image of woman with a bag over her head

If we’re so good at what we do, why do we look so bad?

Are you frustrated that, despite many years of service to your community, your website and marketing materials are confusing, out-of-date or just don’t tell your story in a compelling way? It’s a complaint we hear from nonprofits all over the country. There is a disparity between your professional excellence and your visual brand. Consider these ten steps toward creating a visual image that is as strong as your professional reputation:

Step 1: Forgive.

You accomplished a lot without looking great, so don’t feel too bad about past materials. You did your best with what you had, and they served a purpose. Now you’re ready for more.

Step 2: Figure out why the disparity occurred.

Explore why this disparity happened in the first place. Are marketing and communications under-funded, or do your board or leadership not value the visual image of the organization? By learning why the disparity happened in the first place, you can start to understand what internal adjustments are needed to support change.

Step 3: Find a reason to change.

You need a compelling reason to justify this change, and not just change for the sake of looking better. What are the internal or external factors that are contributing to the need for change? Are you planning a move and need to reprint materials with new contact information? Did a similar organization improve its image, and you need to stay competitive? Are you entering a new market or reaching out to a new audience? Understanding the need for change and tying it to strategic outcomes will help gain support for the process and assist in mobilizing the necessary resources.

Step 4: Start with the verbal message.

A strong brand starts with a compelling message…a promise to those you know, and those you are hoping to get to know. The message answers the questions: “Who are we?” and “How are we different from other organizations?” Make sure you have consensus for this message from board, staff, and others close to the organization. Explore how this message can be adjusted to fit different audiences. It is important to know your message and your audiences before investing in any visual materials.

Step 5: Capture stories.

Great design is only great if it tells compelling stories. The fanciest brochure or flashiest website will fall flat if it doesn’t compel people to action. Content is the key, and a strong message (from step four) plus good stories will provide that content. The goal of storytelling is to collapse the distance between those you serve and those who support you. Stories bring your organization to life, engage supporters, and offer compelling reasons to give, participate or support. Even if your visual image is not quite where you want it to be, strengthening your verbal messages can help strengthen your brand.

Is your newsletter filled with stories about staff and board? Consider filling it with stories of those you serve. Instead of long lists of programs or services, tell stories of those benefiting from programs or services. Storytelling will make your materials more compelling, regardless of what they look like.

Step 6: Create the visual image.

To look better, you are most likely going to need some help. Consider taking advantage of the professional expertise here at 501creative. We’d love to help you develop a visual brand that is as professional and productive as the work you do.

But we recognize that sometimes budgets are tight. Here’s a few suggestions for developing a strong visual brand on a shoestring budget:

Hire out one piece, then take the look in-house.  Consider hiring an outside company to produce one key piece, perhaps a brochure or website, and then bring the rest of the brand look in-house. We have worked with many clients on select pieces, such as an annual report or brochure, and then worked with capable staff to help them re-create that look on their own.

Consider pro bono. If you can find a professional firm willing to donate the work, take advantage of that. But first make sure the company understands your strategic goals and is willing to help you reach them, not just create a piece for their awards shows. You’re not paying for it, so you have no leverage to ensure you get what you need. If the design doesn’t work for your organization, it is worthless no matter how much money you saved.

Find funders who will support the work. Look for capacity-building or technical assistance grants, or consider approaching individual donors. Several of our clients have received capacity-building grants from foundations for re-branding, Others have received funds from corporate or individual donors. Consider a sponsorship-type arrangement where a company funds the creation of a website or brochure, and in exchange receives recognition on that piece.

Step 7: Define the visual images with rules.

Once you’ve got a look you love, protect it with graphic standards. This can include how the logo is used, colors, fonts, rules for photography or images, etc. To cover the verbal as well as visual, add rules for tagline, mission statement, elevator speech, etc.

Step 8: Implement over time.

Don’t feel like you need to revise everything at once. You can implement your brand as funds become available. Take your time, it will all happen eventually. Consider extending the look throughout your entire organization, from print materials to web to interior and exterior signage.

Step 9: Think long term.

Branding takes discipline and a focus on the long term. Once you have defined your image visually and verbally, stick with it. It may be tempting to change after a while, but resist the temptation. Brands are built on consistency and repetition. Once you have invested in consistency with the new look and messaging, stay with it. These are items you want to love and use for a long time. We understand that it can be frustrating to repeat a message many, many times and then meet people who still don’t know who you are. That doesn’t mean that the brand is not working and you need to change. Think of it as an opportunity to reach out to one more person.

Step 10: Learn more.

Want to learn more about creating a visual brand for your organization?

Contact us so we can discuss how we can help.