Many times marketing is seen as a dirty word in the non-profit sector. A necessarily evil that no one admits spending too much time or money on. But to build a successful non-profit organization to help people, you still need to follow the laws of branding. Because powerful non-profit brands will raise more money, attract more volunteers and help more people.
My friend Kate Atwood started a non-profit organization here in Atlanta. I met her through a mutual friend, Thomas Smith, from Northwestern and I have been overwhelmed by her instincts and guts every since.
Still in her mid-twenties, she has already been built a strong brand in just a few years. The brand is Kate’s Club and its mission is to offer hope, community and fun for children who have had to face the death of a parent. Like many non-profit founders, Kate started the club after her own experience with childhood grief.
When Kate was six years old, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and died when Kate was 12 years old. Losing a parent at any age is difficult, but it is especially traumatic for a child.
I understand this first hand. My Mom lost her father when she was 14 years old. My best friend Amy lost her father in high school. My friend Perry lost his father in middle school. And Thomas lost both his mother and father in high school. It is a terrible, lonely, frightening journey. Thank goodness that Kate’s Club is here to help guide and empower these children on their grief journey.
So here are my Seven Steps for Building a Strong Non-Profit Brand. (They are really the same as building a strong for-profit brand since the goal is the same -- to own a position in the mind.)
1. The name.
This is the first and most important decision any non-profit has to make. Too many charities have generic names that are descriptive of what they do, but lack the ability to distinguish them from similar organizations in the mind. How many American Associations of this or that are there? Too many, in my opinion.
Of course there are some powerful brands with generic names like the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. But these are brands that have been around forever and were first in the mind. The American Cancer Society was founded in 1913, The American Heart Association in 1924. What you could do back then and what you can do right now are two different things.
Take General Electric. You couldn’t build a company with that generic a brand name today. GE is successful despite its weak name because it was founded over 114 years ago and was the innovator of many technologies like the light bulb.
I love the name Kate’s Club. It does not say exactly what it is about. But that is OK. What it does do is build a unique brand name in the mind. It also personifies the brand using Kate’s name and Club says it is for kids and is fun.
2. The spokesperson.
All brands need a spokesperson, but it is incredibility important for a non-profit. Ideally the founder is the best person to take on this role. He or she has a powerful connection to the brand and can sell the story to the media, donors, volunteers and supporters.
A celebrity with a personal connection to the cause can make an excellent spokesperson. Think Michael J. Fox and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Lance Armstrong and Livestrong Lance Armstrong Foundation, Elizabeth Taylor and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation.
Or sometimes just a regular person becomes the celebrity for the brand like Elizabeth Glaser for the Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS foundation. In 1981, Elizabeth contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and unwittingly passed it on to her two children via breast milk and in utero. Even though she lost her battle with AIDS in 1988, her memory and her story as the namesake of the organization lives on.
Charity brands can also have a CEO who serves as the brand’s spokesperson, one that will give credibility and accountability to the brand. There is always a fear that the money is being wasted, so a professional running the ship is helpful.
Kate Atwood, of course, is the perfect spokesperson for her brand. She is young, passionate and brave. You know you are supporting Kate’s mission when you give to Kate’s Club. And one day I think she will be a big celebrity for her cause.
Kate could also benefit from a high-profile celebrity endorsing her brand. My vote is for Stephen Colbert. When Stephen was 10 years old, he lost his father and two of his brothers (he is one of 11 children) in an Eastern Airlines crash. Such a loss must have had an enormous impact on him. Supporting Kate’s Club might be particularly rewarding for him and his celebrity would certainly help shine the PR spotlight on the Club. I have personally written to Stephen about Kate’s Club but so far no response. If anyone reading this blog works at Comedy Central please tell Mr. Colbert to check out www.KatesClub.org
Another possibility is Katie Couric. Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 42 leaving two young daughters and Katie behind. Today Katie is a prominent spokeswoman for colon cancer awareness. She underwent a colonoscopy on-air in March 2000 which inspired many others to get checked as well. Katie and her daughters supporting Kate's Club might be very rewarding for them as well.
3. The position.
Every brand needs a focus. For a non-profit that wants to be as inclusive as possible, this is a very difficult task. But the only way to get your brand into the mind is with a narrow focus.
Take the American Heart Association. We think they need a more narrow focus. They should focus on one danger signal for heart disease. One of the biggest health problems in American, one directly connected to heart disease, and one that people can do something about is obesity. The organization should focus on obesity, the greatest threat to the health of your heart. The AHA can still support many other programs like CPR training and stroke prevention. A focus is for your message and not necessarily inclusive of all your work.
Kate’s Club has done a good job of focusing. The current position is: Empowering the Lives of Grieving Children. But I am always advising Kate to focus more. The more focused the message the more powerful it becomes and the easier it is to get into the mind. I really think of Kate’s Club as the place for kids grieving the loss of a parent. It might also make sense to focus the message on losing a parent to cancer since this is the leading cause of death for adults 35-54 years of age.
4. The enemy.
Every strong brand needs an enemy. This is something non-profits by nature tend to avoid discussing. But strong brands are built by figuring out who the enemy is, what the enemy stands for and then building a brand that stands for the opposite.
Mercedes are big, comfortable cars. So BMW positioned itself as the ultimate driving machine with smaller, lighter, more-nimble cars. Listerine is the bad-tasting mouthwash, so Scope positioned itself as the good-tasting mouthwash. Home Depot is messy and male oriented, so Lowe’s positioned itself as neat and female oriented.
Who is enemy of Kate’s Club? I think it is the American Cancer Society and other groups that focus on cancer patients and cancer survivors. Kate’s Club is for the children left behind, the children whose parents were not survivors and who at a critical developmental stage have a hole in their lives. Much like ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) an organization that helps support those affected by the mayhem caused by growing up as the child of an alcoholic. Alcoholics Anonymous supports only the drinker, society often forgets about the collateral damage.
5. PR, PR, PR.
Not much to say, except that PR builds brand. The spokesperson need to spend the majority of his or her time doing PR for the charity, leaving the managerial duties to someone else. The most important thing for Kate or any other brand leader to do is to spend tireless hours looking for that one PR breakthrough. One mention in USA Today, Wall Street Journal or Oprah can put you on the non-profit map. And once you get one, the others usually come rolling in.
6. A signature event.
All charities, schools, clubs and teams have endless fundraisers. Hardly a day that goes by when some organization isn’t trying to shake me down for money for some good cause. Instead of a non-profit spending thousands of hours on multiple new programs every year, a better strategy is to focus on one or two big events and do them every year forever. Consistency is the key to success. Look at what the Girl Scouts have done with cookies and Jerry Lewis with his Labor Day MDA telethon.
Kate’s Club is following the same strategy with much success. Every August, Kate has a big Kate’s Club Cabaret in Atlanta. There is a silent auction, music, food and lots of fun. It has become one of the hot parties of the year, especially for young people. This year was the 3rd annual Cabaret, an event that was able to raise over $100,000 for the charity.
7. Color and logo.
Any brand can benefit from the use of a strong singular color they can own in the mind. Pink and Breast Cancer is the best example of this. You see pink and you know what it means. The American Heart Association uses red. Lance Armstrong uses yellow, the color of the leader’s jersey in the Tour de France.
Kate’s Club colors are light blue with yellow. While Kate’s Club doesn’t use a single color, they do have a nice logo and use the colors consistently. Once the brand is well-known, the light blue might have a strong connection with the brand.
Good luck building your non-profit brand, Kate. And good luck to all the other wonderful people out there doing great things for the world with their non-profit brands.