025: The Rebrand Effect – should your nonprofit rebrand?

Service icons_podcast Sarah Durham, the president of the nonprofit digital branding agency Big Duck, discusses the results of a rebranding survey of over 350 nonprofits. If your nonprofit is considering a rebrand of the logo, website, or communication materials it is important to understand the key ingredients that can make the difference for success.


rebrand_effectDownload the full report at Big Duck. Learn whether rebranding can help a nonprofit increase revenue from individuals and other supporters. Find out if it creates a boost to fundraising, recruitment, activism, or media attention.

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Episode 25
Speaker 1: This is using the whole whale. A podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the non-profit world. My name is George Weiner, your host, and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com. Thanks for joining us.

The top of the year is a common time when large projects such as rebranding are brought up inside of organizations. Welcome to episode 25, where we’re talking about some of the research and thinking behind whether or not you should rebrand. Sarah Duram, the president of Big Duck, a really great branding agency for non-profits, actually commissioned a research report last year that sought to address this exact question by talking with not-for-profits that had gone through major rebrands to decide whether they were better off, the same, or sometimes worse-off for the activity. Hopefully this will help us in our potential decision of whether we should stay or, should we go with internal branding.

Speaker 1: Alright so I’m here with Sarah, Sarah can you tell us who you are and what you do.

Speaker 2: Sure! I’m the president of a company called Big Duck, and big duck is a communications firm that works exclusively with non-profit organizations to help them communicate more effectively.

Speaker 1: Thanks, and thanks for being with us today. I’m really excited because you did something very interesting that I haven’t seen in the past. You created a data backed exploration of what it means when you rebrand and you called it the rebrand effect. Can you tell us a little bit about this work?

Speaker 2: Yeah absolutely, well, you know big duck has been working with non-profits and helping them rebrand for over a dozen years. We have seen anecdotal evidence that when brands rebrand they receive all kinds of benefits, but there has never been any hard data of it. And, while I could give you a thousand examples of organizations that will tell you it works, I really wanted to go out and give proof and I wanted that proof not to just come from me and my clients. In fact, Big Ducks pressed most of our clients, none of the clients that we work with that we’re aware of even took our survey. So, we wanted to get really hard evidence of what happens when the typical non-profit goes through a rebranding process.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I love this. The idea of we are rich in anecdotal data. We rebranded, we’re amazing now! And you’re like, OK, does that help me make a decision? So let’s start at the beginning, you found about 351 not-for-profits I believe, and what was the methodology you used to approach this.

Speaker 2: We partnered with a public opinion research firm, a group called the FDR group. Their job was to help us create a process that was fair, statistically valid, you know, unbiased. Big Duck is in the branding business and we didn’t want that to influence the results. We then used guidestar.org lists and fundraising success magazine lists to reach out to thousands and thousands of people who worked in non-profits and asked them to participate in the survey and we ended up with over 350. It was like 351 or 2 participants who all work in non-profits that have rebranded in the last 10 years. We asked them if we had made changes to about 11 different variables, and 6 of those variables were things we considered indicators of a rebrand. So that’s the background.

Speaker 1: I love that standardization too, because that’s my next question: what is rebrand? What do you mean by rebrand, am I just changing around my logo and setting sail, what are some of those official standards of, OK, you’ve really rebranded, officially.

Speaker 2: The 6 variables that we were looking at were, Has the organization created a rebrand strategy of some kind? Had it changed its logo? Its name? Its tagline, had it developed a key set of messages? Had it developed an elevator pitch, of sorts? Those were essentially the elements that we considered to be indicators of a rebrand. We also distinguished between non-profits who did what we call a comprehensive rebrand, meaning they changed at least three or more of those elements. Versus those that only changed one thing, so for instance we were interested in, is if there was one thing, let’s say changing your logo, that has a clear impact, or is there some combination of things? If you change your name and your logo, is that more likely to have a clear impact. So we were slicing and dicing the data a few different ways to see what we could learn, and actually the results there were kind of surprising. One of the things that we hoped to find was one element had a more significant impact than other elements. We could not find that, but what we did find is that organizations that comprehensively rebrand, meaning they change multiple elements, actually see better results than organizations that just change one or two things.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I love that. So getting into the meat of this thing, what happened? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Speaker 2: well, I think it’s a good thing. One of the really surprising findings was that a huge number of the non-profits had just rebranded in the last 1 or 2 years, and so a lot of people’s surveys said that it was a little too soon to tell, but when we asked the question if rebranding had increased your revenue, 50% of the people who completed the surveys said yes it had, 17% said it was too soon to tell, and only 4% saw a decrease. So, only a relatively low number of people saw a downside and a significant amount of people saw an upside. We also asked questions like: Did it increase your program performance? or did it help you stand out and get media attention? And across the board there were positive results, so there was really no place where we could infer from the data that rebranding was a big mistake and actually thank the numbers, although you do anecdotally hear those horror stories. I should say that we also found something that supported something that we see at Big Duck all the time, which is that rebranding alone isn’t the end goal, right? Rebranding is a strategy and the organization that saw the best results were not using that strategy alone, they were also organizations that had oftentimes new leadership, and in many cases had gone through a strategic planning process.

Speaker 1: I love how you broke that down in so many different ways. Can you tell me if there were any, sort of, standouts and what surprised you in the data?

Speaker 2: Well there were standouts in a couple of the areas. 49% of participants said that rebranding increased their revenue from individual donors and an additional 26% said it was too early to tell. In fact, you know across the board the increase numbers pretty high, and the too soon to tell numbers are just trailing them. I don’t think it comes as a surprise, but where rebranding was perhaps least effective, was an increased revenue from government grants, or maybe salvation grants which salvation grants, only 20% of the participants said that rebranding can increase their ability to get increased revenue from salvation grants, and only 15% said they could increase their revenue from government grants after rebranding, but revenue from corporate donors, number of individual donors, donor retention, and revenue from individual donors were all reported positively to have increased by a number of participants.

Speaker 1: So the story here, kind of, that you see it telling is that the individual donors see it first hand, they are the closest when we’re talking about a brand and, the government they are filling out forms, right? They are looking at your numbers, what are you trying to do?

Speaker 2: I think that’s right, but I also think that when a non-profit applies for a grant, particularly a government grant, they are often times responding to a kind of proform of form, and they have less of an opportunity to share their messages and to write anecdotally. To share their case stories and other evidence that communicate the sum totality of their organization that is very focused on the particular initiative that they are trying to fund. You know the other thing that we experience all the time when we talk to our clients that came out in the research nationally too, is that rebranding is a great way to not only reach people externally from a fundraising point of view, but also to get internal alignment. We saw that the vast number of non-profits rebranded because they wanted to be able to communicate more consistently and with more confidence, and actually 58% said that their staff had more confidence to represent the organization well after rebranding. That was one of the largest numbers we saw, and I think that’s really true you know, when a staff person who has to write a grant or write a speech, or go to a lunch with a donor feels clear how to communicate and how to talk to the organization, what the key messages are, then they often do a better job and the message that is expressed in those conversations aligns more deeply with what that donor or other person might see on the website, or through Emails, etc. So there is a tremendous value to the internal alignment too.

Speaker 1: Yeah that’s kind of the intangibles that you captured well here when you’re talking about 58% who said they have more confidence in the staffs ability to represent us well, and those intangibles then translate into those larger numbers, but not directly. I want to get to the conceptually, the methodology here is If I’m rebranding, aren’t I part of a self-selecting crowd of non-profits who are, if you’re going through an aggressive rebrand you are investing in the organization, it’s actually a sign of health or a sign of a turnaround. How much of this is just sort of, because this is the audience obviously already investing in the organization they are going to be doing better anyway.

Speaker 2: That certainly could be part of the case, I think one of our things that the data supported is that non-profits that are rebranding that see the best results are not doing it in a vacuum. Rebranding alone is not the goal, it’s a strategy, and so certainly an indicator of a healthy organization is that it not only looks externally, it looks internally. It goes through procedure planning on some sort of regular basis, it makes updates and trains staff, and has capacity-building work, and certainly doing branding consistent with those kinds of aspects of the healthy non-profit life.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I think more so though is that one of the things it highlights on the other side is, look, if you’re an organization and you’re oh gosh, we’re stuck, I know what we need to do we need to rebrand. I think what your data shows here is that when you have new sea level being hired, a new CEO or a chief of a different department, that is actually where you have your better upside, and you actually break down some of those numbers.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I feel very strongly both based on this data and our experience that if an organization is in a downward spiral or they are struggling with something and they sort of self-diagnose that rebranding will solve that problem that often that’s not the best place to start. We typically encourage non-profits to go through strategic planning if they haven’t done so in a long time, and particularly if there is any kind of leadership transition that is happening or about to happen, encourage the organization to wait. I would rather see an organization hire a new CEO or go through that dramatic change on the board, or change the fundraising team first, because you want the right people to be a part of the process, and you want the energy that new people bring to the process to be a part of the dynamic. Ultimately you can’t communicate well externally if you are not communicated well internally, and a lot of what a good branding exercise should do, is help empower the staff to change the culture of their organization. Changing your logo is not gonna change the culture, you know, but changing your logo and the tagline and all that staff, and having the brand, and having these steps to help really institutionalize that and bring it to life can have a profound effect on the culture internally and can echo out externally.

Speaker 1: I love it, you even title the section, like, Rebranding is not a panacea and I think that is a classic misunderstanding about rebranding and changing things around, and you are able in here to even say with new leadership versus no new leadership there are still increases but we are talking about plus 18% from corporate donors, plus 12% over people who didn’t have new leadership when you go through the rebranding, but your key elements here of executive leadership, strategic plan and culture are all, it seems like, upside potential when you rebrand as multipliers.

Speaker 2: I think that’s really true, and I think, you know, it’s important for consultants and agencies like mine and others who do this kind of work to remember that when a non-profit is paying you to take them through a rebranding process you are spending donor money, and you want to give the organization the best possible impact from that, so from our point of view we’d rather see an organization wait for really the right time. Wait until there’s a convergence of elements that will yield the best results, as opposed to go through a process sooner that you may not be really fully ready to benefit from, you’ll just get more bang for your buck that way.

Speaker 1: Yeah, so I think that type of inherent responsibility of even though someone is willing to pay you to rebrand if you don’t see some of these elements of executive leadership, strategic plan and cultural alignment, you know, you’re kind of wasting people’s money and time unfortunately.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I think it’s really irresponsible. I have actually deliberately kept my business relatively small with staff of less than 20 people, so that we can afford as a business to say no. We can afford to give advice to our clients or prospects that’s really driven by integrity, and I think that’s one of the reasons there is skepticism out there about branding is that there certainly are examples of organizations that spend a lot of money on communication that didn’t ultimately yield the right results, and you know, it’s just not how it should be obviously.

Speaker 1: So I have a couple more questions here, one more focusing on this Should I stay or should I go? with regard to rebranding. We have, let’s say, an example of here’s an organization that has relied on direct mail for the past decade, and they are realizing that over time this direct mail has been trickling off. They’ve had the same logo in place, they have a standard, their executive team is not going anywhere, but they feel they are stuck. I’m sure you’ve maybe seen this before. What would your advice be, are they ready to rebrand, is this going to solve their problems of the impending doom of the closing of the direct mail market.

Speaker 2: You know, rebranding is like renovating your house, and doing direct mail or direct response or email, those kinds of campaigns, those are the parties you throw in the house. Rebranding in and of itself, changing the logo and changing the messaging is not going to necessarily be a single element that, if you put a new logo on a direct mail piece, I have no data that supports that that will do anything for you. I would sort of separate out those two things and ask the question, Is the drop in direct mail coming from change in the external landscape? I mean there are certainly more and more organizations using these tools and so the market is more saturated, is that the problem? Or is the problem actually that your organization isn’t communicating with your audience in a direct, engaging way. Often times what I observe with multi-channel campaigns or direct mail programs is that non-profits do tend to communicate in what I think of in very organization-centric terms. We write direct mail letters often that non-profits sort of write from this let me tell you all about us and why you should support us, as opposed to speaking to the donor in the terms of highlighting the benefits to the donor in terms that highlights the benefits to the donor of getting involved. What does the donor get out of their involvement with the organization? So, it could be that revisiting the foundation of those messages, what are the organizations messages and why should a donor support them, what’s their case for support? That kind of branding work might definitely help give their direct mail lift, but I think there are other variables like speaking in an audience-centric way that can also have a profound effect.

Speaker 1: Let me give one more case of would your rebrand or not. We have an organization that has been around for at least a couple of decades and they are staying even in terms of revenue and impact, and there is now a new CEO that has been brought into this organization. They are looking around, they have recognizable name, national awareness, but they are still feeling that they are stagnant because they haven’t seen that growth and there is the expectation of, you know, if you are not growing you are sort of shrinking. Is this a moment where you consider a rebrand and what are the factors that you think about in that case?

Speaker 2: Well I think I would start by kind of looking at the data on their market, if it’s possible to. If the organization is working in an area where the market for growth, you know the number of potential donors, the number of potential participants is untapped, there are a lot more people out there who should support this work, then I think it could be interesting to explore if the lack of growth is coming from a branding problem. Is it coming from a lack of awareness or a lack of visibility? I often try to boil down the word brand to be synonymous to the word reputation. And if the reason that organizations visibility or growth is capped because nobody knows who they are, they are a best-kept secret then branding can help with that, but again branding is just a reorganization. You’ve got to throw the parties in the house, so you have to be prepared that after you rebrand to really communicate differently too. TO engage in online and offline activities that, you know, that build that market presence and raise that visibility. Certainly when a new leader comes in, that is a good time to do it. One of the things I would just be wary about is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I read a book a few years ago called Brand Raising and I talk about this a lot, in the book. I am a big advocate of what we do with our clients, we start with a brand strategy, start by articulating what’s the big idea you want people to think of when they think of your organization, and what’s the personality, the kind of tone and style, you want to communicate. Before you change anything, assess what you’ve got to see if it is on strategy or not. An organization shouldn’t necessarily change something for the sake of changing it. In fact I would argue that they shouldn’t change for the sake of change, they should only change if it moves them towards a smarter, clearer way of communicating. So, if your strategy and the way you’re named or the way your logo works or something are totally misaligned, then that’s a good reason to rebrand. But there are a lot of organizations out there that have been communicating for a long time with things that maybe don’t make sense strategically but still have equity. You know the March of Dimes is an example of this. March of dimes was founded a very, very long time ago. The name March of Dimes really says nothing about their mission, but it was a reference to fundraising a long time ago. At this point that name has equity, and I would never advise an organization with that kind of equity to change their name, but I would encourage an organization to clarify their brand strategy and make sure that brand strategy is expressed, if not through every single element through the sum total of things. So, when I visit your website, when I read your tagline, when I see your logo, how do all of those things together communicate that big idea of who you are, kind of tone and style that goes with your strategy.

Speaker 1: Awesome, I love that point, and actually I’ve heard cases where an organization that has great recognition, just because it doesn’t quite align with what they do or what they feel they do thinks about changing it, I’m just quietly screaming in my head saying Don’t do it, everybody knows you!

Speaker 2: Yeah, that is a bummer, the way we approach it and I really feel strongly that this is the best way to do it, is we think of the name, tagline and the logo, the visuals that, identity as a system, and rather than just looking at those things separately, you know often times when businesses and non-profits rebrand they do it kind of piecemeal. First they maybe rename, then they come up with a logo, then they come up with a tagline. We actually approach those things all at once, and our belief is that you should approach them all at once because some of those elements may not be changing, maybe there’s equity in the name maybe it isn’t going to change, so then the logo, visual system and tagline have to do a different kind of heavy lifting, so I would really encourage your organization to start with the strategy piece and then look at the way you are kind of communicating as a system and where it doesn’t have to be everything individually supporting the strategy, it has to be the collective whole that supports the strategy.

Speaker 1: So as we move to wrap up here, I would like to play a time machine game where we go back in time, you’re about to start this work this survey, what is something that you would change about your approach.

Speaker 2: Well, I think as time permitted, one of the things that I would have loved to have done but we just simply did not have time to do, is that I would have loved to go back and do more in-depth interviews with some of the participants that completed the survey. We got a lot of good quantitate data, and a lot of the people that took our survey took the time to tell us stories in the data, and we shared a few of those things in the free E-book which you can download it, it’s bigduckNYC.com/rebrandeffect, but, you know, I would one of the things I would do differently perhaps is spend more time going out and talking to some of those people that I haven’t worked with and hearing more about their experience. maybe we’ll do that downstream..

Speaker 1: As we move on to the end here, what is one piece of advice you think that rebrand effect should basically give a not-for-profit considering this right now.

Speaker 2: I’d like an organization that is considering rebranding to think of a strategy, and a possible means towards moving to a better way of communicating that will help boost income and boost participation, but don’t think of rebranding as the destination. It’s not the end, in and of itself, and actually, if you do rebrand, you have a lot of work to do afterwards, you gotta update everything, you have to communicate different ways, so think of it as a strategy that is in many ways the beginning of a journey towards teaching your internal culture as well as your external communication. And do it when the timing is right for your organization, don’t rush, when you do it you want to do it for the right reasons, involving the right people, and do it at the right time .So I’d rather see organizations wait and do it thoughtfully then rush into it and try to get it done for a website, or an annual conference.

Speaker 1: Yeah I couldn’t agree more. So Sara, how do people find you online, and how do people find the rebrand effect one more time?

Speaker 2: Yep, you can find me and learn more about Big Duck at bigduckNYC.com and you go to that, our homepage bigducknyc.com has a link where you can download the rebrand effect, or you can go directly to the page to download the E-book at bigducknyc.com/rebrandeffect

Speaker 1: Awesome, thanks so much for joining us!

Speaker 2: Thanks for having me!

The big takeaway here to remember is that rebranding in and of itself is not a panacea for the problems that may be inherent in your organization. I like that they explicitly say that, and even don’t take clients that they don’t think are ready or are potentially rebranding for the wrong reasons. It is the, you know, classic putting lipstick on a pig really doesn’t change the fact that you still are a pig farmer, I think that’s how the saying goes. Anyway, I really enjoyed talking with Sarah, and I hope you do look up The Rebrand Effect and incorporate some of the findings if you are, in fact, planning for a large site rebrand. Prayer and meditation I think also helps a bit. Resources can be find at wholewhale.com/podcast, and this is episode 25 so we will have links to the rebrand effect and some other helpful tools. Thanks as always for joining us, take care.

For more resources on today’s show, please visit wholewhale.com/podcast, and consider follow us on twitter @wholewhale, and thanks for joining us.

This podcast is coming also at a funny time for me as we’ve been doing the Whole Whale podcast for a year or so now, but I’m having a crisis of faith about the branding here, I’m like really torn because using The Whole Whale is an idea that I love, and you know it matches Whole Whale to the company Whole Whale that we run our digital agency, but I don’t think it really helps the search ability of the podcast, so I’ve been kicking around should this be the Non Profit Podcast, should it be the Digital Non-Profit Impact. I’m kind of lost, but I may go back and look through The Rebrand Effect to see what I hope to achieve by changing the title. If you have any thoughts or ideas on this topic, you know, I’d be deeply grateful on your opinion. You can find me at [email protected] if you just want to shoot me a note and help me with this, please. Today’s familiar tune: The Clash, Should I Stay Or Should I Go. And, of course, our cheery intro/outro music provided by the amazingly talented and gifted, and newly engaged Greg Thomas.