Issue 7, Summer 2007
A. There's an old saying in the communications business that states: It's not how a message is delivered, but rather how it is received that makes all the difference. Put another way, it doesn't matter what you may want to say about your organization through brand messaging. If those messages don't resonate with the audiences you are trying to reach, it's mostly a waste of time, energy and valuable resources.
An external brand audit, therefore, is an effort to determine what impact your organization's messages are having on clients, funders, partners and policy makers. (see Branding Bytes #5 for an explanation of an internal brand audit.)
Depending upon how you approach them, external brand audits can be expensive (large corporations spend millions on testing their brand messages) or relatively inexpensive.
Understanding that most nonprofits allocate little, if any budget, for such functions, what follows are some cost-effective ways to learn whether or not you are reaching your audiences with clear, appropriate messages:
Simple surveys distributed by mail, or conducted at your place of business, over the phone or over the internet (check out www.surveymonkey.com) can be very effective. When surveying your audiences, ask questions that would give you a better understanding of:
Conduct small informal focus groups that consist of representatives from each of your key audiences. These can be held in your meeting room during business hours or in the evening.
If you don't have a meeting room, secure an appropriate space to conduct the event. Often churches, libraries or local government service centers will provide such space for free. The point is to bring these folks together in a comfortable, relaxed setting where they can freely and confidentially discuss your organization and its relationship to them, their respective organizations and the community at large. Hint: Free food or snacks is usually a good draw.
An executive director of a large, well-known national nonprofit wanted to learn how her organization's name resonated with external audiences. In lieu of focus groups, she conducted, on her own and over the course of about a year, an informal survey of every nonprofit and corporate leader she ran into at meetings, conferences, business lunches and so forth.
She was told by the majority of those she asked that "We like what you do, but your organization's name just doesn't work for us." This eventually led to her organization successfully rebranding itself under a new name.
After you've created your brand messages based on information gained from your external brand audit, retest them with the same audiences. Why? Because words are a tricky business.
Take "partnership", for example. It's a good, simple word often used to describe relationships. It implies affiliation, collaboration, and alliance, all of which should lead one to think of positive brand images. Yet when one organization wanted to include the word in its brand messaging to describe its relationship with local financial institutions, the financial institutions balked. When asked why, one bank representative said that the word "partnership" is loaded with legal implications. "We'd rather be known for 'working together' with the organization, rather than 'partnering' with it."
The lesson? Language is a powerful tool that forms our images, thoughts, opinions and actions. Therefore, when creating your brand messages, choose your words wisely. And periodically audit your external audiences to ensure that you are sending them the right messages using the right language.
As always, I look forward to receiving your feedback, questions, success stories and branding challenges. Also, if you are in need of a motivational speaker, trainer, branding consultant/coach, or management consultant who can help you answer the questions: Who are we? What do we do? How do we do it? And should anyone care? I invite you to for more information.
In the meantime, good luck with your branding! — Larry
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