The other day I got an newsletter from a local nonprofit (which I won't name). The lead story on page one starts out like this:
We are pleased to share [Charity]'s new brand with you! After much research, serious analysis and consideration, we made a decision on a new "look and feel" for our organization. You will see this new brand reflected in future newsletters, mailings and our website. While our outward appearance is new, our commitment to [the organization's cause] remains the same.
It goes on and on in that vein: Proud but boring navel-gazing about their new "brand."
Big warning sign: If it seems you need to say Our look has changed, but we still do what we've always done just as well, you probably are digging yourself into a hole.
Unfortunately in this case, the "brand" they're so proud of consists of sans-serif fonts (significantly harder to read than serif fonts in print) lots copy in ALL CAPS (hard to read) and a lot of reverse-out type and type over color (also hard to read). The central pillar of the brand, it seems, is hiding what they do from people by making it hard to read.
But unreadability is only part of the problem: This organization has bought the damaging myth that a look is a brand. That's like thinking your clergyperson's haircut is the content of your faith. Your "look" is not your brand: What you do and who you are is your brand. The look is a small part of the real package.
There's nothing at all wrong with creating a distinct look -- assuming it's not unreadable. If the "look" is readable, nice, and appropriate, it will do no harm and probably do some real good.
The problem is the belief that look equals brand. It lets everyone off the hook. The newsletter article is a perfect example of the distortion that myth causes: They used prime donor-attention real estate not to promote the cause, not to motivate donors to care, not to reward donors who gave -- but to yammer on about the "brand." Cause-wise, they would have been better off leaving the page blank. (That would get people wondering what's up. Maybe they'd poke around in the newsletter and discover some cool things about the cause.)
If someone in your organization, or some outside branding expert proposes a branding project, make sure they are expert in your cause -- not just graphic design, marketing, and the latest fad color palettes and fonts. Because if all you get out of the project is a "look," you will have lost ground in your quest for a better brand.
(This post first appeared on January 22, 2010.)