Branding Won’t Stifle City Harvest’s Creativity

At City Harvest in New York City, “Brand is sacred,” said Vice President of Marketing Heather Wallace. “A strong brand is the foundation for everything at City Harvest. It creates legitimacy.”

Branding comes down to efficiency, said Gary Laermer, chief branding officer for the YMCA New York City. If the branding is off, he said, “Positioning, fundraising and engagement just doesn’t line up. It may be close, but either you’re in the middle or working three times as hard.”

Wallace and Laermer talked about the importance of branding during a session at Fundraising Day In New York, hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals New York City chapter.

Wallace called herself a tight manager of City Harvest’s brand, but stressed branding should not limit creativity. It’s about consistency, not rigidity. “Everything with our brand goes through marketing: our trucks, our drivers’ uniforms, the look of our headquarters. Every touch point has to look and feel like City Harvest,” she said, while noting, “It can be cumbersome and cause tension.”

There has to be room for creativity, said Wallace. Where she’s most likely to be flexible is in direct mail, special events, major donor fundraising and partner promotions. “You’ll see the flexibility but you’ll see the thread running through everything,” she said.

Your organization’s employees have to believe in the brand, said Laermer. “I am not the chief branding officer,” he said. “We have 4,000 of those. Everyone who takes home a paycheck is our chief brand officer. If you can’t be that person, don’t cash that check. The understanding of who we are is constantly spoken about, trained and reinforced in whatever we do. For every letter, direct mail piece, script, there is something about it that just sounds like the Y.”

However, just because your employees believe in your organization, mission and brand doesn’t mean they’re experts. That hits home when Laermer brings in a third-party vendor. “Most people who work at the YMCA believe they know everything about the organization,” he said. “But bringing in a third party, they help challenge what we think we know and will resonate.”

Laermer said when a third party comes in to ask questions, the answer Y employees give “scares” him. “You will get a different answer from everyone,” he said. “If you really want to get scary, ask the general public. You will think your message and perception is here, and you’ll learn how much it is in the opposite direction.”

An outside party can help you focus your brand and your mission statement “down to four words,” said Laermer. “I challenge you to talk about your organization in four words. Why you exist, what you’re doing here, what do you want out of people.”

Even better than four words, he said, is one word. “Can you sum up a two-page letter in a one-word call to action,” Laermer asked the audience. “That’s how you get alignment. People won’t forget one word.”

If a program or a particular aspect of your mission is too complicated to boil down into four words, Laermer suggested using a message matrix. Have a set list of four or five talking points, and plug two or three in every time you talk about that aspect of your mission, whether it be speeches, press releases, brochures or event invitations.

Finally, one of the greatest dangers to brand consistency is changing the message to fit the platform, said Laermer. “Use platforms that fit your message,” he suggested. “Don’t chase messaging fads. Make the platform work for you. Your message is what’s important, not the platform.”