Branding or Branded

Long time readers may recall an article I wrote regarding a presentation on social networking I had given some years ago. Those were early days of social networking and most organizations were at the early stages of trying to make sense of what it meant for them.

I felt then that we were at the very early stages of a transformative time, and that issues such as epistemology, community organization and definition, identity, authority, and much more were being redefined in ways as profound as the early days of modernity. A few years later, we are a bit further along, but it is clear that we aren’t there yet. A recent article in the NY Times about the surprisingly weak utilization of MOOCs, the overtly contentious issues regarding Mr. Snowden, the NSA, and what privacy does or doesn’t mean, the magnification of gamification as teaching tools, and so much more only suggest that we don’t yet have shared standards, a shared ethic, or even a methodology for teaching how to mediate the overwhelming abundance of information available to all. And that doesn’t even begin to cover all of the issues.

In any case, at the time, after I spoke to a large group of nonprofit professionals in that city, a marketing professional from one of organizations immediately responded: “Oh, I get it; we need to re-brand ourselves” To which I replied, “No, you don’t get it; you need to reinvent your organization for this century.” [Maybe I said it more diplomatically.]

Since then I have given a lot more thought to the entire issue of branding. I have seen a growing attention to cultivating a brand image by many organizations, even among private foundations. It relates to every organization with which I am connected, and it certainly relates to my own work, my self-presentation, and my persona as a philanthropy advisor and educator.

It is striking how many individuals and organizations [and private for-profit businesses] seem to be exactly where that marketing professional was 10 years ago. To take one example: I go to a local Equinox gym every morning. If one were to look at all of the slick material produced by them, one would think it is an attentive and caring “club” atmosphere for members. I cannot speak for other locations, or even other hours at this location, but I can tell you that none of us who go each morning recognize their well-publicized “brand.” Suffice it to say that there are simple adjustments in policy and staff training and attitude that would make all of the difference for those of us who are paying customers, but these ideas, shared by many, have been rebuffed. It is not very surprising that I am the only one of the early risers who joined when it opened who still goes – and I too would leave in a minute if there were as convenient an option.

This is not an expose of a particular company. For all I know, Equinox is no worse than its competition, so the misalignment of branding and actual experience doesn’t harm their business. Maybe expectations for gyms are such that no one takes the “branding” too seriously.

Many companies and many nonprofits, though, do know that something has changed. Too often, their response has been to repackage themselves and called it re-branding. It is as if they have adopted the old saw “fake it til you make it.” For this group, calling a pre-existing program or project or offering by a new catchy with-it type title is all they have taken away from an era of rapid and deep change. I doubt anyone is long fooled or that they are actually attracting very much new business or very many new followers or supporters. Do people really believe that because a company or organization has a facebook page or twitter handle that it has changed the way it does things? I am dubious.

There is another group of individuals and organizations that really do work at it. They recognize that they, or some significant part of what they do, has changed or must change in very authentic ways. They are not simply repackaging but attempting a re-invention, a new set of responses to changing conditions. For this group, a pro-active rebranding /re-positioning is valid and necessary because it reflects, credibly, how they now do things. They get it: only after making the changes does the marketing and branding come into play.

Now, I suspect that what I have just written is basic Branding 101. I make no claim to be an expert in marketing [more about that below] or branding, but as an avid observer, it is clear to me that far too many organizations haven’t yet passed that course.

Recently, though, I learned a couple of things about branding which have expanded my own understandings. I share them on the chance that some of you are also still in the learning stage.

First, I learned that “branding” matters less than “branded.” What people actually think about you is your brand. It may or may not have anything to do with what you hope they think, what you have paid someone to have them think, or what you choose to put forward as a semiotic or iconic manifestation of your self-image. As in the Equinox example above, if others perceive you, describe you, experience you in a certain way, you are “branded.” And if you are an organization looking for engagement, involvement, and support, it behooves you to pay a lot of attention to what your brand actually is, not just how to sell your story. Too often we hear organizations bemoan, “we are the best kept secret.” One wonders whether those organizations are just not really listening to what others perceive their story to be. The same applies to someone looking to expand a business. Uninteresting or unpersuasive stories are not secrets, just boring to others.

I recently learned this in a very personal way. I decided to do a modified, self-directed “360.” The results were not uniformly pretty. [It is helpful to have a good bottle of wine – or maybe cognac – handy when one does this.] I won’t share more than a couple of the findings. Sure, I was not surprised many describe me as “the bow tie guy”. And, thankfully, many said very nice and reinforcing things. But it also showed that some find me too cerebral or unapproachable. Not everyone reported that assessment, but enough did that it couldn’t be easily dismissed. Some of this might be addressed by modifying the “branding” messages on our website and LinkedIn and other “top down” adjustments, but none of that can redress perceptions which “real life” experience may have fostered. For some, I now know, I am branded in ways that cannot be redressed on-line or in words.

Which brings me to the second insight I recently learned about branding. Branding is not marketing. Honest and effective branding is a pre-condition to effective marketing but they are not synonymous. I used to think, naively, that if I simply can present who I am, consistently and widely, that is marketing. The rest will follow. Another few blog postings, a few more LinkedIn groups, a few more Twitter followers, and…. But as I am sure any marketing expert would have told me, not true. What good is a blog posting if it isn’t read by people who want to know what you have to say – and when they want to know it? Marketing is the process of making sure that, when someone needs what you offer, they know you offer it, and trust that you do it in a way that will be helpful to them. [The next stage, “sales,” happens when you know how to close the deal, but that isn’t the topic for this posting – nor, I confess, an area in which I have any expertise.]

But to return to the beginning:

I recently was interviewed by an international luxury brand company [which shall remain nameless] about philanthropy trends. Not a surprising topic, of course, since “philanthropy trends” is what I speak, write, and teach about all the time. Many of their questions were on target and explored how the different trends manifest themselves around the world.

Toward the end, the questions took a different turn. They focused more on the value of cause marketing, corporate sponsorships, and the like. What emerged was an interesting exploration of the meaning of branding in the philanthropy sphere. The most interesting parts had to do with derivative value: does brand sponsorship lead to brand loyalty? Does it lead to loyalty to a cause? Does it matter what the cause is? You get the idea.

Here is where the distinctions discussed above proved most helpful – to the interviewers, as they contemplated what to do with the information, and to me as I thought about the implications of this conversation to my own work. We all know that “green washing” does not purify the image of a persistent polluter. All the branding in the world appears phony if the company is branded a polluter. What about if there is a more neutral correlation between the cause and the company’s image? Would an athletic goods company gain, lose, or have no derivative impact if it were to sponsor a literacy campaign?

As we explored what well known luxury good branding can, should, and might mean for their philanthropy, it reminded me that the same applies to all organizations, and indeed for all of us in the business world. The more aligned the the branding is to the perceived “brand”, the more the brand becomes a valued extension. But if and when the branding and the “branded” diverge, those extensions work against best intentions and interests, and most assuredly do not reinforce the much-desired marketing efforts.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.