A red cross instantly conjures up images of help in a crisis - delivered by the service organization whose name and symbol are one and the same.
Large nonprofit organizations, like their corporate counterparts, have long recognized the value of branding. Now, small local groups are picking up on the importance of standing out from the charitable crowd. Nearly 1.4 million nonprofits are competing for dollars in the United States. Whether they hire a public- relations expert or buy an online-branding kit, they all hope their logos will convey a trustworthy cause to donors - and make it easy to distinguish their envelopes from the daily round of junk mail.
"When the markets are down, a lot of nonprofits have to work harder - and if you've got your brand in place to begin with, you'll get through the bad economic patch much better than others will," says Tim Penning, a communications professor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
The symbol has to be designed to last, because the longer it's used, the more its power grows. It should also work as small as an eighth of an inch and as large as a billboard, says Elinor Selame, president of Brand Equity in Newton, Mass. Ms. Selame's company helped brand Goodwill 30 years ago, with "the smiling G" representing both its name and the smiles that come from helping people help themselves.
Nonprofit groups in Boston gathered tips from Selame and other experts at a fall seminar sponsored by the FleetBoston Financial Foundation. Costs were a big concern, but they learned of some relatively inexpensive ways to create a brand identity. One group had been using up its old paper stock of various colors to save money. But doing so diluted their message, experts advised. They recommended using one color to get a better return on their investment.
In Michigan, 67 community foundations banded together a few years ago to create a common logo because not enough people understood their function - giving out local grants. Each organization can put its own name or symbol on the top half of the logo. The collaboration has now become a model around the country, Mr. Penning says.
As useful as it is to adopt ideas from the business world, Penning reminds nonprofits to approach branding from their own perspective. "Their publics are different, their missions are different, and they shouldn't be ashamed of that," he says. "Donors don't want you to look too slick."
Private firms and nonprofits know that for a brand to work, everything the organization stands for should be expressed by its members. The City Year program in Boston seems to have that down to a science. Young people in the service corps are easy to spot on crowded subway cars, wearing Timberland boots, khakis, and shiny red jackets with the City Year logo. There are precise rules about how to wear the uniform, and corps members learn the symbolic meaning of the logo. The red circle represents energy and idealism, and the seven triangles in each section around the circle refer to the native American belief that every decision should take into account the impact on seven generations.
"Many people might not see the work that the corps members are doing in the schools, the tutoring and the mentoring, but when they see them in the parks doing service, when they see the red jackets, the logo - it's all one," says Deborah Re, the executive director. "We use the brand to educate and inspire people and get them involved in service."
Computer advances have made consistency much easier for large nonprofits. BrandWizard Technologies in New York offers customized brand-identity tool kits, so staff in different offices have access to the same templates, logos, or video clips. Clients range from National Geographic to the American Cancer Society. The latter group has reached 95 percent consistency in its materials, says Joey Madrid, client-services manager for BrandWizard.
At the local level, some nonprofits are getting quite sophisticated. The executive director of a county literacy council recently asked Penning if he should "subbrand" his programs - the way GM brands each car or truck. "It was an astute question ..., a struggle that a lot of corporations have," Penning says.