Brand & the blurring of the profit, nonprofit divide

Mark Minelli

Not long ago, we lived in an era where non-profit organizations pursued their mission oblivious to marketing and for-profit companies dedicated themselves to crushing the competition and generating profit at any cost.  As communication becomes ever faster, connections almost immediate and messages potentially global, local and personal, the way organizations and companies reach and interact with customers has significantly changed and the need for a comprehensive brand strategy has become universal.

The availability of information and the speed of connection has created consumers who are more informed than ever. We shop with our phones and products manufactured in China arrive on our doorsteps in 48 hours. Yet, we still crave that connection to place and people. We value convenience but are unwilling to sacrifice content and community. We know more so we expect more. As the fastest growing consumer market, Millennials demand accountability and transparency, and are drawn to socially-conscious brands.

The need to build authentic relationships with consumers and deliver on the promise cuts across all entities – for-profit, non-profit and public-sector.  This shared imperative is contributing to the blurring of lines between profit-driven, private companies and socially-focused, non-profit organizations.  As a result, non-profit organizations are developing and implementing sophisticated brand strategies and generating innovative revenue models while informed private-sector companies are adopting vision-based strategies and are motivated to contribute to the greater good to drive their brand. As the need for transparency increases, the public sector is also under scrutiny and is responding by developing new ways to connect and communicate better to the public.

A new model

These blurred entities – for profit organizations with a strong commitment to social responsibility, non-profits that are operating more as traditional businesses, and the public sector engaging in community building and communication initiatives – are creating new operating models and reshaping the way organizations talk about what they do.

Toms Shoes, the ACLU, National Public Radio, Warby Parker… for profit or not-for-profit isn’t what’s important for consumers, what matters is how a company or organization communicates and operates. Are they accountable? Are they socially responsible?  And the bad comes with the good. In a culture where there is no hiding, a non-profit organization’s misuse of funds or questionable cause is no less damning than a for-profit company known to exploit its workers.

Total brand loyalty and its counterpart, outrage and public shaming, drive profits and sink ships faster than any marketing or public relations campaign can ever hope to do.

Brand across the spectrum

For non-profit organizations that are adopting fee-for-service models and acquiring for-profit subsidiaries, and for-profit organizations that are committed to corporate social responsibility, a strong, clear brand is more important than ever. Without a clear brand strategy and clear, compelling communication of the brand, the public becomes confused… and confusion does not build trust or loyalty. It is not enough to be well-intentioned. Great intentions must be communicated in image and action and supported by demonstrated success. Likewise, flashy graphics and a new logo without a product or experience that delivers on the brand promise and a pleasant customer experience, will be quickly identified as false advertising or worse.

Brand must capture the essence of what the organization is, what it hopes to be and how it behaves in the marketplace. And it must be seen, felt and heard by everyone the organization touches.

Where to start

For some organizations and companies, a brand strategy initiative is mostly about aligning what the company already does with external perceptions through clear messaging and visual representations. For others, the promise of the brand and ability to deliver are well behind the perception in the marketplace and better alignment is needed. New organizations and companies have the opportunity to build both the promise and the message together. All roads, when travelled successfully, result in happy, loyal customers and healthy, thriving entities.

Conclusion in brief

  • Communicating an organization’s commitment to social responsibility builds affinity with customers, especially younger, socially motivated Millennials. The line between profit-driven and mission-driven organizations is blurring and the need for strong brands for all organizations and companies is growing. Creating and implementing a comprehensive brand strategy requires connecting intent with strong visual and verbal clues and delivering on the promise.

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Minelli, Inc. work related to this post includes: Collective Goods, PactKendall Square, A Better City and Boston Creates.