Rebranding While In Flux
How to approach brand strategy when your organization is in a period of major transition.
As a leader of an independent design studio that’s been around for a hot minute (about 11 million minutes, actually, over our 21 years), the only constant I’ve seen is the need to adapt to the curveballs the world has thrown at us when we least expected them. The way we talk about our work and the value we bring to our clients has evolved at a similarly brisk pace — we’re constantly hustling, always in motion.
If you lead an established nonprofit or institution these days, I bet this sounds familiar. The last few years have been a tumultuous time. The struggle between Old Power and New Power may be creating an existential crisis in your organization: Who are we? Who sits at our table? How do we leverage our strengths to do the most good in the world? How do we operate in a way that’s consistent with our stated values? How do we make decisions together? Who has the power?
These are difficult questions that involve more than meets the eye. The process of wrestling with them has led to internal strife that has rendered many institutions paralyzed and ineffective, creating confusion, power struggles, and self-sabotage at a time that is ripe for opportunity.
I recently had a chat with Sonya Denyse, a creative strategist in the nonprofit and social entrepreneurship space. Something she said stuck with me: “We are caught in the tension between the remnants of the past and the drivers of the future.” Does this capture how you’re feeling right now?
Change is necessary and important. But there is no magic pause button that allows you to stop while you figure yourself out, make everyone happy, and correct previous missteps.
The work of redefining your nonprofit — and therefore how you present it to the world through your brand — has to happen on the go. It has to be done thoughtfully in the face of pressures that can become destabilizing and counterproductive if not managed with a steady hand. Building a new brand strategy while your organizational strategy is still in flux is like building a plane as you’re flying it. You have to make decisions without all the information you wish you had — so you need to get comfortable with discomfort.
This is essential work, because if change is itself unsettling, then presenting yourself in a way that doesn’t ring true to who you are, now, is even more so — and has greater consequences. Transformation requires rebranding. Rebranding, after all, is a reflection of the shifts that are already underway in your organization, your space, your world.
Why Rebranding Is Top of Mind Today
The confluence of four major crises (COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning, climate disasters, volatile economy) made 2020 an inflection point. The world order, and those who drive that order, are under intense scrutiny. The institutions that are supposed to be our beacons for justice and goodness have never had to reflect on their own behavior and role in that world order like they have in the last few years. And they’ve never been expected to change as quickly.
Among everything else, we’ve noticed an increased focus on branding and rebranding in the nonprofit space. Why now?
Simple. Rebranding is one of the most emphatic, public ways to communicate that something has changed, or is changing, within an organization. Organizations are eager to find a way to convey that they are adapting and that work is underway. Branding is no longer a vanity project that takes money away from important program work; it’s a critical PR and communications tool used to signal that change is happening. For your team, it’s a way to publicly commit to the work you’re doing.
Rebranding in Times of Transformative Change
For many of our clients who today find themselves in a state of flux, the challenge of branding has shifted from, “How do you communicate your purpose, values, and mission in ways that will resonate emotionally with people and spark engagement?” to “What should the balance between reality and aspiration be in our new brand?”
Work that has traditionally lived in the domain of organizational strategy is trickling its way down into brand strategy. Branding has gone from being the public commitment to a defined strategy to being the public testing ground for organizational strategy and culture. In many cases, it’s a placeholder while nonprofits decide what change they can realistically commit to. In others, it is a signal that an organization is at the beginning of a new journey, and is advancing thoughtfully and intentionally.
Where Org Strategy Ends and Brand Strategy Begins
There’s a nuanced relationship between organizational strategy and brand strategy, but they are not the same thing.
Organization strategy begins with defining your nonprofit’s goals for the years ahead at the very highest level. These goals then guide everything about how the organization operates: your finances, operations, people, partnerships, tactics, and marketing. This process is carried out by your institution’s leadership team and board, usually with an outside partner. An organization, for example, might choose to shift from being politically neutral and research-focused to leaning more into partisan advocacy, or from being a funder to transforming how the field of funding operates. Expanding to different geographies, scaling up, diversifying funding streams, adding or eliminating strategic focus areas for your work — these are the kinds of decisions on the table in the organizational strategy process. These decisions might be born out of a change in leadership, political opportunity, success in prior work, or external pressure — but they all require operationalizing and rebalancing the organization toward a new North Star.
Brand strategy is a public-friendly translation of your organizational strategy. Your brand projects a clear and compelling story of your nonprofit’s purpose, vision, and work. It reflects what makes you different, better, uniquely impactful. Ultimately, your brand creates a favorable impression in the public’s mind that contributes to your organization’s success.
But before you can capitalize on those external benefits, you have to start with what’s inside. Often, organization strategy is owned by a leadership group that shares it with the rest of the team in a retreat or in a series of presentations. Brand strategy is an opportunity for your communications team, program leads, and other non-C-suite staff to think deeply about how to communicate what it all really means, so it’s natural that new reactions and ideas emerge.
Publicly committing to a new mission and vision raises the stakes and invites additional scrutiny and analysis from the team. And the process sometimes uncovers deep cracks in the organization.
Approaching Strategy in Cycles
Like the organizations they represent, brands are fluid. They should have a core that remains constant and evergreen, but they must adapt.
What if instead of thinking about rebranding as a massive exercise you do every five years and wrap up with a pretty bow, we think of it as a series of iterations that happen yearly, each building on the previous one?
You might be ready to update your mission or your theory of change, but maybe revisions to your approach, services, or program areas aren’t yet fully baked. Or maybe your organization’s values, goals, and character are solid, but there’s internal debate about the tactics you’ll implement. Why not start with what is defined, give yourself the time to build on that, and add to it in an iterative manner?
The brand strategy process is a critical breeding ground for exposing tensions, prototyping new ideas, and listening to divergent perspectives within your team. These discussions in themselves create an energy of possibility within your team that you should allow to flourish. A cyclical, iterative process would allow for insights that arise in brand strategy to be elevated for consideration in org strategy. Once integrated, these can be brought back to brand strategy in a later cycle so your brand can then project what has been newly incorporated.
Beginning each cycle with clear boundaries about what is up for debate is critical to setting team expectations and establishing a productive process grounded in reality. Identifying from the jump what is clearly defined in the organizational strategy, what is still in flux (and therefore not ready to be made public externally just yet), and what is non-negotiable is important.
Leaders should enter these conversations with open minds but should not feel forced to let brand strategy prematurely integrate something that should be first elevated and considered at the organizational strategy level. Why? Because without thinking about how you’re going to operationalize a change, your brand strategy will not ring true to your team or to your audiences.
Thinking about organizational strategy and brand strategy as part of a constant feedback loop — informing and influencing each other, rather than relating to each other in a top-down, linear way — provides a framework for aligning brand iterations with the actual pace of change within your organization. If you accept that brand strategy is never really complete and you set the expectation for more frequent self-reflection, you’re moving in the right direction.
Time Waits for No One
Managing seismic change even as you’re still doing the day-to-day work important to your organization may be the most challenging thing you’ll undertake. The world keeps turning. The need is always there. You can’t dam up the passion and urgency in your organization or stop the flow while you sit around figuring things out.
We see this happening in business. Supply chains for everything from microprocessors to energy are failing because our economies have put too many eggs in too few, rather precarious, baskets — but that doesn’t mean companies get to stop putting products on the shelf while they figure out how to develop more sustainable and reliable sources.
The nonprofits we advise are living this challenge as well, and we are seeing first-hand the struggle to reflect, reinvent, and rebrand amid the swirl of change. If you’re a leader at an organization, perhaps you’re feeling it, too. A significant part of your job is about steering your organization through the winds of change. The strengths and mindsets you’ve developed to do that effectively are the same ones you’ll need to rely on as you iterate on and evolve your brand.
Are you feeling this as well? I invite you to get in touch to share your experience.