The anatomy of a social sector brand.
The 4As framework for NGOs & social enterprises to define their ambition, approach, alignment & amplification
A brand is the heart and soul of an NGO or social enterprise. It’s the brain and DNA too. A brand is also an organization’s rich internal life, and it’s resulting spirit and style. The personality. And the outward appearance to boot.
In this sense, a brand is the sum of many parts. Like us humans.
But while humans have been studied extensively, brand is still an undeveloped practice in the social sector. A brand affects every aspect of a company. Yet the discipline often takes a backseat in the hierarchy of needs behind fundraising, staffing, and M&E.
It’s possible leaders often deprioritize brand because it’s hard to understand. Our clients express a range of challenges on their path to scale. They’ve lost momentum. They don’t know how to differentiate themselves to donors and customers. Their messaging is falling flat. Their team is misaligned internally. Their visual identity is bland. All these issues seem disconnected at first, but are actually symptoms pointing to a larger problem.
The diagnosis? As a brand consultancy that takes an expansive look at a business, we know these problems are interconnected and deeply rooted. These organizations struggle holistically with knowing who they are, where they belong, and how to create habits that support their aims.
But the prognosis is optimistic. To create a strong social sector brand, follow our four As framework – ambition, approach, alignment, and amplification.
But first, what is a brand?
A simple question, but an important one to nail before we move on.
The term ‘brand’ originated as a verb back in the 17th-century. It was something cattle ranchers did, and it literally meant ‘mark with a hot iron’ to distinguish livestock. These brands delineated ‘my cow’ from ‘your cow.’
Later, a brand became a way to differentiate one consumer product from another – like a mark on a bottle of ale or package of soap. This mark signaled ideas like ‘great taste’ and ‘dependable cleaning power’ to tavern goers and housewives.
Now we’re in a hyper-globalized world with unlimited products, services, and organizations. And brand has become a simple noun referring to a complicated set of attributes, benefits, values, and even personalities. A way to attach many ideas to a single entity, product, or organization – and to make sense of them.
In other words, a brand used to be limited to external markings. The equivalent to the dress of a person. Now, a brand represents complex, multi-dimensional, and nuanced ideas. A combination of physical realities and environment, beliefs and mindset, personality and appearance. An entity that lives at the intersection of practical reality and visionary possibility. One that has to be backed with the muscle of habit, and projected by a distinct voice and clear messaging.
Brands & humans: a personal reflection.
With companies and people alike, some qualities are in us naturally (such as DNA that cannot be altered). But both brands and humans do get to make many choices about how they show up in the world.
Like all adolescents, I once faced the pivotal decision of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Youth was a time for exploration, development, then choices. And just like growth-stage NGOs and social enterprises have to find focus over time, I could have picked many paths in life (a privilege I don’t take lightly). Stick with athletics, pursue music, or run the school newspaper?
I remember honing my ambition through a soul-searching process that forced me to ask big questions. Why was I on this earth, how do I want to live my life, where do I want to end up, and what is realistic for me, given the landscape of my life and opportunities that exist?
Once decided, I had to attack my approach by making a plan. I researched and applied to universities that were a good fit, then focused on a field of study that would speak to my strengths. I made choices that cemented my community, peers, and networks. And as I matured into adulthood, so too did my personality. One that reflected my inner ideals and aspirations, filtered through the influence of my surrounding environment.
Of course, none of this happened automatically or without great effort. If I wanted to achieve my goals and grow into the human I wanted to become, I needed to act in alignment with my ambitions. So I developed healthy habits and rhythms throughout the subsequent days and months. I was conscious, and held myself accountable.
And lastly, there’s a saying: no man is an island. The world and community I lived in required me to interact with it through amplification – speaking, acting, and dressing in ways that reflected who I was and who I wanted to be. And purposefully entering into spaces – offices, classrooms, conversations, relationships – that developed my ambition and approach.
If you belong to or lead a social sector organization, my story might sound familiar. Just as I had to make important decisions to support the ambitions at the core of my life, so too does a social sector org if they’re to create a brand that reflects and signals them to the larger world. But unlike a high-school kid trying to figure himself out, you have much more on the line.
So let’s dig into the 4As.
The 4As: ambition, approach, align & amplify.
You can’t build a brand overnight. It requires years of cultivation by your leaders, team, and constituents in different ways. Here’s a framework to help.
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Ambition is the germ from which all growth of nobleness proceeds.” And that’s precisely why this foundational core is at the center of a brand.
A clear sense of purpose, deeply-held belief systems, demonstrated values: the mental, emotional, and spiritual hallmarks of a healthy human are also ones of a successful brand. And the first step for any social sector organization is to ensure they’re building a brand with clearly stated ambition.
The good news is that social sector orgs are inherently founded on some of the highest-order principles. Unlike, say a fast-food chain, their brands are underpinned by authenticity and truth. It’s a matter of pausing, turning inwards, asking elemental questions, and emerging with definition and clarity:
What is the specific impact you wish to make in the world?
What is your organization's reason for existing in the first place?
What are your values and how do you live them daily?
What do you do? (a simple question about mission, but often difficult to answer)
What is your ultimate vision – and can your current model get you there?
Research has shown that the most successful organizations have core values and a reason for being that remain fixed while their strategies and practices adapt. Even in the social sector – where meaning and motivation abound – it’s important for teams to rally around a singular greater ambition. If you set a clear vision, you and your teams will ultimately find the right strategy. But if you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.
Now you must decide how your brand should approach the world. Just as my childhood passion for football was better channeled into sports journalism after being cut from the team, so too must an organization consider the limitations of external realities against its core ambition.
While this part of brand isn’t easy, it requires less soul searching and more comparison against the larger landscape. With eyes wide open to your industry vertical and environment, take stock of similar organizations and what you experience with their brands. Then answer these questions:
What makes you unique and different from others?
What audiences do you want your brand to reach and how do you promise to make their lives better?
What is your external personality – character, traits, style, and tradition?
It’s worth a reminder that for your stakeholders, funders, prospects, partners, employees, supporters, and even beneficiaries... you are not the only option. You compete in some way for time, attention, investment, sales, grants, awards, speaker lists, or employees. So this is where your approach pairs your promises to an audience’s needs through good positioning and a compelling identity. If you don’t define your brand, some sort of personality will come through regardless. So it’s best to think about it now. Who do you want your brand to be?
We wrote in a previous post on organizational health about setting a personal goal to win the Olympic triathlon. That’s great ambition, no doubt. And the same person could map out all the right approaches. But if they don’t align their activities in a way that will turn ideas into action, no great vision will be realized.
Alignment is the most overlooked part of building a strong brand (as visual identity, marketing, and messaging often steal the thunder). But without organizing internal activities around your fundamental ambition and strategic approach, any amplification (next up) will ring hollow. Because a brand will only go as far as your ability to operationalize it.
This is where organizational health comes in. And it’s where you have to decide:
How do you build a cohesive leadership team?
Who are the right people to drive towards your brand ambition and approach?
What priorities do you need to set in the short term?
Which operational rhythms will help you best achieve your goals?
What brand data do you need to track on a regular basis?
We’ve found that organizational health is a critical – but unnamed – pain point in the social sector. And it’s essential for putting brand strategy into action. Because healthy organizations perform better. Period. And the most successful business leaders are the ones with brand traction. They execute well, and they know how to bring focus, accountability, and discipline to their organization to action their brand. Funny enough, org health is actually pretty simple, free to all, and available to anyone – yet it’s ignored by most leaders.
After aligning the internal organization around ambition and approach, you can make smart decisions about how and where to speak while communicating your value to the wider world. Your words will resonate, because they are the final extension of your brand. Not a false veneer hiding a distracted, disjointed, and disingenuous organization.
Insufficient or ineffective amplification is usually the primary symptom that drives social sector organizations to look for help with brand. But the irony is, this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It’s akin to getting all dressed up in a fancy outfit and new shoes, but having no place to go and nothing to say.
You can think of amplification via four big questions:
How should you design your visual identity – the look and feel of logo, colors, typography, iconography, and photography?
Which messaging will resonate best – the written companion to visuals which details the exact wording needed to tell your story?
What channels should you use – the tactical touchpoints and interactions in the market where you’ll reach audiences?
And finally, how do you form the best partnerships – strategic alliances with both private and social sector brands?
This step is where many social sector orgs miss the mark. Most we see have a compelling ambition. Many even have the right approach. But their exterior is weak – their message is confusing, websites and comms materials dated, and there’s no cohesive plan for driving awareness and interest with audiences. So a weak brand typically results in a lack of funding or sales. Sadly, an organization could be driving great impact with a scalable model. But when a ‘tree falls in the woods’, an org’s growth stagnates.
A deep, multidimensional solution.
A shiny new wardrobe won’t help us answer deep questions or motivate us to more meaningful lives. So don’t let your desire for a flashy visual identity trump doing the important foundational work of brand building.
Brands require a multidimensional solution to keep them healthy and resilient.
Because here’s the tough love. Brand work might not feel like a top priority – you have programs and products that need dire attention. But if you think in terms of the 4As above, there’s not an element of a social impact organization that can’t benefit from (or be transformed by!) honing ambition, approach, alignment, and amplification.
Your team needs clarity and confidence. Fellow leaders are hungry for health. Funders want focused communication. Beneficiaries crave solutions they can trust. And you probably know in your gut the organization isn’t reaching its full potential.
More money will make issues worse. Spending time and energy on M&E might be misguided if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be or where you’re going. And new team members – no matter how good they are – can’t contribute fully without a clear plan of attack.
If you take away one thing from this post, remember that brand is much wider (and deeper) than you think. Pay careful attention for a few days and spot the myriad examples where the 4As could help your business.