and advisors for advice on their branding efforts. When we worked with MYNT, we started our engagement by conducting an in-depth diagnostic and a series of interviews with partners and other external parties. This carefully curated group of vendors, long-term clients, and knowledgeable industry experts provided valuable insights throughout the rebranding process.
Guidelines for Getting Effective Input
If you’re going to get input from your community, stakeholders, and/or partners, knowing what to ask for and determining who to ask is important. Below we provide four points of guidance on how to go about getting feedback that’s beneficial to the branding process.
Ask for Strategic Input
Almost every aspect of design is subjective — colors, fonts, shapes, etc. And asking whether or not one of your stakeholders “likes” any of these aspects of a brand can send you down the path of trying to please everyone.If you take nothing else from this article, please remember this about any branding effort: You are never going to make everyone happy. And that’s OK. Trying to incorporate everyone’s feedback is going to result in a watered-down brand. See the puzzle metaphor in our article about navigating a rebrand. One of your goals should be to create a distinctive brand — even a bold one — that helps you stand out and build awareness in the attention economy. You need to make strategic decisions to accomplish this important goal.
The purpose of a branding effort is to accomplish strategic goals. In cases where a new brand is being created, like we did for EarthRights’ Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign and Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning curriculum, the goal is to create a symbol that you can invest meaning into.
If you ask for community and/or stakeholder input on your brand, be sure to clearly explain your strategic goals and ask for feedback on accomplishing those goals. If you are presenting the work on behalf of a creative agency, such as Cosmic, share the reasons why the agency made the choices that you are presenting. This helps the stakeholder provide informed feedback that is objective rather than subjective and geared toward your goals.
Almost every aspect of design is subjective — colors, fonts, shapes, etc. And asking whether or not one of your stakeholders “likes” any of these aspects of a brand can send you down the path of trying to please everyone.
If you take nothing else from this article, please remember this about any branding effort: You are never going to make everyone happy. And that’s OK. Trying to incorporate everyone’s feedback is going to result in a watered-down brand. See the puzzle metaphor in our article about navigating a rebrand. One of your goals should be to create a distinctive brand — even a bold one — that helps you stand out and build awareness in the attention economy. You need to make strategic decisions to accomplish this important goal.
Ask for Feedback, Not Solutions
The people who provide input don’t need to offer solutions. That’s why you hire a creative agency. Knowing that black symbolizes death in one culture and white has a similar meaning in another is good actionable feedback. Suggesting a color that the stakeholder ‘likes’ better doesn’t help move the branding effort forward, unless the color suggestion comes with in-depth strategic reasoning.
The creative agency you work with should be adept at understanding feedback and finding solutions that address the concerns it raises.
Who Should You Ask for Input?
The answer is going to vary from organization to organization. Consider the following groups as options:
Your board — Alternately, create a brand committee made up of board members with a vested interest or knowledge in branding.
Internal teams — Staff from different aspects of your organization may have knowledge about your community or cause that eliminates a potential design direction.
Your supporter community — Supporters, advocates, and funders may have different and valuable information about your cause area that you lack.
Partner organizations — Their perspective can be enlightening, especially in how a brand direction fits into the overall ecosystem.
The people you serve — People who benefit from your work may have a very different take on how a brand will be received by this important audience.
Filter All Input Through an Empowered Team
The people or team in charge of your branding efforts need to be able to sort through all of the input received and relay consolidated and actionable feedback to the design agency you’re working with. Give the team the power to make final decisions. This helps ensure that all voices are heard and that the project moves to completion.
Avoid Voting on a Brand Direction
Business and strategic decisions aren’t typically democratic. Branding is one of the most important strategic decisions you can make. Getting input certainly makes the process more transparent and egalitarian. But let’s not pretend that branding your organization is, or should be, 100% democratic. Your empowered team will make final decisions. As we mentioned earlier, you’re not going to please everyone. Still, by getting strategic input, the end result should be something that you can make a case for and that your entire organization can get behind — and ideally — even be thrilled about!
Tips for Getting Community and Stakeholder Input on Your Branding
There’s not one perfect approach to asking for and getting input. Here are some methods we’ve employed that have worked for different organizations.
Surveys: When we were working on rebranding Cabrillo College, we asked student leaders to survey their peers. We gave them visual assets and a list of questions. This allowed us to see trends among the student body. We used this data to inform the next iteration of the brand and deliver a result that we felt confident would be embraced by the people the college serves. Surveys can be a powerful way to understand the perspectives and needs of your audiences.Note that this information served as data for making the strategic choices we mentioned above. It didn’t dictate the direction of the branding, but along with information gleaned from other sources, we are able to develop new iterations of our designs.
Focus Groups: The Cabrillo College team also sat down with faculty members to understand their needs and goals. They met with the understanding that the brand was an entire system that included each Career and Academic Pathway (CAP). The branding team was then able to filter the answers to questions the Cabrillo team asked based on the needs of each CAP.
Board Committee Polling: As mentioned previously, a branding committee can poll the full board and deliver distilled feedback to the branding team. This process can be revelatory, since board members tend to have very diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
Key Stakeholder and Partner Organization Interviews: One-on-one conversations with funders and partners whose input brings value to the branding process can surface concerns and create excitement about the results of your branding project. Collaborate with them to get their thoughts on how your brand can represent the desired future state you are working to create and if you are achieving your strategic goals by pursuing a specific design direction.
Keep it Simple
When we present mood boards and design directions, we typically limit what we show to between three and four concepts. We often work through dozens of ideas and distill it down to the best options.
We have seen this prove to be an effective strategy for asking for and receiving feedback. In our experience, more options can create confusion and overwhelm. There are already a lot of elements to think about (color, typography, etc.). Multiply that list by six, eight, or ten concepts, and you can see how analysis paralysis can quickly bring your branding efforts to a standstill.
Focus your community and stakeholders on the strongest ideas to get the most powerful results from their feedback.
Your Brand Should be Forward Looking
There’s a saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”
The same goes for your brand. A new brand should represent your
organization throughout its next chapter. That might be five years, ten
years, or more. Avoid branding trends. You want a brand that serves you
well into the future. How do you steer clear of trending branding? Work
with a creative agency that understands this aspect of branding.
Creating a forward-focused brand should be one of your
strategic goals. “Will this brand serve us for the next iteration of our
organization?” is a good question to ask your stakeholders.
Change can be uncomfortable. Your new brand might feel
unfamiliar at first. That’s not only OK, but expected. But it is
intended to be a brand that represents you now and into the future. If
you’re wearing the clothes for the job you want, they may take a little
getting used to. Be confident that when you make branding decisions
based on your strategic goals, your brand will quickly seem as if it’s
always fit you just right.
In fact, we have often had clients finalize the logo and
wordmark and suddenly want to cast aside everything having to do with
their current brand and move quickly into implementing the new brand
expression across their organization from top to bottom.
Go From Input to Inspiration
We use feedback to inform our iterations during the design process. It’s invaluable to creating brand expressions that help our clients achieve their goals.
Your brand can supercharge your team culture, help you break through the noise in the attention economy, and inspire your supporters to advocate, donate, and grow your community. A strong brand can provide you with a powerful visual identity that propels you through the next phase of your organization’s development. It can serve as a symbol that people rally around in support of your cause.
When you’re thoughtful and strategic about soliciting and receiving input on your branding efforts, you can elevate the process from being a basic makeover to creating organizational transformation. Under the right circumstances, and for the right organizations, getting feedback from the people connected to and benefiting from your work can help elevate your brand from run-of-the-mill to inspirational.
In the end, you want your strategic decisions to drive your mission forward. Sometimes it’s best to get where you want to go with a little help from your friends.