How a Small Nonprofit Shaped a Clear, Memorable Brand – Five Steps to Low-Budget Branding for Big Results (Case Study)

The Challenge

Back in 1999, as the millennium loomed, the Coalition for Women’s Economic Development and Global Equality (CWEDGE), faced a serious communications challenge. This nonprofit, dedicated to shaping U.S. policy to benefit poor women worldwide, just wasn’t understood. And that lack of understanding was seriously limiting its impact.

“Not only was the CWEDGE name a mouthful, but some of our target audiences were unclear on what we did,” says communications director Anu Palan. “That’s always a challenge with policy work, which is so much more abstract than direct service. But time and time again, vital audiences – such as the grassroots organizations we count on to mobilize lobbying campaigns on pending legislation – would assume that we were direct service providers. Something had to change.”

But CWEDGE faced two organizational hurdles in making a change:

  • As a nonprofit with a small staff (9 FTEs) and a $1 million operating budget, CWEDGE had limited resources for message development and branding. “Delving into branding, in a serious way, was (and remains) a big investment of both time and resources,” says Palan.
  • As a policy organization, CWEDGE’s target audiences were very diverse. Ranging from policymakers to partner organizations throughout the world to individual advocates and the grassroots organizations to which they belong, these segments shared little in terms of perspective, priorities and vocabulary. This lack of commonality made it difficult to craft effective messages that would resonate with each group.

Nonetheless, CWEDGE resolved to tackle these hurdles and shape a powerful brand for the new century.

The Strategy

The leadership wisely concluded that understanding staff and audience perceptions of its organization and issue area, and their emotional hot buttons, was critical in shaping a resonant brand.

It also concluded that it could fund the audience research effort by strategically integrating an outreach research component in a few key funding proposals to garner some budget for the audience research work they knew was so critical for effective branding (and outreach).

Most importantly, at the start of the process, CWEDGE took one key action: Based on anecdotal research, analysis of other organizations in the field and all-staff input, they re-christened the organization Women’s EDGE (WE): EDGE=Economic Development and Gender Equality.

Step One: Get Your Leadership and Total Organization Committed

Branding is an intensive process that devours time and budget. Your leadership has to believe in the value of branding. The WE leadership was fully committed to doing whatever it took to make that happen, and brought every staff member into the process. “Your nonprofit leadership must be fully invested in the value of branding, and involved in the branding process,” says Palan.

(Note: If you’re having trouble building support for a branding initiative within your organization, one key tactic is to share with your colleagues case studies of how branding has benefited colleague organizations. Showing real value via tangible results is the best approach to mounting a persuasive case for strengthening organizational identity.)

Most importantly, the Women’s EDGE leadership team planned realistically, allocating dedicated staff hours and budget for the branding work at hand. It’s critical to designate an adequate, and realistic, budget and staffing for your branding initiative.

“You have to allocate sufficient time and budget, even if that means delaying other work to do so or finding additional funding sources, to develop an effective brand,” advises Palan.

Step Two: Conduct Research to Gather Essential Input for Your Emerging Brand Strategy

Nonprofit marketers, know your target audiences. In 2002, with funding in hand, WE identified and hired a research firm to conduct focus groups to gather audience input on their issue areas. The leadership broadened the research focus to incorporate perceptions of the organization and different ways of talking about it (e.g. use of “advocate” vs. “activist” to describe individual members).

Since the goal of branding is to engage audiences with an intellectual and emotional connection, a clear understanding of audience perspectives, habits and preferences is a must. Integrate audience research into your branding process from the get go. Regardless of budget, there are ways to do this: For instance, every budget has room for online surveying, at the very least.)

Step Three: Turn Branding Research Into Action

For Women’s EDGE, research showed that the concept of a coalition was crucial (since WE works so closely with organizations around the world) but wasn’t conveyed in the current name.

Nor did audiences associate the acronym EDGE with the words it stood for. Instead, WE was commonly perceived as just another international women’s organization. So, beginning with the mission statement, the staff worked through articulating WE’s issue areas, and the organization’s unique contribution to the field.

They defined the following key points about the organization:

  • We do policy advocacy on international women’s issues.
  • We focus on economic empowerment of women; and when we discuss violence, education, etc., it is always in the context of the economic aspects of these issues.

Then, based on the broad range of target audiences, the team tweaked the organization’s name to Women’s Edge Coalition (WEC), and streamlined its messages to be accessible to all segments from the policymaker to the individual advocate.

Additionally, the use of jargon like “gender” and “advocacy” was banned. Once you know your target audiences better through your research, you must ensure that language and content directed to them is accessible and easily understood. Otherwise, you risk alienating them or just plain losing their interest.

Once the name was finalized, the grant dollars funded a design session at an all-staff retreat. WEC leadership felt strongly that “a more professional look and feel was necessary to get attention in the policy arena,” says Palan.

A graphic designer ran a working session to solicit staff input on a new logo and colors, resulting in the current approach. The logo certainly conveys the focus on women, on movement (let’s say moving forward), and celebration of progress.

Step Four: Build a Cross-Functional Branding Team to Solicit Key Insights and Spawn Brand Evangelists

Building a cross-functional branding team helps achieve internal clarity and commitment. You need those varied perspectives to design branding that truly reflects your nonprofit, and will resonate with all audiences.

For WEC, the entire staff worked as a team on its branding agenda, which was crucial for harvesting all relevant perspectives and ensuring buy-in, says communications manager Phoebe Lee.

“An unanticipated benefit was that our non-communications colleagues, who were out there in the field meeting and speaking for WEC every day, were well-trained on message,” says Lee.

Training a team of brand evangelists who consistently deliver your messages on a daily basis as they go about their work is the #1 vital ingredient in your nonprofit’s branding success.

Step Five: Recognize Branding Is a Phased Process – Monitor Results and Make Adjustments On an Ongoing Basis

Branding is never finished. It’s a process of continual evolution, as the Women’s Edge Coalition staff members discovered.

“WEC didn’t plan our branding as a phased process, but found it was the only way we could move forward due to our time limitations. What we gained was perspective, which really strengthened our messages,” says Palan.

In fall 2005, nearly three years after the second re-naming, Palan found that most staff members spoke effectively about the organization, stemming from (at least partially) WEC-wide involvement in print and online content and message creation. But there remained one gap.

The organization still lacked a clear, specific tagline that could articulate its unique, policy-oriented mission – bolstering women’s economic development worldwide. “We didn’t have a clear tagline that articulated exactly what WEC does,” recalls Palan.

So the challenge was there: How to succinctly express this not-so-common mission.

The entire Women’s Edge Coalition staff re-grouped for a messaging session and, sans audience research, came up with a two-fold approach:

  • A tagline that outlines the organization’s issue agenda and generates an emotional connection:”Ending global poverty begins with women’s opportunity.”
  • A descriptive “brand essence” that defines WEC’s role in its issue area, and is featured in every marketing communication (print and online) and conversation:”Women’s Edge Coalition is the leading, nonpartisan organization shaping U.S. policy to benefit poor women worldwide.”

Lesson here? Don’t be constrained by branding conventions. Because there was so little policy work in the women’s economic development arena, it was critical for WEC to establish a context, with its tagline, and then to position its work within that context (with its brand essence). There’s just no way to do so in a necessarily brief tagline.

Additionally, Palan and Lee set out to ensure brand consistency by producing a staff guide to brand usage featuring how to use (and not use) the WEC logo and name, and what colors should be used for which graphic elements.

The Results

Palan reports that Women’s Edge Coalition’s branding work has generated a clearer understanding of its issue focus, and the organization’s unique contribution to that arena, particularly among policymakers and colleague organizations. She also credits brand definition for increased efficiency, since all staff members have a framework to refer to when shaping communications materials or participating in meetings.

For WEC’s communications team, “Our branding is our guidepost for everything we do,” says Palan. “It’s so helpful to have this foundation in place that is agreed on WEC-wide.”

What’s interesting is that WEC’s branding initiative has also sharpened its internal clarity, as the organization- wide branding team worked through issues of articulating vision, mission, goals and objectives in messages meaningful to its diverse audiences. “Smaller organizations may even benefit from the branding process more than larger ones,” says Palan. “We just didn’t have the bandwidth for missteps.”

Branding Evolution

Now, six years since WEC’s initial re-naming, Palan and Lee are moving into the next phase of branding work, crafting branding and style guides, and expanded talking points.

Women’s Edge Coalition still faces some branding challenges. Most frustrating is its continued difficulty in communicating effectively with audiences outside the Beltway, especially grassroots organizations and individuals.

“Not too many of those folks really understand two of the key words in our ‘brand essence’ message – nonpartisan and policy,” says Lee. “And those audiences are vital for us to reach, as their voice bolsters our call for changes in policy. Legislators care about what their constituents have to say, not what WEC has to say. So, we continue to stick to reaching each audience segment on their own terms, in their own language.”

For WEC, as for every organization, branding is a process of evolution. Wherever you are in the process, take these five steps to strengthen your nonprofit’s brand. They’ll work for larger nonprofits, as well as small ones.