The mammoth popularity of the idea of branding in the civic and nonprofit world — where every organization, no matter how high its calling, seems to want its name to be as famous as Kleenex® — would no doubt surprise anyone who has ever literally branded anything. The word’s oldest meaning is “to burn with a hot iron,” a definition that ought to take some of the élan (if not the escalating fees) out of the exploding occupation of “branding consultants.”

But in most modern contexts, the word is obviously intended metaphorically, in a sense that has been around for enough centuries to have earned the number-two spot in most dictionaries’ definitions: “to mark indelibly.”

In reality, most civic and philanthropic organizations don’t use BRANDING in either the blisteringly literal or the commercially metaphorical sense. They want their name better known not (presumably) to boost its commercial value, but to mark their particular ideas about the public good more indelibly in the public mind, and perhaps to scare up some donations in the process. Public-interest organizations that have achieved a true brand in this “indelible mark” sense — CARE, Big Brothers / Big Sisters, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation come to mind — have seen their names become synonymous with a particular approach to public problems, a way of thinking and acting on those problems that people can understand, identify with, and join. There is nothing crass (never mind scorching) about that aspiration, and many foundations and nonprofits might honorably hope to do as much.

But nowadays, the most common use of BRANDING, at least outside the Wild West, is among the cattle rustlers of Madison Avenue. It was the advertisers, in truth, from whom foundations and nonprofits borrowed the term and fell in love with it. Describing the public identity of public-interest organizations as BRANDING both diminishes and blurs their achievements. What makes CARE or the National Trust famous is not just that its name, like some catchy brand of dish detergent, is easy to remember and subliminally likeable. They are famous not for their packages and logos, but for their work and the ideas behind it.

There are, of course, a few nonprofit organizations whose “brands” are famous in pretty much the same sense as the dish-soap people’s. They have mastered the art of packaging and advertising, even if not necessarily that of exceptional accomplishment. That is both rare and regrettable. But it is precisely the sort of triumph of form over substance that the slick word BRANDING evokes.

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