Let’s start with a definition, one I use in a diverse group of settings ranging from teaching undergraduates to working with a partner.  

One way to think about branding is to ask what a consumer thinks of your company when he or she is alone in a room without the direct influence of any marketing messages. It is how a consumer thinks and feels about your company.

Note that this definition does not mention logos, fonts or color palettes. I believe those are tools used to help build a brand, but are not its essence. In many ways, the brand determines how we feel about an organization and its offerings.

Scott Bedbury, who guided both Nike and Starbucks to brand dominance, and authored the book A New Brand World, puts this concept in perspective when he called brand building a “process that, when it works well, should leave no facet of a company untouched. And no business practice unexamined.”

As nonprofit professionals, we need to understand how our audiences – including potential donors – perceive our brand. The Holy Grail is when our presentation of the brand matches up with the perception of our audiences. When we generate that type of alignment, opportunity generally follows.

When our alignment is off, it can be like running in place, costing us time and resources. Here’s a simple exercise you can use to check your brand alignment. Create a simple 5 x 4 grid and label the columns as:

  • How we would describe us
  • What our members think of us
  • What our prospects think of us
  • What the media thinks of us
  • How we would describe the ideal organization

Fill out each column with three words or phrases. Once you are done, share a clean worksheet with 10 stakeholders. Try finding a mix of major donors, volunteers and, if you are a service provider, clients or service recipients. Or, if your nonprofit is a membership organization, consider including rank and file members. Then ask them to complete the form.

(Note: A great place to do this is during a focus group at your annual or another key meeting. If you take that approach, just make sure that you have participation from a diverse group of members.) Armed with the responses, you can examine the commonalities, as well as the disconnects, to get a general sense of how your brand is perceived.

This is a qualitative analysis, meaning there isn’t a scale to compare one answer to another. From our experience, as you look at the answers lined up on the page, you’ll see themes that will help you understand how your audiences view your nonprofit compared to their definition of the ideal organization. All are good data points to have.

What can you do with this analysis?

  • Make sure you play up the commonalities in your marketing collateral
  • Reflect on the disconnects and consider strategies to bridge the gaps
  • Take disturbing answers with a grain of salt and conduct additional research

Based on your findings, adjustments could range from the simple to the complex. Here are some steps that may be warranted:

Adjusting Editorial

If this basic audit exposes a gap between your unique selling points and how your members/donors/ consumers perceive you, it may be because your editorial is telling the wrong story. To change member perception, take a look at your internal communication channels. Stop talking about things that don’t line up with your core mission and focus on the products and services that define your competitive advantage. Resist the temptation to just tell people what you offer. Instead, showcase stories and demonstrate your nonprofit’s impact. Show them how these members are better off because they joined your organization.

Take a Look Inward at Your Operations
You’ve got some work ahead if your audit reveals a disconnect between how respondents describe your organization and how they describe an ideal association. Not sure where to start? Put together a simple survey and ask your donors and clients how you’re doing at taking care of their needs. Need a template to get started? Just email us at info@tvdassociates.com and we will be happy to share ours.

Change Up Your Collateral
The results of your basic audit can identify potential adjustments to your marketing collateral. The results from your audit can help you make sure that you convey the same core messages about the value your nonprofit provides while at the same time make slight adjustments that recognize that needs change over time. Developing a brand that resonates with your community will take planning and dedication. Going through a periodic check-up makes it easier to make a mid-course adjustment to maintain momentum versus a major correction to reverse a significant decline.

Note: If you would like an electronic copy of the worksheet, email todd@tvdassociates.com.

Todd Von Deak, MBA, CAE is President of TVD Associates, which works with associations and nonprofit organizations to tackle their pressing membership and marketing challenges. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business where he has taught a number of courses, including branding.


  • Charles Kemp says:

    I like that you make a grid and have those questions to cover. I think with branding, you need to make sure that you are coming off in the way that you want. You want everyone to be thinking of you in the right way so that your product or brand is working for the right purposes.