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Branding: A Hot Topic

How would you answer this seemingly innocent question: “My organization is about to undertake a branding process. What do I need to know in advance to ensure the work flows smoothly, people stay engaged and we get it all done in a timely manner?”

One possible response: “Be patient. Give yourself ample time. Get everyone in the organization on board in advance. Don’t be surprised if the work is harder than you expected. And don’t give up when things don’t go as planned.” Oh, and for good measure, “keep a therapist on standby.”

That more or less summarizes a spirited email exchange about the highs and lows of branding that recently took place on the Communications Network listserve, a place where members routinely trade information with one another, ask questions and seek advice.

The unusually intense — and lengthy — back and forth was sparked by Lori Warren, senior director of marketing & communications, Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, who posted the following question:

My organization has been engaged in a rebranding process with a consulting firm that seems to be taking FOREVER. We are into our seventh month and probably have another month to go before we get final deliverables. Of course, I know that this protracted timeline is largely due to us: we’re a complex, 102 year old organization with stakeholders that is also part of a national network (yet distinctly different from it). We conducted quite a bit of research, and our thinking has been evolving as the process continues. That said, I also know that many of my board members (and my ED) are wondering, “Why the heck is this taking so long?”

Below is a condensed version of some of the more salient points offered in response (and done so with everyone’s permission):

First up to answer Warren’s plea for help was Marc Moorghen, communications manager, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Los Angeles. He wrote:

We went through a rebranding exercise in 2009/2010 and it took us approximately 8 months to a year to complete. Our audit took about three months, the new website and rebranded materials about eight, and the strategy took effect at about the year mark. Hang in there!

In his response, Lucas Held, communications director, The Wallace Foundation, acknowledged that his organization completed its branding work in six months — “unusually fast” — but he also noted that he’d heard about an organization that “was unable after 3 years to come to agreement on how to proceed!”

He added:

One reason it can take a long time is that contrary to the view that a brand is a new logo, the full (and beneficial, in my view) multi-stage process of branding — research, brand element formulation, brand architecture and brand visual expression — takes time.

But in addition, branding tends to raise big, important questions about what the organization stands for — is it about impact, credibility, partnerships, children, knowledge, innovation… etc., etc., etc. Conflicts come to the fore because a good brand inevitably involves making choices about what to foreground. Some things get elevated, and some things relegated to being supporting elements or, to use the trade term, “table stakes” common to all organizations in the sector.

One of the many positive things Held said came out of the process for Wallace was how it helped “create an explicit and shared sense of organizational approach and direction and, externally, building a clearer picture of what we are about.”

Among the communications consultants who’ve guided branding projects for their clients, was Robert Moore, president and ceo of Chicago-based Lipman Hearne, Inc. He told Warren that “branding, as is true with any other strategic endeavor, demands discipline and forces choice.”

He went on to say:

The “all things to all people” stance that organizations are sometimes more comfortable with can keep that strategic discipline from being manifested. Nothing is completely lost, unless the brand strategy encourages or frames a change in direction for the organization, but choices must be made regarding emphasis, message, and differentiating attributes, and in this process people with embedded interests need to be brought along. And in a foundation, as contrasted with the “command and control” structure of a corporation, that demands analysis, discussion, and consensus — all of which can take time. But the effort is worth it: brand understanding can focus and stimulate an organization to really capitalize on its true strengths and distinction.

In his comments, Mitch Hurst, who is both a consultant (founder and principal of MH Group and Communications Network board member and who formerly held a communication role for the C.S. Mott Foundation, suggested that private grantmaking foundations sometimes jump into this work without paying sufficient attention ahead of time to what they’re getting into.

In addition — and echoing Moore’s comment about the nature of foundation decision-making — he said:

Most grantmaking foundations by design don’t have “command and control.” Program staff often operate autonomously; for foundations that fund in multiple areas, some of which may not be naturally connected to each other, this poses serious institutional branding challenges. There’s also the age-old question of what’s the bottom line, easily identifiable for corporations and nonprofits, but not so much for private foundations, and a key driver of the branding process.

Hurst had two pieces of advice for any foundation contemplating a branding project: “It’s helpful to have either an internal or external resource involved who’s got some organizational management experience. And keep a therapist on standby.”

Keneta Anderson, who also consults to foundations, warned of the tendency of staff and board who sometimes view “the consultant’s job as if it’s a contractor/carpenter’s role, when the work required is more like architecture.”

Commenting as those before her had about the time involved to do this work properly, Anderson added:

There’s no end to figuring out what the client needs, wants, prefers, and what will actually be functional. The research unearths unexpected layers, people mull after their interviews are complete and surface thoughts they hadn’t had before, and all the information continues to evolve rather than stopping at the point where critical decisions have been made and “construction” has begun. Like with any complex, creative process, the consultant simply needs a fair amount of time to draw this information together, let her own ideas evolve and mature, and adjust to ongoing input. (Warning: abrupt metaphor switch ahead). There’s often a point during brand projects where I feel like the Mozart character in the movie “Amadeus” reassuring clients I really am hard at work: “It’s all right here in my noodle. The rest is just scribbling.”

David Brotherton, who also previously held a foundation communications job before founding Brotherton Strategies, reminded that it’s key not to overlook “the role and composition of the internal brand team” and better things happen for organizations that take the time “to think up front about who the REAL decision makers are with the ability to influence the process and ultimately determine the fate (approval or rejection) of the final brand deliverables.”

Too often I have worked with organizations where the brand team is comprised of a diverse and cross-functional mix of middle- and senior-level staff. They will work through the brand discovery process diligently and with the best of intentions — honing a set of brand tools (mission, vision, messaging, tagline, logo/identity, etc) through hard work and consensus based decision-making. These tools are then delivered to another one or two individuals (often a CEO and/or board chair) who were not a part of the day-to-day brand development process.

When that occurs, the result, says Brotherton, is “those senior most decision-makers reject the finished product, or send it back to the drawing board for further refinement and iteration.” Not only is that “one of the most deflating experiences a brand team can suffer” but it’s time consuming and costly too.

He adds that the only way to avoid that is “to make every possible effort to enlist the highest level decision-makers in the process from the outset.”

If your CEO and board chair are resistant to taking part in the hard work of the brand team, make sure they understand the cost implications of pulling the plug or exercising a line item veto at the 11th hour. If you can find alignment of and cohesion with your brand team at the outset of the process, however, the labor of arriving at that brand will certainly be less onerous for all.

That’s where the conversation ended — for now. It doesn’t have to stop. Your turn to add your thoughts, experiences, as well as to take issue – or agree – with these comments.

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