Does Ugly Duckling Branding Work?

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I recently had lunch with a friend who said,

"I don't want my non-profit to look too polished. Then people will think I don't need the money. We go for the ugly duckling effect."

This got me thinking. Does the 'ugly duckling' effect work?

First of all, let's think about what branding is.

Branding is the way people interacting with your organization perceive you.

A polished brand is:

  1. Consistent
  2. Visible
  3. Unique

But wait — you might ask — where are the things like websites and brochures? Isn't that branding? Well, yes and no. Branding elements, or tactics, (websites, brochures, public service announcements, social media, etc.) are extensions of your brand and combined give an overall impression about your organization. This impression is your brand, not the individual components themselves. Think of it like your reputation. If you generally punctual, prepared, and turn in assignments on time, it's fair to assume that people will perceive you as responsible. It's the consistency of these actions, together, that create your reputation (or personal brand, but that's a whole other post).

So, when you talk about having an ugly duckling brand, you're saying you don't want a polished brand. You're saying that you'd prefer mismatched materials, that no one sees, and you just want to be like everyone else. If that's your goal, no doubt, it will be difficult to raise money. Think about non-profits that you admire. Is this how they present themselves?

I believe what my friend (and anyone else who believes in this philosophy) was trying to express was the fear of being perceived as not being good stewards of the money that was entrusted to them. Fair point. It doesn't make good fiscal sense to spend $30,000 on a beautiful, custom-designed website, when your operating budget is only $100,000. But good branding doesn't have to cost a lot of money.

Here are some ways that you can achieve a polished brand without blowing your budget. All of these can be accomplished on your own, without spending a dime on consultants. But, should you find yourself stuck, there are definitely people out there (insert shameless plug here) who can help you out.

Conduct a Brand Audit (Consistency and Uniqueness)

The word "audit" can conjure images of grey-suited CPA's threatening to shut you down. That's not what we're talking about here. An audit is just an objective lay of the land. There are two steps. 1) Gathering materials, and 2) Making an assessment. When you conduct a brand audit, you look at ALL your marketing materials: letterhead, business cards, social media, brochures, press releases, and a whole lot more. Then, you look for places where you can improve. Are your materials consistent? Is your logo easy to identify?  Does your writing convey the personality you're going for?

Create a Style Guide (Consistency)

We use guides all the time. Think of traffic signals, flow charts, and "this end up" stamps on boxes. Guides are ways to help communicate how something is done. They prevent accidents, ensure progress, and help make sure that lamp your godmother gave you in college doesn't get smashed in your next move. Style guides do the same thing, but for your brand. Typically, they're broken into two different sections: visual and voice. Visual style guides will address things like which colors to use and how your logo should appear, while voice explains how the personality of your brand is conveyed in writing (along with nit-picky grammar topics like whether or not to use the Oxford comma). If you do a lot of work online, you might also choose to have a style guide just for the web. Nancy Schwartz has a great post called, "How to Create a Nonprofit Style Guide" that you might want to check out.

Study Guerrilla Marketing Tactics (Visibility)

Maybe you've heard of guerrilla warfare? Small groups find ways to capitalize on their flexibility when they don't have a lot of funds. In war, this means ambushes, raids, and sabotage. I'm in no way suggesting you engage in unethical practices, but if you don't have a lot of budget how can you make the most out of what you DO have? Jay Conrad Levinson literally wrote the book on guerrilla marketing. On his website, you'll find tons of articles about direct mail, telemarketing, and email (hey, those sound like marketing tactics that you probably rely on). Most of the content is written for an entrepreneurial audience, but the core message certainly applies to the non-profit world, too.

So, what do you think? Are you ready to turn your ugly duckling brand into a beautiful swan? Or, do you still hold true to the idea that a brand that's not quite polished is more effective? It's a great topic, so I'd encourage you to leave a comment below and let's keep the conversation going.