Research Friday: Branding in the nonprofit sector
Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing series, we invite a nonprofit scholar, student, or professional to highlight current research reports or studies and discuss how they can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.
Brands like Coca-Cola and Nike have one thing in common: they are known and recognized worldwide. These corporate-born brands have become some of the most iconic images in the world.1 But brand value is just as important in the nonprofit sector as it is in the for-profit sector.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Business Research, a brand is defined as “a name, term, sign, drawing, or any combinations of these, that serve to identify a firm’s goods and services and differentiate them from those of competitors.”2 Nonprofits usually offer intangible services to their communities, in contrast to the tangible products and services usually offered by for-profit companies. This can make branding more difficult for nonprofits.3
I want to outline some issues nonprofit organizations may face while trying to build or change their brand. Often, nonprofit leaders look at brands as just a “simple visual trigger from which to develop communication campaigns rather than a strategic tool for focusing the organization.”4 It is crucial that nonprofits understand that brand development and management can directly contribute to the organization’s positive impact. The mission statement should drive the development of the brand and the brand should reflect the values of the organization. With successful brand communication, the organization is able to build trust with potential donors and clients.4 The American Red Cross is a great example of trust building across donor and client lines. Their name and logo are so well-known that the average American trusts their brand and, (arguably) because of this, is likely to donate to their cause. This brand recognition is what makes The Red Cross the go-to organization in times of disaster. There may be many other organizations that are collecting donations for similar causes but The Red Cross has successfully built a solid brand which makes their organization stand out among the rest.
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One example of a nonprofit organization rebranding in order to create a more positive impact on the community they serve is the Arizona based nonprofit formally known as Phoenix Youth At Risk. Phoenix Youth At Risk decided to undertake the task of rebranding and changed the name of their organization to New Pathways For Youth. In the article Non-profit branding: Cause and brand effect the author states “Lots of not-for-profits were set up to deal with public symptoms. Now charities also have to work on the cause of the problems: they have to become the movements for change.”1 The original name for New Pathways for Youth is an example of how the organization looked at the symptoms of the problems with youth in Phoenix and labeled them as being “at-risk.” With the new name “New Pathways For Youth” the organization wanted to rebrand itself as a movement that gives Phoenix area youth a new opportunities by providing them with positive adult mentors.
New Pathways for Youth took special precautions to include the community they served, preserve current supporters, and attract new ones. They have been known as Phoenix Youth at Risk for 24 years, so the name change could have potentially altered the way they are perceived by their community and clients. In celebration of the name change, New Pathways for Youth hosted a block party for the community where local phoenix public figures spoke in support of the new branding. New Pathways For Youth used their rebranding as an opportunity to revamp their organization and bolster their outreach to the community.
Research done by Venable et al. suggest that nonprofit branding, specifically brand personality, can be used as a strategic marketing tool.3 Brand personality is defined by Aaker as “the set of human characteristics associated with a brand.”3 The findings of Venable et al. show that developing brand personality can have a positive impact on a nonprofit organization, and since many nonprofits offer similar services, it can help differentiate their services from competitors.3
New Pathways for Youth is an excellent example of how rebranding can positively change the image of an organization. This rebranding has worked in the organization’s favor, allowing them to create a brand personality that reflects their mission statement and helps them stay connected with the community.
Alex Flores is a recent graduate from Arizona State University with a bachelor of science in Sociology and a minor in nonprofit studies. For his Barrett thesis, Alex worked on an ethnographic study of an inner city public park, and titled his work: “Verde Park is not just a Park: An ethnographic study of youth mentoring, self-worth, and identity development in Verde Park." Before graduating he was accepted to Teach for America and has been placed at a nonprofit preschool that provides early childhood education to low income families in Los Angeles. While working for Teach for America, Alex will be pursuing his master of arts degree in early childhood education at Loyola Marymount University.
 Non-profit branding: Cause and brand effect. (2006). Brand Strategy, 25-25.
 Michel, G., & Rieunier, S. (2012). Nonprofit brand image and typicality influences on charitable giving. Journal of Business Research, 65(5), 701-707.
 Venable, B. T., Rose, G. M., Bush, V. D., & Gilbert, F. W. (2005). The role of brand personality in charitable giving: An assessment and validation. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 33(3), 295-312.
 Keller, E. W., Dato-on, M. C., & Shaw, D. (2010). NPO branding: Preliminary lessons from major players. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 15(2), 105-121.