This year’s Super Bowl ads featured a litany of companies linking their products to what seemed like completely unrelated value statements. Stella Artois jammed its brand into a Matt-Damon-led appeal for clean water, while Coca-Cola wrapped itself in the tapestry of American diversity. Stirring controversy and conversation, Ram Trucks hitched its trucks to a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon about the value of service.
The prominence of values-driven marketing during the big game was no accident. Millennials—now the largest generation of consumers ever—increasingly demand that the brands they interact with not only provide value in their products and services, but also speak to the generation’s values. Research produced by our firm, Hattaway Communications, has found that 9 out of 10 consumers want to make purchases that reflected their values. Marketers have responded accordingly.
Though the shift to values-driven brands and marketing strategies may be novel among big businesses that sell soda and trucks, nonprofits and other organizations whose work benefits people and the planet should take note. Many organizations dedicated to good causes don’t communicate effectively about their values. As a result, they miss opportunities to reach donors who could help scale their operations and people who could take actions such as calling their government representatives.
In the long term, rapid changes in demographics, culture, and communications can leave organizations looking outdated and out-of-touch, jeopardizing their ability to create change. Younger generations unfamiliar with an organization won’t know that its work aligns with their values unless the organization tells them.
Our team has helped a wide variety of organizations update their brands to connect with a new generation and meet the challenges of today’s rapidly changing communications landscape. As we enter 2018, nonprofit marketers and communicators can ask these three questions—illustrated by examples from three of the organizations we’ve worked with—to determine if now is the time for a brand refresh focused on values.
1. Does your organization need to appeal to a different generation? The US population is changing fast, and brands that effectively appealed to older generations may not hold as much sway with younger ones.
Consumer Reports (CR), for instance, is one of the most trusted brands in America. But as the organization approached its 80th anniversary, it confronted a problem: The average age of subscribers to CR’s magazine was 69. “It was clear,” said Leonora Wiener, CR’s vice president of brand, product strategy and integration, “that we needed to reintroduce ourselves to a whole new generation of consumers.”
While most people probably know CR for its reliable product reviews, its nonprofit mission has always been to promote fairness, safety, and health in the marketplace. Market research showed that focusing its mission would increase its appeal among younger consumers. A refocused brand, exemplified by a new tagline—Smarter Choices for a Better World—is helping the organization do exactly that. In a survey, 87 percent of respondents approved.
2. Does your organization need to tap new sources of funding? Even among long-established brands, the search for new funds can provide a powerful impetus for change.
When Harvard University embarked on a university-wide capital campaign, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health set the ambitious goal of raising $450 million. To attract new donors beyond its traditional base of support, the school needed a brand that would reach people who didn’t know much about the field of public health. Focusing on its mission and the people behind it provided the answer.
Our research showed that the school’s faculty, staff, and students were motivated by the same idea as its financial supporters—a desire to improve the lives of people around the globe. A new tagline expressed the aspiration at the heart of the school’s mission: Powerful Ideas for a Healthier World.
Rather than describing the various academic disciplines that comprise public health, the school put a human face on the field as a team of experts “taking innovative ideas from the laboratory to people's lives.” This refreshed brand made its way to the school’s website, fundraising materials, videos, and other content. And less than a year after launching its capital campaign, the school received the largest gift in Harvard’s history.
3. Can you breathe new life into your organization’s legacy? Well-known organizations with brands built over decades may need to communicate in new ways to keep pace with changing times. We’ve helped a variety of organizations “leverage their legacy” to highlight their relevance in today’s world and stand out from the crowd. And they don’t need the resources of a prestigious university like Harvard to do it. Smaller organizations can get invaluable insights from in-depth conversations with the people who know their brand best and the people they aspire to reach.
In the wake of the 1986 Challenger explosion, the families of the space shuttle’s crew hoped to carry on the spirit of their loved ones by founding Challenger Center, an organization dedicated to continuing the crew’s educational mission. Today, the nonprofit promotes education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through its centers across the country, where students work in teams to complete simulated missions to the surface of Mars, the moon, or other extraterrestrial destinations.
In recent years, leaders realized that the emotions around the Challenger accident, which drove support for the organization at its founding, held less potency for the young teachers, students, donors, and STEM professionals they needed to reach today. The center needed a refreshed brand that would honor the past, while carrying them into the future.
Based on in-depth conversations with donors, educators, industry partners, and parents, the center decided to rework its brand to emphasize its role as a catalyst—a critical spark that could pique students’ interest in STEM subjects and show them new possibilities for their futures. The refreshed brand frames the Challenger legacy in a forward-looking way, linking it closely to the contemporary value of opportunity for all.
In accepting the National Science Board's Public Service Award on behalf of the center last April, Challenger President Lance Bush said, “Our programs ignite the potential within each student, opening their eyes to STEM careers and sparking a passion for learning that will last a lifetime.” His acceptance speech, centered on the new brand, brought the audience to its feet.
These aren’t the only questions nonprofit communicators and marketers should ask about their organization’s brand. Organizations might consider how to reach new audiences in a rapidly diversifying country by carefully relating the values in their brand to current events, as Apple did when it condemned North Carolina’s now-infamous “bathroom bill” in 2016. They can also think about ways to highlight the impact of their work through strategic storytelling that opens people’s eyes, such as the Charity: Water’s videos showing the transformative power of clean water.
Refreshing a brand doesn’t mean changing the values that define an organization. It means taking a fresh look at how to articulate those values in new ways to inspire and engage people. Organizations of any kind that do it well can position themselves for success in 2018 and beyond.