Design Your Brand

John Klein

Until recently, the creation of brand identity – logo design, graphic layout, even creating a website – rested in the talented hands of a small number of designers and art directors.  Technology has provided the novice with tools to give even a one-person organization a competitive presence.  Today, a nonprofit professional with some talent can create and manage their company’s brand identity. 

Beyond technological ease, though, your organization’s brand identity plays a significant role in supporting your mission and your success.  It is more than art:  it is a powerful connection to patrons and donors.

Think of design and identity as an inside-out planning process – a unified focus about the brand, its core elements and how they extend to every point of contact with patrons and donors.  When it works, it communicates a sense of consistency, differentiates you among competitors and can support successful programs.

Consider the North Carolina Museum of Art.

In April 2010, the NCMA opened their new 127,000 square-foot West Building, designed with an unusual open floor plan – enveloped in natural diffused light, with white walls.  The new brand identity utilized and integrated an oval shape – representing the apertures in the roof that allow the diffused light into the building.  The white, open layout was extended to the new website design, collateral development and advertising programs.  The result was a unique and inviting environment for the Museum’s permanent collection and a repositioned brand.

While a success for design, did the Museum receive any tangible benefits?  The new building reawakened awareness of the Museum, locally and nationally.   As a result, consideration of the NCMA – as a destination, as an act of curatorial activities and a source for contributions – increased.  The museum has presented two blockbuster exhibitions in the last two years, each exceeding visitor goals.  Finally, their publics – new and old patrons, donors, corporate supporters – continue to respond positively to their revitalized

Applications for nonprofits

The NCMA had significant financial resources, world-class architects and a talented staff at their disposal to create this setting.  But the principles they used are simple and can be applied to any nonprofit organization.  If you are reviewing your current identity or considering a redesign, consider:

The concept of space.   All nonprofits exist in a “space” with their constituents.  Art museums have both a physical and a digital space, and a consistent identity connects both.  The starting point for many nonprofits is the digital space (website and social media) but eventually expands into personal interaction in some physical setting. 

Start from the inside.   Houses are built on solid foundations.  The foundations of your identity are the core elements which appear consistently at every consumer touchpoint.  While design professionals will address a broad array of these elements, you can establish a foundation based on a well-designed logo treatment, graphic layout (often referred to as a “look & feel”), and a unique and compelling narrative tone to all written material.

Radiate outward.  With this foundation, your identity can communicate consistently out to your publics. Your web site e-mails, direct mail pieces, advertising and promotional pieces reach out and draw prospects back in.

Physical connections.  All nonprofits – museums and otherwise – interact in spaces where you have meetings, conventions, performances and the like.  You cannot redesign the actual building where these take place but you can create your place within the space with brochures, digital and audio displays, even table dressings.

How will you know you’ve designed your brand effectively?  It’s easy.  Print out or take a
picture of each of these elements.  Put them on a table and ask yourself a simple question:  do all of these look like they came from the same place and were created by one organization?  If the answer is yes, you are well on your way.  If not, you have more work to do.  

John Klein is president of Trilithon Partners, a marketing consulting agency based in Cary, N.C.  He has a recent consulting relationship with the North Carolina Museum of Art.

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