Meeting the Moment: Brand and Sustainability

Mark Minelli

Over the course of Minelli’s 30+ year history, we have worked with many large nonprofits, witnessing first-hand how thinking around brand identity has evolved in the nonprofit sector. Lately, we’ve been re-examining this evolution of thought. We have found that doing so offers lessons on how to think about branding in regards to sustainability.

Nonprofits, by definition and charter, are mission driven. The individual missions are as diverse as the organizations themselves, but they are all based on the promise of advancing a public good. When we first started working in this sector, brand was typically relegated to a supporting role in marketing, if it was considered at all. It certainly was not viewed as a powerful means of ensuring one’s mission would be resonant and relevant to stakeholders. Over time though, nonprofits began to understand: branding can be more than a banner used for promotion — it can be the flame at the heart of an organization, fueled by purpose and values. Branding can serve as an emotive internal compass which drives change and guides the behaviors and actions needed to ensure what an organization says about itself is true. This understanding of one’s brand brings about far greater return on investment in an organization’s mission.

Today, many of the nonprofits we have worked with are leading with brands built entirely on purpose, effectively inverting cause and effect. Their symbols have power because they are associated with meaning. Their missions are real and tangible to the people they serve. These missions require them to look deep within, evaluating every aspect of themselves — marketing, operations, culture, and governance.

The lessons from the evolution of these organizations translate directly to how we might think about (or rethink) branding in relation to sustainability. We are definitely seeing progress in how companies are working to become more sustainable, but there is still so much work to do. Sustainability efforts are still often seen as a means of burnishing brand reputation while carrying on with existing unsustainable business practices — effectively a supporting element to marketing.

Leaders in the field are really flipping the equation to start with sustainability, aligning their thinking, actions, and branding around that purpose. This goes much deeper than marketing. It impacts every aspect of the company culture, operations, and governance. The game-changing work of Patagonia, Unilever, and others is raising the bar, but this needs to become the norm, not the exception. Obviously, the financial return on investment to shareholders does not have an exact corollary in the non-profit sector, but one could argue that the return to stakeholders is quite similar: a brand that delivers on a promise built from values and purpose. A brand that is resonant, real, and ensures in image, experience, and action what the organization says about itself is true. In some respects, we need to take a market-place tool and make it mission based, regardless of an organization’s tax status. We need the collective reach, resources, and impact of the private sector if we are going to meet this moment for ourselves and our planet.