Identity and Brand Strategy

Brand Strategy for Mission Driven vs Profit Driven Brands

How to Develop Brand Strategy for Non Profit Brands

How to Develop Brand Strategy for Non Profit Brands

We recently received a question from the Board Chair of a prestigious non profit foundation that supports basic science research around the globe.

“Is brand strategy different for mission driven organizations than it is for commercial organizations?”

It’s an important question for a few reasons. Many education and research non profits consider brand strategy to be appropriate only to commercial entities. Because “branding” is so tightly tied to “marketing” in most people’s minds, and many researchers consider marketing to be beneath them, “branding” is seen as a bad word (see our recent post Branding vs Marketing).

Other non profit brands, such as cultural organizations and international aid organizations understand the power of brand, and many use it to their advantage. Here’s how the approach to brand strategy is different, and important, for mission driven organizations.

Non Profit Brands: Understand, Believe and Support

  • Understand: Everyone involved, from internal to external audiences must understand the mission. People are most enthusiastic about the things they understand best. If they don’t really understand it, and what makes the mission uniquely important, they will never support it. For the strongest and most sustainable brands, you must start with a common understanding. Read how we helped the UC System create clear understanding of their mission and promise. 
  • Believe: Next, audiences must believe in the mission. It must be compelling.  It must be personally relevant. The organization needs to be able to show progress toward that mission, no matter how small. There must be some “there” there for a non-profit to motivate the types of behaviors and investments that will make them successful. A clear brand position, based on a clear understanding of the mission and supported by some proof is necessary to build belief. We helped a program in San Diego that teaches coding to kids inspire community-wide belief in their mission. The result is the League of Amazing Programmers, an aspirational idea that kids and their families want to be a part of.
  • Support:  This is clearly important when raising funds.  If your potential funding sources don’t understand you, personally relate to your mission or believe that you can accomplish what you’ve set out to do, they are less likely to help.  Consistent internal stakeholder support is also critical. In the non-profit world, especially in larger organizations, people may apply their good intentions in misaligned or counterproductive ways. The better they understand and believe what it is they are there for, the more likely they are to align their efforts in the right direction. Our foundational work for the World Wildlife Fund still inspires incredible support for their efforts. 

For mission driven organizations, everything hinges on clarity of the idea that makes your mission unique, meaningful and special.  Your brand strategy must be clear and valuable in the minds of your critical audiences. We’ve enjoyed helping many of our clients in higher education, research, and culture achieve positive and sustainable brand results.

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Branding vs. Marketing

Sometimes our clients ask us, “What is the difference between branding and marketing?” The question arises because most people and organizations use these terms interchangeably. Unlike Medicine, Law or Finance, practitioners in the field of brand and marketing don’t share a common professional language. When one doctor says a patient is suffering from nephritis, another doctor will understand that the patient has inflammation of the kidneys. When one lawyer says he has an affidavit, another lawyer will know he has a written statement made under oath.

Ask 20 marketers what branding is, and you may get 20 different answers. To some it may mean creating a logo, to others it may mean developing an advertising or public relations campaign, to others it may mean initiating social media conversations. Because the term “branding” is used to mean so many different things, it doesn’t have a specifically agreed upon meaning. For some clients, especially higher education, we sometimes have to avoid the word altogether, because it not only misunderstood, it is looked down upon as “beneath” academics.

We make a point of telling our clients at the outset of any assignment what we mean when we use particular words, so at least, they’ll know what we are talking about. We fully recognize that others may use these words differently. We use them in this way:

A Brand – is the promise you make to your audiences. Strong brands are valuable assets, because when the promise is fulfilled, it creates an emotional response. Strong brands can create a preference or command a premium and assure a future stream of revenue. The name and visual expression of that promise is called a brand identity, because it gives you a way to identify with the promise being made.

Branding – is about positioning the brand to fill a need, meet expectations, build trust and develop relationships. It’s about keeping your promise differentiated, relevant, compelling and true.

Brand Strategy – is about determining how many brands you need and can afford to support, what each brand should stand for, and what relationships should or should not exist between the brands and the parent organization.

Marketing – is about finding and growing a market for the brand that leads to profitable sales, or in the case of non-profits, that leads to appreciation and support among key audiences.

Marketing Strategy – is guided by business goals, and involves segmenting markets, selecting target audiences, determining pricing, packaging and distribution, integrating media, and executing creative campaigns.

Consider a stand out brand like Nike. The Nike brand promise is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. “If you have a body, you’re an athlete” says Nike. This brand promise demands a diverse, creative attitude-laden execution across the many customer touchpoints. That is branding. Nike’s innovative use of celebrity athletes and digital, social, mobile and retail channels to engage with existing and aspirational athletes, is marketing. Nike’s marketing strategy is highly influenced by the brand promise and expression – and the resulting ads, promotions, communications and offers feel like they could come from no other sports brand.

Bottom Line: We define branding as making, communicating and delivering a promise. Branding is a long-term commitment. We define marketing as finding and connecting with the audiences who will most benefit from that promise. By its nature, marketing tends to planned out with shorter term goals. Marketing strategies and campaigns will come and go, but brands should endure. While definitions of branding and marketing may differ, it is important that people use agreed upon definitions of terms, to ensure that you meet both short and long-term objectives for your business.

How to Turn Your Employees Into Brand Advocates

How to Turn Your Employees Into Brand Advocates

Your employees are your biggest marketing opportunity. Why? Because if they are engaged with your brand, they can be your number one marketers and boosters of brand equity. How do you convert this potential business-changing force into brand advocates? Achieving employee brand engagement was our topic at the last Silicon Valley Brand Forum.

Empowering employees as brand advocates is critical to successful brand evolution. When you change or evolve your brand identity, your internal audience is just as important as your external audience. Ideally, your employees are the engine driving brand transformation. For that reason, we ask every client to engage their employees when changing their brand identity.

Engaging your employees

To be effective, brand identity work must inspire employees as an idea they can rally behind. Quantitative research can give you data, but qualitative research helps you hear and feel culture from the key voices and the personalities who make it real. You can’t just change your logo and tell employees, “All right, everyone, fall in line and be part of this.” Your brand essence starts within your company, and employee brand advocacy requires investment, cultivation and authenticity. It also must capture your employees’ spirit and passion. If your employees are engaged, you will have a firm foundation for moving forward with change.

Four factors for empowering employees as brand advocates

A new brand identity should be both aspirational and authentic to employees. It’s essential that employees:

  1. See themselves in the new positioning
  2. Believe in the vision and aspiration behind the new identity
  3. Understand that the new brand has meaning and value
  4. Feel recognized for their part in adding value to the brand


Blizzard Entertainment, BlizzCon

Becoming a Beloved Brand

In 2017, when the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship for the second time in three years, the Bay Area exploded with excitement.  The victory parade drew more than one million fans in their blue and gold to cheer and bask in the glory of “our” victory. The Warriors are truly one of San Francisco’s few beloved brands. They are respected and adored by men and women, young and old, in winning and losing seasons.  People want to wear their colors, they know the players like neighbors, and they internalize the team’s struggles and celebrate its victories. This highly emotional connection is known as community branding, and is the envy of most brands.

Are there business benefits of community branding?  The W’s have sold out every home game for the last several seasons. The Warriors have become a major attraction for out of state and foreign tourists. Win or lose, W’s fans are behind their team in every way, emotionally and economically.

How does community branding work, and how do you become a beloved brand? If we think beyond sports teams, what other brands can truly say they carry this esteemed mantle?  Certainly many universities could make the claim – whether you are a Harvard Man or a Cal Woman, your alma mater is often a beloved brand worthy of your lifetime support. Other brands are a beloved part of their communities and even the world at large.  Blizzard Entertainment’s BlizzCon gathering is an epic celebration of their game universes and their communities. Some players spend months crafting elaborate costumes of their favorite characters. Coca-Cola energizes Atlanta GA; the NYFD has become one of New York’s most beloved and respected brands, (beyond its sports franchises); Disney is a beloved brand trusted by families and their children around the world; and Chevy and VW have captured our imaginations and elevated our pulses more consistently over time than other car brands have been able to manage.

What do these community brands all have in common? Each satisfies a universally human motivator.  Sports teams ignite the thrill of victory. The Fire Department embodies bravery and valor. Beloved consumer brands provide happiness and escape. These motivators are deeply and universally felt and part of our shared human experience. Brands that are successful enough to become and remain beloved are those that most consistently address, and fulfill, these instinctual needs. They become a part of how we define ourselves.


Brand Matters – The Power of Strategic Identity

The following content was presented at the AIRI 2017 Annual Meeting. Click here Marshall_AIRI_Presentation-2 to download a PDF of the slide presentation itself.

Brand has many definitions, and most of them line up within marketing and advertising.  In this presentation, I hope to shed some light on the power of strategic identity – being true and clear about who you are as an organization and why you matter. This should have influence over all an institute says and does, from who it hires, to how it fulfills its mission, and of course, how it engages, and inspires support from, its critical audiences.

Here’s one important reason brand matters to research institutes: The top ten federally funded institutes depend upon government funding for 71% of their budget on average. But our government appears to value research less and less.  In fact, according to AAAS, “The FY 2018 funding cycle has been rather mixed for Science and Technology on the whole, with many more agencies looking at reductions than increases.”

What this means is, a good portion of an institute’s budget is necessarily going to need to be replaced by other sources of funding.  Where is that going to come from?  Who is going to understand and value these institutes enough to participate in their future?  Why should they?

The challenge is even bigger than funding.  It is about awareness, relevance, and perceived value to multiple audiences, including new research talent, partners and collaborators, and the public who this research is intended to benefit. While in the past, your accomplishments may have spoken for themselves, now you’ve got to ensure that you are understood, appreciated and supported – in an environment that is more competitive than ever. You need to become a “preferred” place to invest in, to work for, and to rely upon for new knowledge.READ MORE


DACA is an Identity Issue.

DACA is as much an identity issue as it is an immigration one. The effects of decisions today may affect many people’s sense of who they are for much longer than its political news cycle.

We are faced with some 800,000 people who identify themselves as Americans – and why shouldn’t they?

  • Their parents are in America.
  • They grew up in America.
  • They were educated in America.
  • They work in America.
  • They pay taxes in America.
  • They serve in America’s armed forces.

America is the only home they have ever known. If they are returned to an unfamiliar country, they might not even speak the language.   

  • Will their identity no longer be American?
  • What will this do to America’s identity?
  • What will this do to America’s brand promise?

Britain recently went through an identity crisis with Brexit. The British brand cut off the European part of its identity. And the consequences for many Europeans and Brits alike has been a sense of broken promises. The DACA identity issue raises important questions about America’s identity and its own “brand” promise.


Collaboration Drives Breakthrough Brand Strategy

Brand breakthroughs, like all breakthroughs, require collaboration. In our work with leading researchers at Caltech, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Rockefeller University, it is clear that examining today’s most important issues require not just brilliant people, but people who have the skills for working productively with others. The same collaboration principles hold true for breakthrough brand strategy in organizations. READ MORE

southwest culture

Culture Drives Brand Value – Where Will It Drive Yours?

I recently published an article in Inside Higher Ed describing five strategies of great brands, and how they apply to universities.

One of those five strategies is: brand inspires behaviors – you build a brand by being something, and letting that culture shape the way you behave and communicate. A successful brand strategy must lead to tangible behaviors, ways of thinking and acting that can differentiate you and your company in measurable ways.

Consider FedEx, Southwest Airlines, GE, and other brands that have become legendary for their corporate cultures. They all recognized the importance of defining and articulating not just their customer promises, but their internal behaviors for fulfilling those promises. Customer satisfaction and business success are the rewards that reinforce these behaviors, creating a cycle of growing brand strength.

A recent example of this is San Francisco’s own Salesforce.  Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, has fostered a culture of “Ohana” within the company, a set of principles that inspire everyday behaviors against which employees are evaluated. Ohana is a Hawaiian word with deep meaning, which translates very roughly as “extended family”. What it means is that all members of a family, and their greater community, support each other. This culture extends externally for Salesforce – their number one mission is “customer success.”

The emphasis on culture has major effect. Benioff recently said, “There’s all this incredible energy in your company and you can unleash it for good. All you have to do is open the door.”

With this attitude, it becomes evident why Salesforce is one of the world’s fastest growing companies, and is ranked among the “best places to work” wherever it has offices.

Compare Salesforce’s results, and the brand benefits they accrue, to recent events at United Airlines and Uber. These two companies have dominated the news cycles lately, for all the wrong reasons.  Within each story is a tale of bad behavior and poor choices, revealing crippling or even toxic corporate cultures. People who describe these woes as “PR problems” aren’t dealing with the core issue, the deep cultural flaws that threaten the very existence of these two companies.  When United loses $1Billion of market valuation in one day and Uber has over 200,000 customers deleting its app, that threat is clear and present.  These companies need to focus on their cultures at all costs, or they will lose any customer loyalty that remains.

We hope that more companies will take a close look at what promises they really want to make to their employees, customers and shareholders, and what those promises mean for how they act, speak, and treat each other – as well as their customers. Iconic, customer-centric brands like Salesforce and Southwest show strong evidence that placing a priority on building and living a positive culture results in loyal customers, healthy companies and strong brands.

trump brand

Does Identity Trump Brand?

In reading “How Will Trump Rebuild His Brand? published through Knowledge @ Wharton, we need to think about Trump’s brand and his identity, and how both may affect his upcoming presidency.

It can be confusing when the word brand is used to mean so many different things. Brands convey a promise that people come to rely on. The Trump brand promises ornate, luxurious, exclusive products or experiences at a premium price. It attracts prosperous clientele that are drawn to these qualities and who can afford these experiences. It is an appropriate brand for up-scale products and properties, because it is very well known, and it can command a premium price. Hence the brand has value to properties not even owned by Trump, and for which some product and property owners have been willing to pay a royalty.

Identity is different from Brand. Identity is about the reality of a person or company – who he, she or it really is – where brands are externally driven to appeal to others, identity is inner-driven. Identity flows from the reality of who the person or organization is – their innate driving force. Identity is bigger than brand. The identity of a corporation, organization, individual, or even a presidency may develop several “brands” aimed at different audiences. It can be especially powerful if all the brands stem from or reinforce the identity. The identity of Proctor & Gamble is characterized by a singular drive to provide quality household products that improve people’s lives. This is their driving force, but P&G has many brands (Crest, Tide, Pampers, Gillette, etc.), all shaped to appeal to different external audiences, yet all reinforcing P&G’s identity.

Donald Trump’s identity is more multi-faceted than his luxury brand. Trump’s identity should not be confused with his luxury brand. If Donald Trump’s drive for power is sincerely about populism, uniting the country and creating prosperity for all, and if he delivers on these goals, President Trump will be recognized and appreciated for not just luxury goods and properties. To accomplish his objectives, he may need to create a healthcare brand, a tax reform brand, a foreign trade  brand, and other “brands” shaped to appeal to different audiences. And these brands should all reinforce and deliver on his drive to “Make America Great Again.” If they don’t of course, all of these brands will lose credibility along with the presidential identity.

In conclusion, it is not only possible, but necessary, that a president serve many different audiences, and good branding can help, but the Trump luxury brand alone is not enough. What matters most is Trump’s Identity, who he really is, what he truly cares about and what he aspires to accomplish.

wells fargo

What happens to a brand when a CEO leaves?

The answer is, it depends. On the:

  • Stature of the CEO in the business community
  • Perceived influence of the CEO on the company – good or bad
  • Swiftness with which a respected replacement takes charge

The recent resignation of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf could mean one of two things for the Wells Fargo brand:

  • The company is in trouble and his resignation is symbolic of a bigger problem
  • His resignation signals Wells Fargo’s commitment to fixing what is wrong, and is therefore good news

To employees, investors and customers alike, a CEO’s resignation might result in the loss of some trust in the company, the loss of some competencies and valuable connections the CEO acquired while in office, the loss of some institutional memory, and a potentially demoralizing impact on the organization.

However, these consequences may be overridden by showing that the organization has strong principles, that it holds its executives responsible for their actions, and that it is taking steps to prevent similar problems. The departing executive takes the perceived problems of the organization with him, while the new executive starts with a provisional slate.

When our client Boeing had to let its CEO go in 2003, the action created an opportunity for Boeing to reframe its story and deliver a bigger, more positive vision for the company. By drawing attention to a broader promise and a renewed commitment, the loss of a CEO catalyzed the brand’s ascendancy.

In other cases, the CEO embodies the company brand, and his/her departure signals a major change in the brand’s promise. Virgin America is a shining example of this – while Richard Branson was not allowed to be CEO of the U.S. based airline, he was every bit the personality of that brand. The sale of the company to Alaska Airlines, and Branson’s subsequent departure from the scene, has investors and customers very worried about the future of their beloved airline. Virgin America has done its best to reassure customers through communications and consistency of experience that their brand promise is here to stay. Like Wells Fargo, time will tell if they can fulfill that promise.

Our advice to Wells Fargo in this time of transition is to commit to a new story, invest in making a renewed, valuable promise to your customers and deliver on that promise in actions, not just campaigns. Seize the opportunity to make the brand stronger, rather than just hoping this loss of confidence will be forgotten with time.