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“Brand management is a mindset…” A conversation with Nathalie Kylander, author of The Brand Idea


Nathalie Laidler-Kylander is a Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government where she teaches courses on leadership and the strategic management of non-profits. She is the co-author of The Brand Idea, which offers a new strategic framework for non-profit branding. A lightly edited transcript of her conversation follows. You can listen to the interview here

The Communications Network: You and your colleague Julia Shepard Stenzel have a new book out, it’s called The Brand Idea. Tell us about it…

Natalie Kylander: The book is really based on an article we published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about two years ago now, looking at the role of brand in the non-profit sector. This was a research project that was undertaken at the Harvard Kennedy School in conjunction with some funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The original intent of the research that started back in about 2010-2011 was really to examine the role of brand in the non-profit sector and to explore what differences might exist in terms of managing non-profit brands as it relates to full profit brands. Most of the brand and brand management models that we have really stem from the for-profit sector. One of our objectives was to understand whether those models were still relevant and useful and if not, to stop thinking about proposing alternative brand management frameworks.

The Communications Network: In the non-profit, in the foundation world, people think about branding, they think first about fund raising. From there, it’s a quick jump to the logo and putting it on pens and coffee cups and t-shirts. What did you find in your research about how people do think about brands in the non-profit world and how is that thinking changing?

Natalie Kylander: A lot of people do think about brand as a fund raising tool with the main audience really being donors or partners if you’re more of a donor organization yourself. Predominantly, looking at brands as a tool to increase funding or potentially access to funds. That poses a little bit of a problem because the brand was really communicated and controlled by the communications or the PR or the marketing department in an organization and not necessarily connected as strongly to the mission as it might be. What we’re seeing through this research and what we’re seeing talking to about a hundred people across 70 organizations is that there’s a fundamental shift that’s occurring in terms of how a brand is perceived. The shift that we’re seeing in the field with non-profits is perception or an understanding of brand, much more as a strategic asset that embodies both the mission and the values of the organization. The goal becomes less to fund raise and to PR to promote the organization and much more focus on mission impact, how to use brand to implement the mission. That’s the fundamental shift we’re seeing and obviously, that has a lot of implications for brand management.

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The Communications Network: Can you give us some examples of the organizations that are making that strategic shift well?

Natalie Kylander:  One of the things that we found pretty striking is that those organizations, they view their brand as central to implementing their mission … are using more of a participative engagement in both articulating and communicating their brand. It’s becoming less of a one way projection of a specific image which is the of the old paradigm of using the brand basically to fund raise or to promote PR and really engaging all stake holders both internal and external into both defining and communicating the brand, so that’s one big shift. The other big shift is really understanding who’s the audience of the brand and so shifting from making it being more of a donor or PR audience to both understanding the brand audience as composed of internal stake holders and external stake holders. That’s one of the fascinating things I think in our research is that the brand in a non-profit and in a foundation really plays an important role in generating organizational cohesion. It plays this internal role of really in-lining internal stake holders behind the mission through the brand in order to gain clarity of one’s particular job relative to others and gaining a sense of cohesion and direction.

The Communications Network: It’s not just about logos anymore, it’s also about creating social impact, it’s about promoting that tighter organizational cohesion, let’s drill into that. When you think about those concepts and you think about organizations that are doing it well, give us an example of one or two and describe for us what that means in practical terms.

Natalie Kylander: Back to this notion of participative engagement, I think one thing that those organizations that do do it well that are thoughtful about their brand and view it as a strategic asset is it they really go back to the mission and try to make sure that the brand is closely tied to both the mission and the values of the organization. In fact, the brand identity which is this internal conception of the brand is really stemmed from the mission and the values of the organization. When they’re talking about brand and they’re trying to answer the question, “Who you are? What you do and why it’s important?” Which is kind of a mantras for brand identity, they’re really looking at the missionaries, the starting point and really anchoring the brand identity in the mission. Those organizations that do it well really understand that brand is a strategic asset and that it leaves a path of strategy development in the strategic planning. It leaves within strategic planning and it stems from mission and values. There’s a number of organizations that engage in a re-branding process and realize that they have to go back and actually redefine their mission. Is it still indeed the right mission? Because the questions about the brand has been raised and so I think those organizations that asked that question and really try to tie it back to mission are the ones that are doing that successfully.


The Communications Network: You mentioned that you talk to more than a hundred people from representing 70 different organizations. Are there some case studies that you like to share with or listeners about the organizations that went through a re-branding process or strengthen their brand and give examples of who they were and what some of the results were that they produced?

Natalie Kylander: We talked to Marta Tellado of the Ford Foundation and she talks exactly about this sort of internal brand exercise. This ability to tap into what she calls collective consciousness about who we are and what is being conveyed. Taking into account things like the greatest accomplishment and taking stock of the organizations sort of 75 years in to gain a sense of common accomplishment. That’s really understanding the brand as the reflection of the organization’s history by really initiating dialog around that. Chris Van Dyke for example, from the World Wildlife Fund, already talks about self-awareness and having great clarity in terms of who you are and where you’re headed in order to be able to articulate the brand. A lot of these organizations have been doing, a little bit of soul searching about who they are, what they do, why it’s important and linking brand very firmly to their mission. Another example might be Child’s Fund, they initiated the process to re-brand and really tried to engage the internal stake holders in the strategy process starting with the redefinition of the mission, the values as a precursor to that re-branding. There’s some organizations that have really anchored the process of brand and articulating and defining the brand in this collaborative process to really take stock of who they are, what they do and why it’s important.

The Communications Network: I just want to reinforce a point you made about the importance of brand commission. One of the quotations that you had in the research that struck me was from Pip Emery who called at the Amnesty International Global Identity Project. Pip said, “If you don’t know where you’re going and why you’re relevant, you don’t have a brand.” There’s so many organizations I think that do struggle with that identity issue and they see it as something separate from the brand, not as intrical to it.

Natalie Kylander: A brand really, is closely associated to positioning. Positioning is the place that you occupy in the minds of your audiences relative to alternatives, relative to competition but also relative to other organizations in your ecosystem. What’s interesting back to the paradigm shift is that in the poor profit sector, positioning is all about competitive advantage. That doesn’t necessarily ring through in the non-profit space particularly if you’re thinking about mission impact and implementing the mission where you’re going to need to do so in alignment with partners. Part of that shift that we’re seeing is the shift in the understanding of positioning and the role of brand, plays in positioning away from a competitive advantage and more to being able to gain clarity as you say and to be able to drive effective partnerships. It’s a fundamental shift from traditional brand management models which are all about competitive advantage where here, we’re really using the brand to position to gain clarity for the organization but also to drive partnerships.

The Communications Network: You talked about mission and clarity and partnerships, what is some of the other benefits that come to an organization when they have a strong brand?


Natalie Kylander: One of the definitions of a strong brand or how we sort of talked about it with the people that interviewed and kind of upon reflection, one of the key things is trying to align the brand identity which is the internal perception of the brand which stems from the mission and the values with the external perception which is known as brand image. Part of the job of brand management is to make sure the internal identity is strongly aligned with the external perception or the brand image. That’s really the first part of our model, talks to the integrity piece. We’re not really talking about moral integrity, we’re really talking about structural integrity where the brand identity is anchored in the mission and the values and the brand identity is aligned as closely as possible with the brand image which is this external perception. When you have a misalignment, that’s when you get some erosion of trust. People expect the organization to be one thing, that’s their brand image but in fact, the brand identity is slightly different. A lot of our work, a lot of our objective as brand managers is really to try to constantly align the image and the identity. That’s sort of the integrity piece of the model. You find a lot of the re-branding initiatives that we encountered are really through organizations that are trying to align the image and the identity that are slightly out of alignment. Because if you’re perceived as being who you truly are, it’s going to erode the trust  people have in you. We believe the one way of trying to achieve that alignment is through this process of brand democracy that we touched upon which is really about participative engagement.

The Communications Network: Let’s pause there for a moment because you mentioned the model that you layout in your book and two of the elements, integrity and democracy. You layout a model for branding. Take us through that model.

Natalie Kylander:  The integrity and democracy, and then the affinity piece which is really about using brands to attract and add value to partnerships in service of the mission. That’s the sort of the shift that I was talking about in terms of positioning. Positioning less but competitive advantage and more for building partnerships. The way the model fits together is if integrity is really what you’re trying to accomplish with brand management, that alignment between brand identity and brand image so that the brand is powerful and resonates true and with authenticity, then brand democracy we believe is the way to achieve that consistency between image and identity. One of the reasons why is that you’re really engaging stake holders in both the articulation and communication of the brand, so that you’re building brand ambassadors all the time, both internally to the organization so that our brand is everybody’s business. If it’s about the mission, everybody’s involve in the organization because they believe in their mission. Really, the sort of mission implementations, everybody’s job and brand is a vehicle to achieve that. That’s where you really build ambassadors. There’s also some great examples of organizations that are building external ambassadors that are really looking at both volunteers and donors and beneficiaries as part of those external stake holders that also get involve in participating in the brand. Either they’re uploading their stories or they’re sharing their experiences and so, that what you have is kind of unleashing this power of brand ambassadors.

Part of this approach to democracy which I think is really important and differs from traditional brand management is the ability to let go of controlling the brand, so that we’re not spending time policing the brand and making sure that we’re in with some kind of yellow color or something. We’re not spending all time and energy doing that kind of police work but what we are doing or those organizations that are doing this well, are providing all kinds of guidelines and resources that their brand ambassadors can tap into and use so that you still get some consistency but is more through useful tools that people can access rather than spending time controlling. I think it’s worth mentioning two external drivers that are really key to this model. The first is the growth in social media. In fact, it’s really impossible to control what everybody is saying about your brand. We’ve gone to really a context where you can participate in dialog and you can curate and help people talk about your organization, but you can’t control it. You can no longer control it. In fact, one of our participants said, “You’d be crazy to try control your brand.” It’s just not worth it. It’s just too much work and too … You’re much better off really trying to promote a dialog around your brand and one effective way doing that in terms of what the organizations are telling us is to us to promote this sort of democracy and provide tools and guidelines. Just coming back to the second sort of external driver that’s behind this model and this gets to the affinity part in the framework that I also wanted to talk about in a little bit. Partnerships of all kinds are proliferating so not only partnerships within a particular sector, but also cross sector partnerships. The growing realization that none of us can achieve our social goals alone that we really have to be able to work in partnership with other organizations that are like us but also, across sector boundaries with other types of organizations. Government agencies and poor profit corporations. That realization that you can’t do it alone means that in order to implement your mission and to have the impact that you are seeking, you need to be able to partner effectively. That really gets to the affinity piece where you’re building your brand integrity through brand democracy in order to both attract and support partners that have a similar shared social goals.

The Communications Network: Integrity, democracy, affinity, those are the three ideas that … or three elements rather that make up that idea acronym? Let’s talk about democracy for a moment. As someone who has worked in communications for a long time, some decades, I remember early in my career, branding meant control of the logo and control of colors and appearances. I think those attitudes persist and they’re still out there. What has been your experience as you talk about this ideas to people in non-profit marketing and communications? Are people receptive to it? Do you find resistance or skepticism?

Natalie Kylander: There is a lot of skepticism. I think the skepticism is around the word “brand,” it’s around marketing in general and it’s around the sort of sense of professionalization of the sector. Those are all themes that don’t necessarily sit well and get shackles up a little bit in the non-profit sector. We have encountered skepticism but I think the skepticism really resides in the old paradigm. When you’re thinking about brand as a logo to raise funds or to generate PR. If you’re in that old mindset then I think it’s fairly natural to be skeptical of the brand and maybe a little cynical too. If you start making that shift and you really believe that the brand is about implementing your mission, then you sort of go to a different place in terms of being less about a logo to raise funds and much more about strategic asset that helps you gain internal organizational cohesion and build trust with the variety of stake holders including key partners. When you make that shift, the skepticism around brand tends to diminish somewhat. In terms of people who have had experience kind of letting go of the control of the brand, I’d say it’s a little scary because we’re not used to it and we’re worried that people will say things about us or do things that we can’t control. I think the reality is you cannot control it. In fact, you’re better off harnessing the power of social media to create brand ambassadors than trying to police your brand. I can give you some anecdotes, I don’t have numbers exactly in terms of the number of people who are kind of freeing their brand and moving to more of a democracy approach. I can’t tell you that anecdotally, I’ve heard that doing that has really gained exposure and visibility for organizations because a lot more people are able to become brand ambassadors and talk with general authenticity about the organization.

The Communications Network: Certainly because of social media, there’s been a huge shift in the last seven years in terms of control and this is to your point about affinity. There’s so many more opportunities for partnerships, so many more opportunities to lose control, so you have to find ways to involve people and get their cooperation rather than I think try to exert control… Given the technology today, could be  impossible.

Natalie Kylander: Let me give you two specific examples about organizations that are implementing this, I think pretty well. The first is The Girl Effect which is a … they like to call it a movement but it’s essentially a brand developed by the Nike Foundation in order to promote both the discussion and the flow of funds to programs for teenage girls in the development, international development. The theory of change behind it being that if you can keep a 12 year old girl in school, delayed of marriage and pregnancy, that you have real influence on intergenerational poverty. It’s a strong tipping point to affect poverty for future generations. What this organization did is they establish … First of all, they really collaborated with a number of different partners but then, they put a bunch of brand tools and assets on a website and basically said, “Anybody can be a Girl Effect champion, so take our videos, take our logo, download it, show it, display it.” They really made this like a public good because they were really trying to promote and drive the cause of the girl or this teenage girl. That’s a really good example I think of an organization that does completely flip the control of brand on its head in terms of making all these brand assets available to anybody who wants them. There is a risk inherent in that kind of generosity of your brand assets because you don’t necessarily know who will use them and to what purpose. I just want to give you a couple of examples of why it’s important to create brand ambassadors in order for this to work. There’s a wonderful organization in China called Free Lunch for Children and essentially started by a journalist to provide some funds to provide lunch for children in poorer communities and poorer schools. It often go to through the whole school day  without eating anything. It was kind of a grassroots movement, so a lot of people got involved. Same kind of approach to brand affinity in terms of transparency and being able to participate in the brand. They were heavily criticized by somebody, by an individual but they really did nothing, the organization itself. They really relied on their brand ambassadors to correct the allegations that were being made. What you see is sort of the ground support by the brand ambassadors that are monitoring the brand and protecting the brand essentially. Another great example would be Planed Parenthood here in the US at the time of the controversy with Susan G. Komen. Essentially, Susan G. Komen de-funded or stopped funding Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood essentially curated the response of their brand ambassadors. They really did not do anything, it was really the groundswell of support overwhelmingly through social media, I must say. They just monitored and maybe curated a little bit but they really didn’t have to do a lot because they have such incredible support from the brand ambassadors and because they really share the space and really said, “This organization is your organization. This brand is your brand, ” so people rise to the occasion to protect their brand which they believe is their brand.

The Communications Network: What are some of the biggest barriers you see for foundations or non-profits that want to do branding well?

Natalie Kylander: In terms of our paradigm, the starting point, the biggest shift is from the old paradigm to the new paradigm. If you’re still stuck thinking the brand is a logo and it’s all about PR and fund raising, I think that is the biggest barrier to success for brand management. We have been told also by a number of organizations who have been struggling, who were struggling with their brand or their re-branding initiatives. The terms like integrity, democracy and affinity really resonate internally to the teams, of the executive teams that they’re working with. We want to recognize that for a long time, people in the communications department that have really been the stewards of the brand have struggled I think with the kind of skepticism that we’ve discussed a little bit earlier. Using terms like integrity, democracy and affinity, doing some educational work in terms of what a brand is and what it can do for an organization is really helpful in helping people to make that shift into the new paradigm. I’d say really talking about brand as mission is really a good starting point to try to overcome that as well.

The Communications Network: What’s the one step or action you’d recommend a non-profit leader take to improve their organizations brands?

Natalie Kylander: I think starting a dialog and starting the process of a brand democracy is really the first step. I would suggest starting with internal stake holders, so that really you’re staring the dialog about what a brand, who are we, what do we do, why is it important and trying to get people on board. There’s some great organizations like Save the Redwoods, they start every internal meeting with the brand, who are we, what do we do, why is it important, what’s the relevance of our brand. They’re really building brand into everything that they do and starting off their meetings with a little reflection on brand which is so closely linked to the mission. I think a lot of people always ask me whether or not they should hire consultants and I talked about this in the book a little bit. I think it can be helpful to start the dialogue flowing but this is … and essentially in brand management, is a mindset. Effective brand management is a mindset that starts with understanding the brand as the embodiment of the mission. We really believe it’s got less to do with money and expertise and some of the smaller organizations or smaller non-profits will say to me, “Well, we don’t have the money or the time to do branding.” I would suggest that every organization has a brand and the decision is not whether or not to have a brand because we all have a brand. The decision really lies on how to manage the brand. I think our framework and a lot of internal discussion and the curating of brand ambassadors is a good way to achieve that.  

More Resources:  Op-Ed: A Brand’s Identity Should Sync With Its Image – Nathalie Kylander in The New York Times, October 2012


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