Storytelling and the Brand: A Thousand Words....and Loads of Pictures
by DK Holland
PND - Storytelling and the Brand: A Thousand Words...and Loads of Pictures
Once an organization has unveiled its new brand identity, the ongoing task of the branding team is to make sure the brand remains fresh, effective, and on message as the organization's story evolves. And when you get right down to it, words and images are the main tools at your disposal to accomplish that.
The list of "places" where an organization can tell its story is almost endless and includes advertising spots (print, radio, and broadcast), annual reports, business cards, grant proposals, electronic or print newsletters, event flyers and invitations, press releases and media kits, posters, program brochures, reports, thank-you notes, and Web sites, as well as such not-so-obvious vehicles as signage, packaging, and even speeches to the public.
But, DK, I can hear you ask, Who's going to do all the writing and take all the pictures required to tell our story in all those places?
For smaller nonprofits, the "easy" answer is: Everyone. Writing copy and creating images to support your new brand should be a shared responsibility. Unfortunately, writing by committee, like design by committee, often means that no single author has the authority to impose a truly inspiring vision on the group. In fact, the biggest problem with the writing-by-committee approach is that it almost always leads to a confused or diluted message. How many times have you puzzled over an organization's message after reading one of its brochures or flyers? Writing by committee, I guarantee it! The same is true of images. If the photos and visuals applied to a brand don't convey a distinct point of view, you can be certain that the brand will seem fuzzy, confused, or generic.
What to do? In situations where writing by committee is unavoidable, identify the writer in the group whose style best matches the tone you want to achieve and then support that person as he or she works to develop the key written pieces. Once the designated writer has established the tone and substance of those pieces, go ahead and invite other members of the committee to step in and fine-tune them, as well as help out with the more ancillary needs of the brand.
Last but not least, keep your designer involved in the process. He or she usually will have the most experience working with brands, so don't be afraid to ask him or her to suggest new or innovative ways to combine words and images to express your key messages. That's what designers do.
Since the ability to write well is a necessary skill in most nonprofit workplaces, it makes sense to ask the members of your brand team likely to be asked to produce copy to submit writing samples in advance.
For those whose writing skills could use some polishing, here are a few tips that will help.
Create an outline. Before you sit down to write, review your organization's mission and values statements and create a list of key words and phrases that you want to incorporate into your copy. Next, consult your design brief. Then make an outline that prioritizes the messages you'd like to convey.
Learn to tell a story. It should be obvious: People have a much easier time understanding stories than they do abstract theories or dense boilerplate peppered with specialized jargon. A good story is about people and paints a picture that makes a point and leaves an indelible message in the reader's mind.
Pay attention to style and tone. The style and tone of anything you write should reflect the values inherent in your brand. If your organization is creative and non-hierarchical, the style and tone of your written materials should reflect that fact. If your organization is more traditional and buttoned-down, don't get too informal in your copy.
Be authentic. Have you noticed how common it is for smart people to employ a completely different "voice" when writing than the one they use in everyday conversation and how much livelier and authentic the latter usually is? While making sure to honor the agreed-upon style, keywords, and values of your brand, try to develop a brand writing style that can be easily digested by your audiences.
Look it up. It's hard to use a word correctly if you don't know what it means. Get in the habit of looking up words when you're not absolutely sure of their definition.
Here are a few other tips:
Be consistent in your use of tense
Use the active voice as much as possible
Edit ruthlessly cut, cut, cut!
Most of all, remember what your brand stands for
Any writer who wants to improve his or her writing should keep a copy of William Strunk and E.B. White's Elements of Style, currently in its fourth edition, within arm's reach. This short (eighty pages), wonderfully written style guide delves into the mysteries of composition and, through the use of dozens of examples, answers some of the nagging questions we all have about grammar and punctuation.
When to Hire a Pro
So you've given copywriting the old college try, and the results are still less than scintillating. Don't be disheartened. There will be occasions when, even for smaller nonprofits, a professional copywriter is the best option. As Stephanie Fritsch, president of Stephanie Fritsch Communications in Montclair, New Jersey, says, "Where experienced writers excel is in their ability to hone information and strike the right balance. How to provide lots of detail without becoming dry. How to speak to several audiences with one clear voice. How to keep it fresh and lively without becoming promotional. Or how to express emotions without making it a painful read. A professional tends to work from the readers' perspective and that can make a big difference in how engaging and effective your materials are."
Recently, for example, I worked with a group of volunteers that had been tasked with writing promotional copy for a nonprofit with which they were affiliated. But with the deadline looming and no one able to devote the time needed to come up with copy that was compelling, we decided the best option was to hire a professional to establish a tone and style and to develop the key pieces.
Over the next week, we determined our budget, interviewed four writers (each of whom submitted writing samples and an estimate), and chose someone we believed could create copy quickly and efficiently. "So often a hiring decision is based only on who you know or who is recommended, not the quality of any candidate's work," notes Barbara Krasne, principal of KasnePlows, an executive management consultancy. "Make sure that you review writing samples carefully, focusing on the text itself. That way you can make sure that the copywriter fits your needs. Don't get distracted by the layout or design. They're not relevant. Then check references thoroughly to determine if that the person's work is stylistically compatible with your own internally processes."
After the contract was signed, we provided our new hire with clear brand guidelines and examples of what we had in mind. (Avoid the kitchen-sink approach: "Let's give them everything we've ever done and hope they can figure it out.") We also appointed one person to be the group's liaison with the writer. Everyone read the copy as it was submitted, but they fed their comments to that person, who distilled them into a short memo and passed that on to the writer. Why? Because, in general, the more people involved in the revision process, the more expensive and chaotic it's likely to be.
Creating a Visual "Voice"
What many nonprofits don't realize is that visuals are just as important as words in articulating an organization's brand. In fact, I've worked with nonprofits that didn't include a single image not a photograph, chart, or illustration in their collateral materials! After a few meetings with the executives of those organizations, the reason was painfully obvious they had no concept of the importance of imagery to their brand, and they had no "visual" thinkers on staff.
Every brand leader should be aware of the "VQ" (i.e., visual acuity) of the members of his or her branding team, if for no other reason than the fact that non-visual thinkers may have a harder time appreciating the contribution a visual "voice" can make in supporting the organization's messages.
One modest investment that can help solve this problem is a reproduction-quality digital camera and a few lessons for staff members in how to properly use it. In order to tell your organization's story effectively, you need to document certain key events and feature them in your print materials and on your Web site. You know the ones I mean: a new staff member comes on board, your new board chair addresses the membership, or you finally manage to renovate your '50s-era reception area. All are expressions of your brand. With a digital camera at the ready, you'll have a permanent record of them to use whenever you need them.
Digital photography is also inexpensive, fast, and easier to use in print materials as well as on the Web than conventional photography, simply because the images are already digitized. It's also more reliable because you don't have to wait to discover whether the shot you thought you were getting was actually captured by the camera. Things to pay attention to when using your digital camera include cropping, composition, and lighting. And while trial and error is often the best teacher, there is no shortage of downloadable step-by-step tutorials available online. So charge up that camera and start snapping!
In addition to the quickie shots you take with your new digital camera, you'll want to consider other types of images, including professional-quality photography (original or stock), illustration (original or stock), charts, tables, and maps.
For many nonprofits, professional-quality photography is reserved for portraits of key staff, board members, and important events. In the latter case, these needn't be boring shots of talking heads or groups of attendees chatting over a rubber-chicken lunch. Instead, treat them as opportunities to express your brand. Be creative!
How do you find a good photographer? One way is through your local chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), which, on its Web site, offers a feature called "Find a Photographer" that allows visitors to search for professional photographers by city, state, country, and/or specialty. You can also browse online sourcebooks such as Workbook or Showcase, both of which feature the work of photographers and illustrators who have paid to have their work featured. Workbook has been the largest of
these books for some years now and offers the widest range of styles and top-quality talent. On the downside, most sourcebooks do not jury the work featured between their
covers or on their affiliated Web sites, making it difficult for the novice or non-visual thinker to discern good work from bad. If that's a concern, check out the site of Communication Arts magazine, which only publishes illustration and photography that has been selected by jury.
Pricing will vary according to how busy the photographer is, the equipment he or she will need to complete the assignment, the time needed to scout locations, and the cost of assistants and/or studio time. To better understand what you'll be getting for your money, ask any photographer (or illustrator) you talk to for a rationalization of the fee(s) they quote you.
Fees are usually based on the specific rights granted. Photographers (and illustrators) are keenly aware of their rights under copyright law (much more so than designers or writers) and base their fees on those rights typically, either "one-time use" or "all rights." Obviously, if the photograph in question is of your board chair, the photographer won't expect to be able to resell the image to anyone but you. If, on the other hand, your agreement mentions a specific use for the photos in question say, in your annual report don't automatically assume you'll be able to use them elsewhere without paying an additional fee.
When budget or time constraints simply won't allow you to hire a professional, stock photo agencies such as Corbis and Getty, both of which offer tens of thousands of photographic (or illustrated) images in dozens of categories, are a perfectly acceptable alternative. And thanks to sites like FotoSearch.com, anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser has the ability to search multiple stock photo sources at the click of a mouse.
Brands, Like Sharks, Never Sleep
An effective brand is never static; instead, your organization's brand should evolve as your organization's story changes. But it should evolve within the parameters agreed on by your branding team and then codified in your branding guidelines. As the story changes, the constants of the brand are things like your organization's name, logo, tagline, typography, and color palette. That's what branding is effective communication through a common language. The brand steward's role in the grand scheme of things is to make sure the current brand strategy is aligned with the organization's story; the brand leader's role is to keep his or her finger on the pulse of the brand and to alert the brand team when the story has changed, or is changing, and to act accordingly. If you can do that, you'll be well on the road to living happily ever after with your brand.
In my next, and final, article in this series, I'll look at branding from the funder's point of view. Be prepared to be surprised. It's not what you think!
Do you need to trademark?
How do you decide whether you need to trademark your organization's name, tagline, or program titles? The United States Trademark law is designed to protect the consumer and the creator of intellectual property, as well as against confusion in the marketplace. These protections are also extended to nonprofit organizations that are involved in commerce (i.e., the provision of goods or services).
The moment your organization provides a good or service but not until then it automatically is considered to have a common-law trademark; you don't have to register at all. But you should consider registering your mark if you're concerned about the possibility of being confused with another organization. It only costs a few hundred dollars, and most people will have no problem with the paperwork. Once the mark is registered, you have the right to tell another entity using the same name in the same marketplace to stop using that name, thus eliminating the confusion.
As is frequently the case, however, possession can be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to trademark protection. As Lori Lesser, a partner with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, says, "The law requires organizations to perform a "clearance search" before using any new trademark, to ensure that the same trademark or a confusingly similar one is not already being used by someone else. To be safe, such a search should include prior registered and unregistered trademarks. It is prudent to involve a lawyer in the process for two reasons. First, a layperson is unlikely to know all the resources to consult for such a search. Second, while a layperson can spot a prior trademark that is an exact match to its new proposed mark, it takes legal judgment to assess a prior mark that is not exactly the same, but may be 'confusingly similar' to the new mark, and therefore a problem. Consulting a lawyer at the outset will help organizations avoid spending time and money to develop a trademark such as by buying domain names, hiring a design firm or creating letterhead and finding out later that it must be changed."
Is there someone on your board who knows this area of the law? That person would be a great resource if you decide you need trademark protection. Law firms specializing in intellectual property law often are willing to provide pro bono work in this area, and may even handle the trademark filing for you. Check around, and don't be afraid to ask questions, as this is an area of the law that can get fairly complex in a hurry.
PND Nonprofits By Design - DK Holland BioWriter, strategist, and art director DK Holland has been developing award-winning programs that include branding, licensing, promotion, and product development for companies such as Mattel and Citicorp for thirty years. She was, until 2001, a partner in the Pushpin Group, an internationally acclaimed design and illustration firm based in New York City. Currently the principal of DK Holland, llc, a communications consultancy that works exclusively with nonprofits, her clients include the Literacy Assistance Center, New Internationals, the Sustainability Education Center, World Reach, the Buckminster Fuller Institute, and Sisters of Charity New York. DK serves on the board of directors of the Alliance for Nonprofit Governance, which she is in the process of re-branding; is an editor ofCommunications Artsmagazine and the author/art director of a dozen books on graphic design; and teaches in the graduate school for nonprofit management at New School University. She lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.