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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why Rebranding Is Different For Non-Profits

October 9, 2014 | By Michael Rowland, Strategic Safecracker
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Pity the folks at Isis Wallet, the mobile payments consortium created in 2010 by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. They had no choice but to completely rebrand after the rise of their violent namesake (Islamic State In Syria), which is why they just relaunched as Softcard.

A clash of trademarks will always force one side to rebrand, but rarely is the impetus this dramatic.

More often, a new brand identity emerges at the end of a long-planned merger or restructuring process, as when Bell Atlantic combined with GTE to become Verizon, or when Andersen Consulting was spun off to become Accenture.

And sometimes a rebrand is necessary because of shifts in the marketplace, or changes in industry vernacular that can render a brand name obsolete. You see that most often in fluid categories like information and technology. For example, TV Guide Media is about to rebrand as Pop to shake off its lingering magazine roots, and Clear Channel has just changed its name to iHeartMedia to convey its evolution from terrestrial radio broadcaster to multi-platform media company.

It’s part of a wave of legacy media companies shedding ‘analog’ identities as they move to a digital model. These same forces are influencing non-profits in those sectors, per the recent rebrand by the Online Publishers Association to Digital Content Next, a project that I was involved in.

What’s different about rebranding a non-profit is its flat hierarchy of stakeholders. Change tends to be more challenging in a consensus culture, where executives and board members often have equal says. And when change meets brand, just about everyone weighs in with an opinion!

There’s only one way to channel so many opinions into a common mission: listen. At the Online Publishers Association, we started by holding in-depth interviews with every individual who had a say in the approval process in order to establish shared expectations for the new brand name. There would be no rebrand without nearly every board member and executive being on board.

It had to be an inside-out framework that embraced the consensus culture. Agreement on the specifications of the brief set in motion a very efficient renaming process that took us from Online Publishers Association to Digital Content Next.

Non-profits are ‘people-powered’ organizations, for whom rebranding simply won’t work without taking all leadership stakeholders through these three essential questions at the outset:

What are the prevailing forces?
Exactly what’s changed in the marketplace that makes the current name less relevant? What are the expectations that drive key stakeholders now and in the coming years?

How should the new brand name behave?
Define the desired role of the brand and the attitude you want to project. What are the semantic building blocks for the new name? Should it be it futuristic, emotional or functionally descriptive? Should it be a neologism or a real word?

Who is responsible?
When all is said and done, the new brand direction may require multiple approvals, but someone has to be the final decision maker. The ground rules on who has the final say need to be set loud and clear, or else the project may never make it out of committee.

The strength of a non-profit lies in its humanity of professionals, volunteers and supporters. Done right, the brand should help convey the organization’s mission from the inside out. Which is why, if you’re managing the rebranding of a non-profit, start by engaging the leadership in common purpose around these fundamentals of the brief, or you’ll never get to the creative solution.


MichaelRowlandMichael Rowland was the marketing consultant who led the rebranding process of Online Publishers Association to Digital Content Next.

Michael is a seasoned “brand safecracker”. As director of brand strategy for ad agencies such as Eisner Communications in Baltimore and Kirshenbaum Bond in New York, he developed highly successful marketing campaigns for Cablevision and the Kingdom of Spain.

MIchael has a particular passion for non-profit brands, with a track record of success for clients like YMCA, Johns Hopkins and JCCs of North America.

Michael has taught marketing courses at Johns Hopkins University and Loyola College, and has been a frequent presenter at marketing conventions around the country. He can be contacted at mrmichaelrowland@gmail.com.

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