Believe in your Brand

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 13th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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My brain works in funny ways.  Listening to Shankar Vedantam on NPR talking about golfing with big name clubs versus no-name clubs, my mind goes to nonprofits.

Vedantam was unpacking yet another interesting piece of social science research.  This one looked at whether using a putter from a well-known brand—in this case, Nike—made a difference in the success of the golfer, compared to those putting with a generic club.  And it did:  those who were told the putter they were using was Nike needed “significantly fewer strokes” to make the putt than those who were not told the brand of their putter.

Placebo Effect

In reality, all golfers were using the exact same putter.  But the placebo effect worked.  Vedantam reported on another piece of similar research where participants asked to take a math test were given ear plugs to block out the noise and distractions so that they could concentrate on the test.  Some were told the ear plugs were made by 3M; others weren’t told a brand name.  Again, the ear plugs were all the same.  But those who were told they were using ear plug manufactured by a reputable company did better on the math test than those who were told nothing of the provenance of their ear plugs.

Three interesting conclusions from these two pieces of research:  first, the placebo effect exists outside of medicine; if we think we have a better tool, we do better at our task.  Second, those who have greater success working with the recognized brand tool credit themselves, not the brand, for their success.  And, third, the value-add of the recognized brand works better with those who don’t see themselves as novices rather than experts.  The logic here is that having the advantage of the strong brand elevates people’s self-confidence and lowers their performance anxiety allowing them to perform better.

So what does this have to do with nonprofits?  I hear time and time again whines from nonprofits about the challenges of raising money when they aren’t the mega-known nonprofits.  “Oh woe is us,” they say, “we aren’t …,” (and I’m not going to supply the names because they don’t need any more air time) “how can we compete?”  I usually give some kind of pep talk that addresses the fact that donors aren’t monolithic and all don’t want to give to the same organizations, that donors give to multiple organizations, that you have to know your audience and your targets, and so on.

Believe in your Brand

What I don’t always say, but will, in fact, lead with in the future, is the recommendation to have faith in their brand.  (But first, they will need to know what that brand is!)  While I have not done this research, just thinking anecdotally about those non-brand name nonprofits who are incredibly successful at raising funds and those non-brand name nonprofits who are not, I see, in light of the research Vedantam shared, a clear commonality:  those who are successful believe in their brand; that belief in the brand boosts their confidence and makes them comfortable in their asking and that, in turn, makes them more successful.

And, no, not all who seek funds and recognition for their nonprofits really truly believe in their brands.  In fact, I find more are apologists than real cheerleaders.  There is far too often a very apparent tenor to their behavior that bespeaks what too many think and feel:  I am just a nonprofit, a second class citizen, one that must beg for money.  Too many nonprofits dismiss themselves (I know I’m anthropomorphizing nonprofits, but it works here) as less worthy than their for-profit siblings, making it so easy for the potential donor to dismiss them, as well.  Even referring to their asking and need to ask as begging sets us a diminished position, as begging refers, in its etymological roots, to giving something that is unearned.  The vast majority of nonprofits have earned every penny, and then some, of the funds for which they ask.  They just don’t always believe it themselves.

Too many lack the confidence that the brand-known tool provides and it is time for all nonprofits to start believing in the value of their own brands.

Check out our upcoming “Branding on a Shoestringclass on 6/21 to learn more about how to promote your nonprofit’s brand.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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