Nonprofit Branding: Brand Erosion From Sneaky Quality Deficits

The GREAT branding product we had to kill - an example of the risk nonprofits can face.

The last post asserted a nonprofit brand is an asset that combines great value with great vulnerability. Those two characteristics put a great professional burden on the nonprofit executive. The information in this post will help you deal with that burden.

The brand of every nonprofit can be devalued by many things. A big risk is an unsatisfactory promotional product carrying its logo. This risk is created by the dynamics of affinity. (Affinity is your lifeline. See the NOTE below for links to earlier discussions about that inescapable dynamic.)

We’ll now consider how that risk can sneak up on your nonprofit and provide and two real-world examples that startled us when they occurred.

There are two different processes involved in the production of an imprinted branding product. Both have options which can be dangerous to your brand.

• Before a logo can be applied, the first process creates the blank product – usually in an offshore factory. Be aware of this: every product can be produced at different levels of quality and different levels of cost and each example will look reasonably similar at the beginning of their life cycle.

• The second process takes the blank product and imprints your logo using one of the standard methods: engraving, embossing, screen-printing, pad-printing or sublimation. That is usually done in a stateside factory. (Imprinting techniques are explained in the glossary on this blog (see tab above) and on our company website – )

Ultimately, when imprinted with your logo a trinket of modest value becomes the affinity-tool that you selected to represent your organization and motivate your constituents. So, what can go wrong?

Plenty can go wrong!

This is what you need to understand about the process that makes the product and the separate process that imprints the logo:

Each process has many steps. Every step has a variable cost for materials, for labor, for processing, for production time. Most of those steps also have an optional shortcut.

Each shortcut can reduce or eliminate some of those costs. Each shortcut will also reduce product and imprint quality.

FIRST EXAMPLE: 20 years ago VisABILITY charged about $2.20 per unit for a minimum quantity order of a C-handle ceramic mug with a one-color imprint. These were high-quality mugs. (Our clients were nonprofits that rely on the affinity of their constituents who would use those mugs.)

We were stunned to see a competitor offer what appeared to be the same mug for $1.05. We called the firm that imports, imprints and kiln-fires the mugs we supplied to public broadcasting. The owner quickly identified the source of those apparently identical mugs our competitor sold for $1.05. Those $1.05 mugs were rejects from the mug factory in Thailand that was producing our own $2.20 mugs!

If he’s happy with your logo-mug, he’s happy with you. If not, you might have a problem.

Here is what happened then – and still happens. As mugs came out of the kiln they are inspected for quality.  Inspection spots problems like chips, dimples, glaze drips, fragile handle attachment and glaze fissures.  Inferior mugs are placed in cases identifying them as second and third quality rejects. They are then sold to the international supply chain, eventually to have logos imprinted on them for organizations that shop for price instead of for quality. Ultimately they end up in the hands of end-users.

I suppose those rejected mugs might be OK for the local pizza shop or insurance broker. But they are deadly for a brand-intensive nonprofit brand cultivating its constituency.

Every production run in every product category includes some bad apples. Among other things, selling price reflects the extent to which imperfect products are allowed to slip through and end up in your order.  An entire shipment of “seconds” will sell for the lowest price. Be careful of “bargains!” They are often substandard products.

As we’ve said before, you use branding products because they have an impact on your supporters. A negative impact makes low cost products an awfully expensive way to save money.

SECOND EXAMPLE: This is the story of  how bread-and-butter product used nationwide by VisABILITY’s public broadcasting clients went bad without warning or explanation. It’s also about the important lesson we were learning: promotional products can pose serious risk for their major users – the nonprofit public service sector.

Production shortcuts can be as simple as loose quality control at the end of the production line. They can also involve outright deception. I am not writing about branded merchandise imitations with fake Gucci logos or the fraudulent Apple Stores that popped up in China. I am writing about subtle ways to save cost by knowingly reducing quality – while, as with fake Gucci and Apple products – diligently maintaining the appearance of the original.

The most common technique to save a few cents may be to eliminate the underlayment when screen-printing on a dark shirt. But an example of a different cost-cutting method still sticks in my craw. It involves the Mighty Tom Thumb radio, a tiny but powerful FM receiver about the size of a Bic lighter. Twenty years ago, because of its novel size and great reception, public radio clients throughout the nation enthusiastically used thousands as contributor incentives. (Note the size in the photo of a Tom Thumb at the top. This one carried the logo of  WXXI -Rochester, NY.)

For about two years Mighty Tom Thumb was one of the most powerful premiums in public broadcasting. During that time, the price steadily dropped from $16 a unit to about $7.00 – where it remained for about 6 months.

Then we got a complaint from a client working its way through a third or fourth reorder. The radios in the new shipment had bad reception. We asked her to overnight a dozen samples. They appeared to be identical to all the others. Yet our tests confirmed that the reception – once astonishing for the radio’s small size – was now flaky. This batch was totally inadequate for use as a nonprofit premium.

The exterior was identical. So we inspected the innards. Tiny letters and numbers, which we read with a magnifying glass, identified the UK patent for the little chip. (The radios were made in Hong Kong, then a member of the British Commonwealth.) We compared it to earlier models and identified the problem.

After two years of producing a spectacular product, and under price competition from competitors on the Chinese mainland, our factory had begun to insert into the product a less expensive – and lower quality – electronic chip. That  made the radio more price competitive without affecting its appearance. Just because it looked the same did not mean it was the same. Its quality was now unsuitable for use as a branding product representing our nonprofit clients to their constituents.

There are a bazillion possible production shortcuts.  They reduce cost. They also can cause quality deficits in product and/or imprint.

If you are lucky, those deficits may be evident when the product is delivered. Then you can demand an adjustment from your vendor.

Much more often – the quality deficit will appear after you have paid the vendor’s invoice…..but before you mail the next solicitation to the supporter who was disappointed by a defective product with your logo.

Then you have two problems.

If you missed earlier blog posts about how people display logos to define their personal values and affinities, check the post about why The Lord of Logos Rules.  For related posts on this critical topic, you might also cruise up to the tab “Posts By Topic” at the top of this blog. Just click on the category “PSYCHOLOGY: How Branding Products Build Affinity.


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