Nonprofit Branding: Things Nonprofits Can Learn From For-Profits (Taft’s 2nd Two Points)

As I said in the last post, the college president gave me hell. The reason? I wanted to survey students and learn how well they thought we were meeting their needs.  The president explained there was no reason to worry about student opinion. After all – the faculty and administration already knew what is best for students. All of us who worked for this president knew he was a dogmatic twit. But his errant viewpoint was fairly mainstream in the public service sector. Our Pompous Ass had little sense of branding. His ignorance had plenty of support.

How far we’ve come! Back then (1976) senior nonprofit executives and public officials did not generally welcome tools such as marketing, brand management and consumer research. I think this is because idealism in the public service sector can sometimes spawn a self-righteous attitude. But today most nonprofit and government professionals are far more consumer-oriented – and that enlightenment is the keystone to good branding. 

A man named Dick Taft was one reason for the nonprofit community became realistic about marketing. Taft was a refugee from the business world who became a national fundraising consultant. He was a well-positioned leader who helped nonprofits catch up with the rest of the world and understand that marketing should be an essential process to effective nonprofit managers.  Taft’s famous 1975 essay, Things Nonprofits Can Learn From For-Profits, has been updated (but remains unharmed) and is the basis for this blog post.

The last installment presented Dick’s first two mandates, summarized below:

GET DOWN TO REALITY. (It’s step no. 1) shed your nonprofit cloak of virtue. Look at yourself clearly and coldly. Business does it in unambiguous, analytical terms. So should you. That’s how you begin a process called marketing.

MAKE MARKETING A WAY OF LIFE. (Don’t just do something. Sit there and think.) Marketing is a disciplined approach to defining and solving a problem. It is a process that requires you to think through a problem logically from point A to point B and then to point C. So sit there. Think it through.  First, evaluate easily accessed information. Then plan to research the market itself.

And now we introduce Dick’s second two concepts – heresies to most nonprofit leaders when introduced, but gospel today.

3. LOOK AT THINGS THROUGH THE EYES OF OTHERS. (You may be a little near-sighted.)

Think about the college that spends $350,000 annually on recruitment materials, but not one dollar to find out which brochures, catalogs, posters and messages do – or do not – bring new students into the enrollment pipeline. Think about the municipality that tries to sell voters a tax-financed recreational district without first surveying and adapting to public opinion. By contrast with these examples, you will not see Procter & Gamble distribute a new product until it’s been thoroughly concept-tested, lab-tested and market-tested.

In these two examples, the college and the town promote their cause. But P&G markets. Astute, brand-intensive organizations believe market research is essential.  They realize it is insurance against the risk of assumption.

A market study produces numbers to validate (or invalidate) your hypotheses. Those numbers reflect your organization – not as you see it – but as it is seen through the eyes of others. Those are the eyes that count! Only when you know what those eyes already see can you plan a program to influence their view.

Planning a communications or fundraising program? Planning to raise taxes or launch a civic program? A bit of research will tell you what themes to use, what visuals are persuasive, who your best targets are, what information is most or least important to them, how to most effectively get the message delivered, and more. These nuances make all the difference.

The difference between a successful program versus one that fails or is marginal is often the difference between fact and assumption. Research will illuminate your path to success. Why?  Because market research replaces assumptions that live in your head with facts that live in your market.

4. NO ONE CAN BE ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. (No nonprofit can be all things to all people either. Find a need. Then fill it. Or identify the need you already fill – and develop a marketing program that claims that niche.)

If a product tries to appeal to everyone, then it is likely to appeal to no one very much. For instance, marketing for Ivory Soap is consistently directed at one market segment— people who want a pure, natural, utilitarian soap. Imagine Ivory trying to appeal to those who want a creamy soap, who want a soap that makes them smell like jasmine, who want a soap that removes mechanic’s grease and grime. That’s the road to failure.

Ivory insured its place in the soap market by recognizing a consumer segment it can serve well. It didn’t erode identity by trying to be all things to all people. Instead, Ivory focused on defining and satisfying its chosen market segment. Ivory continues to thrive as a result.

The world of consumer products responds to many of the same rules and impulses as our nonprofit world. Consider this example, from John Burke – not from Dick Taft. About twenty years ago, a small college with a glorious history lost its way. (Not the one I cited earlier with the Napoleonic president.)  Although actually named after a great historic figure, we’ll call this unfortunate institution by a name that reflects its current status –  “Lost College.”

Lost College slipped out of a once solid market niche because its administration and some trustees lost faith in the brand.  Instead of continuing to define and protect their unique niche in the market, they tried to make the place be all things to all people. No longer an institution with a specific mission focused on a specific clientele,  the college spiraled downhill and became Brand X.

This story allows me to give you a wonderful tool to use in measuring your own nonprofit brand. I didn’t invent it – but I did give it a name: “Persuasive Descriptor.” The loss of identity caused one astute insider**  at the college to observe the institution can flourish only if the prospective student market is confident about the last word in the following sentence – the word that would replace the red line and serve as the Persuasive Descriptor: 

“Lost College is the college that _________

Today, less than two decades after allowing its market to wither, that statement still has not been filled-in with a Persuasive Descriptor. Lost College remains a fragile institution, kept alive by the generosity of its graduates and always in danger of closing its doors.

Like many other small, undistinguished institutions in the overcrowd higher education landscape, Lost College became the institution that …..who knows?

And now….”who cares?”

With no crisp definition for this once-distinguished college, prospective students were not sure what Lost College might or might not be for them. So they enroll in colleges whose identity they can perceive, can describe and can brag about. Colleges with a Persuasive Descriptor.

It does not matter whether you are a college, a health agency, a museum, a small town, a big city, a symphony….. marketing is the process by which you encourage your constituency to embrace the word or the phrase that serves as your Persuasive Descriptor.  Through multiple, strategic and integrated steps, marketing fills in your own blank with the identifier your market applies to your organization. Your nonprofit then becomes the organization that (____what goes here?____).

Once you shed your cloak of virtue and begin to think in business terms, the process of establishing your Persuasive Descriptor becomes fairly simple. It goes like this: define your market, learn what it thinks about your nonprofit, evaluate the market’s needs, design your product or service to meet those needs – and then strategically communicate that capacity to your targets. Take these steps and the right descriptor will evolve within your market – and it will be persuasive.

All of which brings us to Dick Taft’s final two points – both about NONPROFIT BRANDING! We’ll share them in the next post.

With ** in the above text I alerted you to a marketing tool we now  call the Persuasive Descriptor –  a tool to define market niche and guide positioning activities.

The woman who created the Persuasive Descriptor and applied it to the institution I have called Lost College is a person whose nationally known work in broadcasting is familiar to every reader of this blog. While I can’t identify her, I can happily tell you that I have stolen her Persuasive Descriptor insight and used it in countless marketing conversations with savvy nonprofit executives. Everybody immediately sees its effectiveness as a quick & simple marketplace test of an organization’s vital signs. It gave them a quick way to learn about the market’s perception of your brand. So, use it yourself. Ask 100 people to fill in the blank about your organization. See what it tells you about your own reality. That’s part of a process called marketing.

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