Nonprofit Branding: Can You Learn From Politicians? Without Losing Your Virtue?

It does not matter whether yours is an international nonprofit or a neighborhood service organization. Whatever your size or location, only a tiny portion of the population has contact with you. Few people actually experience or observe your work. Your nonprofit may be saint – or sinner. Almost nobody will know the truth.

Nevertheless, nearly everybody in your service area has an opinion about your organization!

Their opinion is your brand.

Most nonprofits have insufficient marketing budget and staff.  To enhance their reputation …and to protect it when things go south, they must use inexpensive or free marketing techniques.  Limited resources makes it even more important for them to figure out how the marketplace of public opinion puts a brand on ideas and programs and people.

If you are like me, you may want to hold your nose when examining American politics. Nevertheless, the political arena is a fascinating branding laboratory, a place where great lessons are taught, albeit by accident. Political operatives are experts at forming and adjusting public opinion. To advance or defeat a cause, marketing pros on all sides aggressively and effectively brand each issue, each proposal and each other. They tell us their opponent is our enemy. That baloney is steak. And that Heaven (or Hell) is just around the corner.

These cynical characters seem to believe facts are for sissies. The health care debate is a great example of how they work. Some claimed the Affordable Health Care act will save America. Others claimed the legislation will destroy the country. Every assertion they made, no matter its validity, was accepted by a sizable number of people – sometimes a majority.

 Assertion and its public acceptance is the process that is constantly forming your brand. This is what you need to know:

“I don’t want to believe. I want to KNOW.” minority perspective of Carl Sagan

For the majority of the population, perception IS reality…especially if the perception is endorsed by and shared with trusted others. Naturally, this includes perception about your organization.

So, what about Facts and truth? Those are merely crutches relied on by that minority of people who can’t depend on perception, that small group of our fellow citizens who don’t trust the collective hunch or the loudest voice or the insider’s whisper.This minority may agree or disagree with public opinion – but it derives its views in a different manner.

In late June on Meet The Press Savannah Guthrie, NBC’s Chief Legal Correspondent, (and new co-host of Today), commented on public opinion of the Affordable Health Care Act. She observed that most of the law’s major provisions don’t go into effect until the next couple years. Therefore, today’s public opinion developed in advance of actual experience. She pointed out that current attitudes, so strongly held and loudly expressed on both sides – are based on perception.

Her comment intrigued me. So I checked and found that approximately 427 masochists actually read the original health care act. (It is about the size of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with 235,000 words printed on 1990 pages.)

To understand public reaction about health care, we must exclude those 427 fact mongers who actually know what the hell they are talking about. We don’t need those folks in this discussion because personal knowledge of the legislation is not necessary. We’re talking about branding here. Perception! Opinion! Acceptance of assertion!

Unless facts intrude, a brand thrives on peoples’ willingness to believe what someone else has to say.

After we kick those 427 folks out of the Public Opinion Herd, the remaining people hold strong attitudes based on perception. In essence: these folks believe what they have been told about the Affordable Health Care Act, not what they experienced. Not what they actually know.

BINGO! That defines your own situation. Except for those few who have had direct experience with your nonprofit, your brand is merely public perception…the aggregate speculation, the collective hunch.

The health care fracas has left plenty of blood on the floor. What better evidence that perception is a force of enormous power? It must never be underestimated or neglected.

Every day you observe the good work your organization does. Out there where public perception – your brand – is always forming and evolving, people don’t have that daily first-hand  access. So they accept public perception based on….based on what?

Like many nonprofit leaders, you can be passive about branding. You can assign a low priority to marketing. You can fail to aggressively, systematically define your organization to the public. But whatever you do – or don’t do – you will still have a brand.

If you won’t constantly reinforce it others will do that for you! Based on ….what?

COMING NEXT: In next week’s post you will meet a woman who sat with a small group at Cornell in 1960 and told us, almost with a shrug of her shoulders, how she was once the most hated woman in America. (Not a quote. My words. But supported by the historical record.) You must admit – “most hated woman” is a distinctive personal brand!

This woman, along with her pal Franklin D. Roosevelt, changed the face of America. That effort caused her to be the primary target during the same kind of withering controversy that attends the current health care debate. Her story demonstrates how a brand can evolve beyond perception when experience replaces perception.In her case, the process took a couple decades!

We will be writing bout Frances Perkins. Her story is counterpoint to today’s commentary about how ideas and people and programs get branded. It is a delightful bouquet of irony for those, like me, who are irony buffs.  If you worry about your brand, or your country – this will also be an upbeat story for you.


2 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Can You Learn From Politicians? Without Losing Your Virtue?

  1. Pingback: 3 Tips on Branding from Politicians - Nonprofit Hub

  2. Pingback: It is not enough to be right! Not nearly enough…. | Nonprofit Branding Blog

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