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Social Impact Branding

Your brand is more than your logo or wordmark. It’s a container for your reputation. A successful social impact brand acts as a banner under which your supporters gather and rally. It connects them with your organization and each other. A strong brand becomes the symbol of the movement you build and the change you work to achieve.

A brand is a visual system that your organization pours meaning into over time. It becomes a promise you make to your supporters, funders, and advocates. Your actions express your values and your brand symbolizes those values to your audiences.

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What is Social Impact Branding?

Dare to Be Bold: Making a Case for Better Social Impact BrandingThe terms “Social Impact” and “Brand” are both used pretty broadly, so let’s start with some clear definitions. We have specific criteria for determining if an organization is a social impact brand (also known as ‘social purpose brand’). Generally speaking this includes social enterprises, nonprofits, along with private, public, and community foundations. When we’re evaluating an organization we ask ourselves three questions:

  1. Has the organization’s social purpose been baked into its brand DNA from Day 1?

  2. Does the organization have a positive social impact?

  3. Who do they benefit?

Social impact branding is active, rather than static. We help organizations develop their visual brand system, devise a brand strategy, and determine their messaging direction. We build tools and platforms that express the brand, help build community in support of the brand and mission, define audience(s), and help supporters understand the organization’s place in their issue area ecosystem.

From a logo to a website, action center, brand story, or engagement model, a social impact brand is a complex suite of elements that should constantly be in motion. Every action you take, every piece of communication you create, and even how you answer the phone and sign off on your email is an ongoing expression of your brand.

For social impact organizations, brand often equates to reputation or perception. Effective branding attracts supporters, holds their attention, inspires action, empowers advocates, and rallies people and funders behind your vision. Your brand is at the heart of your organization alongside your mission, vision, and theory of change. Build it to be powerful enough to express the joys of successes and resilient enough to sustain you through ongoing challenges.

Why Social Impact Branding Matters

Brand is as critical to your mission as your programs. Your brand is the fuel that powers your ability to scale your impact, increase awareness, be economically sustainable, and realize your vision over the long haul.

Think about well-known social impact organizations such as Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Doctors Without Borders, American Red Cross, Goodwill, Toms Shoes, Patagonia, The Salvation Army, UNICEF, ASPCA, Extinction Rebellion, or The Nature Conservancy.

Now think about how the organization makes you feel. What’s your opinion of them? Do you think they are effective? Wasteful? Trustworthy? Your opinion about them is brand perception.

Let’s look at TOMS from a brand perspective. In 2006, TOMS defined what it looked like for a business to put people before profit. With their “One for One” give-back model, a purchase of a pair of canvas slip-on shoes sent a pair to someone in need.

In 2021, TOMS scrapped their model and replaced it with a “⅓ profit for grassroots good” plan to give at least 30% of its profits to U.S. charities focused on promoting mental health, increasing access to opportunity, and ending gun violence.

When TOMS made this change, it affected the perception of their brand. Some people were upset by the change, or at least how it was communicated. TOMS had a strong reputation for the initial model. During that shift, they didn’t change their logo, but they had built their brand on one impact model and changing that model altered how some people felt about the organization.

When a climate advocacy organization takes action that causes property damage or gets someone hurt, they take a hit to their brand. When an animal rights organization attracts attention for saving a large habitat and gets press, their brand is elevated — both negatively to some people and positively to others.

When you’re trying to grow your donor base, you are running a brand awareness campaign, just like a for-profit company. When someone thinks about donating or buying products in your issue area, whether or not they think of you first may be determined by brand perception.

It’s been said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Bland communications and brand expressions often fail to get attention. Go bold and your advocates and funders are more likely to support your cause.

Protect your brand across every touch point — at protests, events, on social media, through email and newsletters, blog posts, or articles, or via press releases, or even articles written about you — wherever your brand may be encountered. Keep in mind that people may first interact with your brand at any touch point. You may think that your brand lives on your business cards and website, but it exists, and is important to maintain, across multiple avenues of access.

Your Website Expresses Your Brand

Most social impact organizations have a main website that typically contain two of the three must-have digital elements that every social impact organization needs. Your main site is likely where the bedrock information about your organization resides; mission and vision, history and timeline, theory of change, team and board, contact information, as well as culture and values. Together, these elements bring your brand to life.

Your brand expresses your culture and values both externally and internally to current and future employees. People can understand the ethos of your brand through your theory of change. Success stories and your timeline convey the proof of impact that is central to a successful social impact brand.

Your media hub is likely integrated into your main website. It contains content elements such as videos, podcasts, and recorded webinars along with thought leadership content and deeper educational information in your blog. These often serve as entry points for new visitors. Their importance in conveying your brand cannot be understated.

A third element of your brand might be a digital action center. This component of your digital strategy is important in creating paths to engagement while being an online space where people experience your brand and become part of your community. The actions you ask them to take and the strategies you use to rally supporters to take action are both aspects of your brand.

Your website is one place to create and enforce brand consistency. It should be thought of as living and evolving. Organizations often come to us because their website is “years out of date.” This typically means that their brand and mission have evolved and they haven’t prioritized maintaining brand consistency. Their website “feels” inconsistent with how their brand has evolved.

The experience people have on your site is an aspect of your brand. It’s part of what is referred to as your ‘brand experience’. An out of date site can also mean that it’s built on outmoded technology and needs help from a creative agency like Cosmic to design and build a modern digital experience for supporters and funders.

A media hub and website should work synergistically as a communications container. The evergreen content on your site, together with the fresh content in your media center, are how you keep your supporters in the loop and attract new ones. Because you own both of these assets, you can control every element. The subtle and almost subliminal design aspects of your website expresses your brand in subtle and nuanced ways. Color choices, typography, sharp or rounded corners on photos, use of photos or illustrations, how pages transition, and a host of other decisions inform site visitors about the nature of your brand.

Rebranding and Sub-brands Create New Opportunities

We have been honored to help organizations such as Oceankind, OF/BY/FOR/ALL, and The Renewal Workshop establish their brands. And we’ve also worked with many organizations that are moving into a new phase of their work re-establish and elevate their brand, including MYNT, Civic Online Reasoning (COR), Wind Harvest, and Cabrillo College, to name a few. As organizations evolve, it sometimes becomes necessary to refresh their visual identity. This is often referred to as rebranding.

A rebrand can accomplish a lot more than just presenting a new face to the world. It’s an opportunity to supercharge your internal culture. A rebrand is a chance to update your messaging and get everyone in your organization aligned, or re-aligned, around your mission, vision, theory of change, and strategic plan.

A brand refresh should be a holistic effort. When well done, it can send ripples through your organization, present opportunities for difficult conversations and bring resolution to nagging challenges. An organization often emerges from a rebrand stronger, more unified, and better focused.

If your organization is pivoting or the mission and vision have evolved, it’s likely time for a rebrand.

A new website is often central to a rebranding effort. Rolling out the new brand and site provides a powerful chance for you to advance your mission and reap the benefits of all the hard work involved in a rebranding effort. A successful rollout can:

  • Expand Awareness

  • Attract New Supporters and Customers

  • Re-engage & Empower Your Advocate Community

  • Realign Your Team & Engage Your Board

  • Demonstrate Progress to Major Donors

Sub-brands are a hybrid between an original brand and a rebrand. In the social impact space, we often create sub-brands for programs or campaigns. We have developed several sub-brands for programs at the Romero Institute including the Lakota People’s Law Project and Let’s Green California. These program brands mesh with the organization’s parent brand while giving each one its own identity. If your organization is focused on distinct elements in their issue area, sub-brands can be a powerful way to distinguish these programs and grow support.

Individual campaigns can also benefit from a sub-brand by heightening attention to the campaign among supporters and within the organization. Typically created for multi-year efforts, a campaign sub-brand allows for unified messaging and visuals upon which the campaign can stand. The campaign sub-brands for EarthRights, Friends of the Rail and Trail, and Santa Cruz Economic Development (among others), have helped them distinguish those campaigns both visually and messaging-wise for funders, the public, and within their organizations.

People Support Brands

Like it or not, your organization is competing in the information era that has created the attention economy. Today, people have the ability to support organizations around the world. For example, anyone interested in climate advocacy could support organizations around the world. Sandbag operates out of London and Brussels. Friends of the Earth International is headquartered in Amsterdam. Sunrise Movement is headquartered in Washington, D.C. EarthJustice calls San Francisco home.

All of these organizations are competing for attention and funds. From large foundations, to wealthy individuals and small dollar grassroots supporters, funders use many different criteria to determine what organizations to support. With such a wide array of possibilities, final funding choices can come down to a “gut feeling”. That’s your brand at work.

As mentioned above, funding success may partially depend on the strength of your website. The website experience, your messaging tone, your ability to nail your impact story (sometimes called a Brand Story), and tell impact stories all reflect the credibility of your organization. People are more inclined to give to credible organizations.

The need for credibility may seem more obvious to a social enterprise like Patagonia or Warby Parker. They both make high quality products. Brand loyalty seems like a requirement for these kinds of companies. But not for profit social impact organizations also rely on delivering high quality ‘products’ — the impact they create. Nonprofits and foundations need to generate brand loyalty, just as any for-profit company. It’s what keeps people coming back, deepening their engagement, and becoming repeat or ongoing donors.

A Brand is in the Details

The typography on your site and in your materials is part of your brand identity. The types of photos, illustrations, and iconography that you use are central to your brand identity. Providing an activist toolkit for your supporters to use, is an expression of your brand. To be clear, we’re talking about the fact that you are thoughtful and organized enough to provide materials (and protect your brand in the process) informs supporters about your brand.

Your choice of swag is a brand expression. You might be surprised how difficult it is to source just the right color of sustainably grown organic cotton t-shirts from printers who can provide a competitive quote.

Picking up trash after a rally can convey a positive aspect of your brand to passersby.

Your choice to use positive messaging or scare tactics on your site informs people about your brand.

Getting Community and Stakeholder Input on Your Rebrand

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. Getting community input on your rebrand can be a critical strategy for ensuring a rebrand effort is successful. But it's important to consider the pros and cons of this approach before you haphazardly embark on a community input design process.

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.

Nourish, Grow, and Protect Your Brand

Together, all of the components we mentioned above (and more) work together to make up your brand. It takes time to build a brand. Brand maintenance requires constant thought and attention. Large companies employ people to watch over the integrity of their brand. They spend marketing dollars to grow brand awareness — and you should too.

When a company cuts corners, uses cheap materials, or does something that seems out of character, people will say that it seems “off-brand” for them and their brand takes a hit. If they do it repeatedly, people lose confidence in them and stop buying their products. The same is true for social impact organizations.

If you want to win in the attention economy, nourish, grow, and protect your brand. If you do, you can position your organization to overcome tough challenges and establish yourself as the kind of brand that people are proud to support and promote while wearing your logo on their chest, sleeve, or tote bag.

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