This weekend we had a party for my son, who turned one. This kid was not going to remember anything, so it was really a party for us. Still, it is customary in Vietnamese culture (and I hear Korean culture) that when a child turns one, an assortment of objects are placed in front of him. Each object represents a profession, and the first thing he picks up is indicative of what he’ll be. Parents usually lay out things like a stethoscope, a gavel, a caliper, a syringe, and some money. The really ambitious parents will lay out a stethogavel. Or a wedding ring glued to a lottery ticket.
On a silver tray we placed all the items and set the baby down on the ground. He looked at the 60 or so people gathered around him, then slowly reached toward his destiny. I was hoping he would choose the unicorn card I placed on the tray, the unicorn of course representing all of us in nonprofit. His hand hovered over the objects, and he picked up the maraca.
And that brings me to today’s topic: Marketing and branding. I’ve been hearing a lot about these concepts lately, since everyone is talking about them. “Develop your personal brand,” I hear, or “improve your elevator pitch” or “engage your donors through social media” or “Vu, could you please wear a shirt with buttons and comb your hair for the site visit?” etc.
Marketing and branding are not my expertise, and you should take everything I say with that in mind. However, I think our field has become significantly confused and/or distracted by these concepts, especially the younger professionals, who are extremely tech-savvy and image conscious. One of my staff, for example, was complaining about how absolutely awful our last business card design was.
“Vu,” she said, “someone else came to our open house, and they had the exact same design as ours!”
Oh, the horrors! We showed up to a party with the exact same business card template design as someone else! I could die of embarrassment! We will never be able to show our faces at a collective impact meeting again. Our reputation is ruined! No one will ever donate to or collaborate with us now that we have committed such a grave marketing faux pas!
The old business card design was simple. It was plain and boring. It had all the relevant information in an easy-to-read format in Arial font. It was effective; I could see why another organization would also choose it.
The staff, all brilliant, and I often differ on this stuff, which I call the branding trap. For instance, I thought our last website was fine. It was plain and boring, but it had all the information anyone needed laid out in a boring but functional way, and it was updated regularly. But they insisted on a makeover, and the new website does look better, with rotating pictures, and drop-down menus. But I’m not convinced that it increased our traffic at all. In fact, I think it may have decreased it, since the bells and whistles lulled us into a sense of security, which meant we were updating less often. A C+ website that is easy to navigate and regularly updated with interesting contents will ALWAYS beat an A+ looking one that is neglected and is too complicated. Think of Craigslist, arguably the ugliest website on the internet, and yet it is also the one of the most popular.
I recently attended a workshop by the hilarious and knowledgeable marketing guru Erica Mills. She showed us the three “Brand Gears,” which are visual (logo, website, brochures, etc.), narrative (mission statement, elevator pitch, etc.), and experiential (how people experience your organization). Erica had some great advice that I’ll be trying, like don’t sound like a robot, don’t talk too much, and stop using “provide” in your mission statement or she will fly to your nonprofit and personally beat you with a thesaurus.
But we focus way too much on the first two gears. I think this last gear, experiential, is the most important, and sometimes it is neglected because it seems more tangible and productive and cooler to focus on the first two gears. And thus we have some nonprofits that have amazing visuals and messages. Their brochures make you weep with envy. Their websites seem to have been built by elves. Their logos remind you of a long-lost afternoon from your childhood. They would never make such a fatal mistake as carrying the same business card design as another person to a party. But their offices are like fortresses, it’s impossible to meet with anyone, staff speak in soft whispers after looking around to make sure no one is listening, and in the distance, faintly, are the soft murmurs of someone weeping.
When it comes to branding, all of us need to remember that shiny brochures and suavely spoken pitches don’t mean much if people have crappy experiences with our organizations.
At my nonprofit, VFA, we have a motto: SU/FU. A good brand, personal or organization, must always start with these two things. They stand for “Show Up, Follow Up.”
- Are you and your staff warm, friendly, approachable, and human?
- Do you respond to your emails and voicemails and texts?
- Do you and your team have a good sense of humor?
- When people drop by, are they greeted and do they feel welcomed?
- Do you attend other organizations’/team members’ events?
- Are you seen around the community?
- When talking to people, are you present, or are you thinking about the last episode of Game of Thrones?
- Do you remember people’s names and details about their work, family, and interests?
- Do you go out of your way to support people when they need help?
- Do you seem excited and passionate about your work?
- Do you do the stuff you say you will do?
If you have the SU and the FU both down, I could care less what your organization’s logo or business cards or letterhead looks like, or whether you say too many “ums” when you talk about your mission, or whether your website has enough pictures. Those things, when done well, are bonuses. Same thing with the personal brand: Whatever you what your personal brand to be—mine is to be a sexy vegan nonprofit ninja—make sure your SU and FU are strong. If they are not, work on them before you do anything else. In fact, if your FU is not strong, having strong visuals and narratives creates dissonance and draws the ire of others, because few things in life are as irritating as a stylish and sweet-talking but flaky person or organization.
Anyway, going back to the baby. He has always been a musical baby, starting to dance when he was six months old. This is probably because I feed him a steady stream of 90’s Hip-Hop. So it is no wonder that his destiny is to be a musician. However, I think he may have also fallen into the branding trap. The maraca was by far the most colorful item on the tray, and it made a lot of noise. Its branding was good, so to speak.
But people are not babies. We need to give them some credit. They will not always be attracted to the shiniest object. I think most tend to most gravitate toward us simple, down-to-earth individuals and organizations who show up and follow through.
And as my son will find out, being a musician, while rewarding, is also challenging, and you don’t make much money doing it unless you’re really lucky. He should have chosen the plain unicorn card and entered the lucrative field of nonprofit like his father.