Re-branding branding for social good

Clearly it’s time we re-brand branding. For starters, I get too many blank looks, and worse, people who cross themselves when when I say that I’m a brand strategist. I might as well have said “I’m an exploitation strategist. I help organizations fleece their flock.”

Of course, it is true that branding has some scary past. The etymology of the word itself is pretty dark, “mark permanently with a hot iron”. The mad-men of advertising did share a cowboy’s yearn to make an indelible mark – a scar, really – against the marked’s will. So, yeah, I see that, and how that would translate to a perception that one uses branding to sell sneakers, not an honors college in a university, or a get out the vote for carbon taxes campaign.

Branding answers ‘why?’

But friends, I’ve sold a lot of sneakers, and it turns out that those tools used to sell products that we don’t need are just as effective, if not more so, when used to sell ideas we do.

How? By starting at the beginning. By stepping back and suspending judgment and just listening. And just noticing. Because branding starts with why. Why do you exist? When your organization is supremely successful, how will the world be different? Every organization – especially social sector, non-profit and/or mission-driven organizations – need to start with why. Clarity about who you serve and how you help them is at the heart of an honest and resonant brand.

And oh by the way, clarity about who you serve and how you help them is also the heart of organizational health and fitness. Your brand is your promise to those you serve of how you help them. I’m guessing that there are few big rock projects on your to-do list that wouldn’t be helped, facilitated, improved and plain made easier by asking why you exist and how you help as a first step.

Let’s re-brand branding. Let’s call it Branding.

Executive leaders, strategic planners, board governors, HR motivators, development campaigners and, yes, organizational communicators, let’s rebrand branding.

Around the Clarity water coolers (more accurately, cafe tables) there’s been a lot of talk about using different names to position branding. We use the words “Core Identity” and “Mission and Vision” a lot in our proposals.

But know what? We don’t need to re-name branding. We need to re-brand branding. Because branding works, and those who use it know it, and they – alone! – can speak to why and how they use it and how it serves their orgs.

This reminds me of our local Pioneer Valley tourism and economic development councils. Every few years they land a grant large enough to fund a decent advertising program and every few years they assign the project to an out of town agency who has zero experience living or working or playing in the Pioneer Valley, and who invariably try to re-name the Pioneer Valley, which makes no sense at all to the people who do live and work and play in the Pioneer Valley.

Federal Express renamed themselves FedEx because that’s what everybody called them. The people who live, work and play in the Pioneer Valley call it the Pioneer Valley and nobody calls it anything else.

Everybody who uses branding calls it branding. We don’t need to re-name branding. We need to re-position it. So when we think of branding we don’t think of exploitation but of clarity of purpose.

Watch this space. We need to re-position the idea of branding in the minds of our target audience, the leaders of mission-driven and future-focused organizations.


Photo via Creative Commons. samantha celera.

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