Re-Branding Your Nonprofit

AIG CEO sunflower-1Edward M. Liddy recently admitted to Congress, “I think the AIG name is so thoroughly wounded and disgraced that we’re probably going to have to change it.” And so begins a re-branding process that starts with re-naming several subsidiary divisions, the way Philip Morris became “Altria.”

But how useful is re-branding if the underlying brand promise is still broken?

A true re-branding process can only be successful for two reasons, and often both exist: 1) the organization is delivering a different brand promise than what it is widely known for and needs to correct this mis-impression, or 2) the organization has decided to change–usually expand–its mission.

A Re-Brand Mini-Case Study

In the non-profit and public sector world there are many examples. A great re-branding example is Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland . Once known as the Bethesda Academy for the Performing Arts, the group founded by Bonnie Fogel in 1979 had a unique and much-needed focus on arts for children, including accessibility for deaf and disabled children. As the nonprofit expanded its offerings, encompassing original plays and musicals performed with and for children of all abilities, the “Academy” title seemed to no longer fit. This was in 2000, right about the time that the group was also outgrowing its two locations in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
So as part of a major re-visioning project, Bonnie led her organization through a challenging but ultimately rewarding fundraising and strategic planning effort that resulted in a custom-designed new home in downtown Bethesda–public transportation accessible–with a new name that fit the breadth of dynamic arts programming they provided for children: Imagination Stage. Today, the group reaches thousands of children through programming in schools, professional performances on its stages, classes and workshops and is embarking on expanding its reach further through new technologies.

What Comes First in a Re-Brand?

Re-branding is always an act of imagination. The question to ask if you want to re-brand is “will this propel our mission?”  Or, in the lingo of branding, “does it help us better deliver on our brand promise?”  In the case of AIG, the brand promise may still be broken.  So re-branding can only begin with internal restructuring–mending the cracks in the brand promise. Simply changing externals like name and logo won’t cut it.

For nonprofits, donors, volunteers and the public need to have confidence that you will provide the value they expect and deserve.  Here are three things to focus on in a re-brand:

1) programs and services: are they consistent with our mission/vision?

2) governance, strategic plan/fundraising plan, and staff-board relationship: do these support our programs and services?

3) externals: do our name/logo/tag line help people understand our mission, vision and value to our community?

So many organizations start a re-branding with the externals.  Starting on the inside first will help you pave the way to succeed.

Do you have a great re-branding story? Please share with us!

0 replies
  1. Brandon R Allen
    Brandon R Allen says:

    Great point. In the case of AIG. You can put a bow on a turd but it’s still a turd. I am curious as to how they are going to do business differently to justify their re-branding efforts.

  2. Paul Hayslett
    Paul Hayslett says:

    “Simply changing externals like name and logo won’t cut it.”


    My son went to a tiny alternative grammar/middle school. Any school of its size (100 students in pre-K through 8th grade) faces enormous challenges maintaining enrollment and cash flow. It needs to offer something specific and unique to parents.

    As the school reached middle age (35 years old), it started to lose focus. Was it the slightly-hippie semi-co-op of its early years, a community of faculty and working- and middle-class parents caring for students with unique needs? Or was it a place where somewhat wealthier parents might send their kids for an academically superior education but not, perhaps, show up to repaint rooms on Saturdays? Where was its heart? What was its unique strength?

    Rather than tackle that question, the administration embarked on a re-branding effort, a year-long search for a new name, followed by a “re-opening”. They argued that the problem lay in the vagueness of the public’s perception of the school and that a new name would sharpen and refocus this. But without an internal refocusing first, the new name meant nothing but a bill for new letterhead. The public was still unsure what the school stood for because the school was still unsure.

    The school will close at the end of this academic year. The administration blames the economy for falling enrollment. But it cannot have helped that the faculty and the Board of Directors were distracted for a critical year by a pointless re-naming effort when it should have been searching for the school’s soul.

    Figure out what your brand should promise first, then find a name that fits. The first part of the job is much harder, but much more important.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] DeLouise suggests, “Re-branding is always an act of imagination. The question to ask if you want to re-brand is “will this propel our mission?” (para. 5). Also called brand repositioning, this process can be difficult and time-intensive. Notwithstanding the financial burden, a museum may not have the resources necessary to change the public’s mind about who they are and what they offer. If an institution is going to re-brand, this not only means a overhaul of its current messaging, logo, graphic standards, and communications processes, but also requires the organization to strategically determine how they are going to persuade visitors and non-visitors to think about their museum in a different way, away from the frame of previous experiences and impressions. […]

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