Zach Hochstadt is a founding partner of Mission Minded, a branding firm working exclusively with nonprofit organizations, with offices in San Francisco and Denver. He and partner founded their firm in 2002 and have helped shape the brands and marketing campaigns of many well known nonprofits, including San Francisco Opera, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Denver Public Schools Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, and the at University of California San Francisco. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: Branding is a term from the corporate world. Does branding work as well for nonprofits?
Zach: When we started the company in 2002, we saw ourselves as bringing some of the best principles from the corporate world and applying them in the nonprofit sector. But as you know, the nonprofit sector has some really unique challenges, so we were developing some things specific to the nonprofit market.
Fundamentally, in the corporate world, you’ve got this thing – say, Kleenex – and you’re trying to layer some sense of goodness and extra value on top of it, so Kleenex becomes a symbol of caring. In the nonprofit sector, it’s the opposite: you’ve got a product that has abundant good, and the challenge is to refine it to be clear enough, easy enough, and simple enough to understand that the brand can really stand for something. The other challenge is, in the corporate world the same people who pay for the product receive the benefit. In the nonprofit sector, almost always, one group of people pays for a benefit to be received by another group of folks.
MKC: Why should nonprofits care about branding?
Zach: When you really pay attention to your brand, to the reputation you’re crafting out there, it brings a lot of intangible benefits. For example, having a strong brand puts you in a better position to deflect negative criticism when it comes about. Look at what happened with the American Red Cross post-September 11th. The Red Cross collected a lot of money, and much of the American public expected that money to be distributed amongst the survivors. That’s not how the fund works, so the American Red Cross took some heat in the press. Similarly, there were a lot of questions after Hurricane Katrina. And yet, when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan earlier this year, the American Red Cross was the number one charity in the United States in terms of receiving and distributing gifts to Japan. I think that’s a testament to the strength of the Red Cross’s brand. Because it has been really consistent about what it does, people trust it. Even when they receive other information that might contradict what they think of the Red Cross, they dismiss what doesn’t fit the picture they already hold.
MKC: What are the communications and marketing issues that your nonprofit clients are most concerned about?
Zach: Many clients come to us saying, ‘We have a pretty good sense of what we do, but we have a really hard time talking about our work in a way that can really engage people. And we’re not speaking about ourselves consistently.’ That’s what led us to develop our “Minute Message Model,” which is all about helping nonprofit leaders use the time wisely, so that whether they have one minute, two minutes, five minutes or ten minutes, they’re leaving a potential donor or volunteer with a really accurate impression of the benefits of the work that the organization is doing.
MKC: So it’s an elongated elevator speech?
Zach: The one-minute message is the equivalent of the elevator speech, but then what happens next? Most organizations want to talk about how they do their work. What we help nonprofits do instead is talk first about why they’re doing their work. Because if the conversation ended right there, the potential donor would have a really clear understanding that there’s this problem in the world, this organization does something about it. She might say to herself, ‘I don’t know exactly how they’re addressing the problem, but I know they’re doing something about it.’ That’s better than an impression that this organization is doing a whole bunch of stuff, but I don’t know why.
MKC: Are more nonprofits interested in branding than when you started in 2002?
Zach: We’ve definitely seen an evolution in the understanding and appreciation for branding. It’s still evolving, but there’s a whole lot more attention paid to it now than 10 years ago. Often our role is to get the whole organization to understand that brand is not just your logo or your visual identity but a much more holistic concept, in some ways a synonym for reputation, so everything that an organization does contributes to that reputation.
You can learn more about Zach, Mission Minded, and nonprofit branding by reviewing Mission Minded’s free.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.