A few months ago, I stood in an office in the Gaza Strip in front of a room full of men and women who are committed humanitarians. They have risked their lives multiple times to deliver food to the most vulnerable people of Gaza during conflicts and live every day under a blockade with power outages, raw sewage flooding the streets, and the constant risk of violence. My translator whispered to me: “Most of these people are warehouse workers, so perhaps you might simplify your presentation?” Not only that, although my organization was changing name, we can’t change it in Gaza because the territory is ruled by Hamas, and we cannot interact with a terrorist organization.
So I began a little differently than usual. “I hate the word branding,” I told them, and showed a picture of a cow being branded, “In English, the word suggests ownership and something skin deep and painful. The name is the least important part of branding. What matters is our reputation – and it is you who make our reputation what it is.”
We had been CHF International – the Cooperative Housing Foundation – for 60 years, despite the fact that we were not a cooperative, didn’t work much in housing and weren’t a foundation. The legacy name had ceased to work for us. In Kenya, when we were awarded a blood safety program after five years of HIV and AIDS programming, the government Minister reacted by asking the question: “Why would we employ a housing organization to do blood safety?” and held up the program for months.
In our case, as an organization focused on working with the community to improve their lives and livelihoods among the most vulnerable people in the world, the name change was a no-brainer. But at the same time, we postponed that decision until the end. We focused on research - within our staff around the world and by talking to our stakeholders, from international donors and government officials to people living in the slums of Ghana. With this research we were able to build up a picture of our reputation and what made us different from our peers. We looked to see how this matched with the messages we were communicating, and how others communicated messages about us. And from there we developed the single organizing idea – “partners for good” – that became our tagline. We also developed values that buttress everything we do. Only then did we ask the question – does the name communicate this? And it was at this point that “CHF International” got the axe, and we became Global Communities. Along the way, I learned a few lessons that I can share.
Do your research
And then do some more. Use an outsider to do it, so people tell you things you don’t want to hear. Listen to everyone’s opinions, including the unflattering ones. But have a cut-off date and be ready to take a leap into the unknown with your launch.
Brand, not bland
Fortune favors the bold. If you are uncertain, measure up the choices. If it is a choice between stagnation or risk, take a risk. A measured risk, but a risk nonetheless.
Your reputation is what differentiates you
Within a given industry, most organizations produce largely identical products and services and any new service can be copied quickly. What differentiates you is your reputation. Understand it and communicate it. And if it is lagging, work on a brand that will improve it.
Describe, don’t prescribe
The role of communications staff is to describe the organization in the most compelling, differentiating way, not to police an inaccurate reflection or get fetishistic over a logo and colors. Make sure your brand describes the organization and you focus on that. Regular refreshes may be needed. But remember to focus on the values that define you, not the decorations.
Stand by your promise
Make sure your brand reflects the reality of your organization. A brand is a promise, and a broken promise destroys trust.
Be the right organization first, get the right name later
Your name, your brand, your reputation – all of this should reflect your organization. In our case, the rebrand came at a time of tremendous organizational change and crystallized the changes that had taken place. If you change your name first, it will be hard to play catch-up. But if the organization is in the process of evolution, a name-change can help to get you over the finishing line, by signifying to your staff and the world-at-large that the change is real and for good.
The corporate ideal of the rebrand is expressed in attractive publications and websites, well-designed brand guidelines, carefully crafted stories, and a uniformity of messaging. But sometimes that will not be possible. You have to be ready for this and to design a brand that conveys your reputation accurately and compellingly. Reputation comes first, logos come later.
David Humphries is the Director of Global Communications for Global Communities, an international nonprofit organization that works closely with communities worldwide to bring about sustainable change that improves the lives and livelihoods of the vulnerable.
Follow David: @GlobalHumph.