Sunday, May 8, 2016

" A-Branding We Will Go..."

"Branding" is a popular topic in both the profit and nonprofit business world. How do we identify our enterprise? How do we show what we do to a public distinctively, in a world with millions of messages bombarding us constantly, in print, TV and online.

Years ago, when I had a house in rural western Colorado,  I lived across the road from a cattle ranch. My first knowledge of branding came from observing the annual spring ritual where young steers were branded, literally with a hot iron bearing the symbol of the ranch,  impressed by a cowboy on  the animal's hindquarters. The squeals and smells were short-lived but memorable. The purpose of branding was to identify an animal as belonging to that ranch. The design of the brand itself was suggested by the ranch's name.  If there was open range involved, branding was important. In the old days of rustlers, branding was essential.

Now branding is associated with the marketing of companies, products and services, extending sometimes to people, as  in the case of  Donald Trump. More often than not an organization undertaking a branding exercise will  first look to the visual - the logo. And/or the name. It's not surprising branding is considered important, as you have so little time for your message to be absorbed. Why not encapsulate it with one visual impression?  Or a name that "says it all."? Easier said than done and the logo/name approach is only a part of the branding equation.

Many books and articles have been written about branding and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of consultants and firms devoted to  advising organizations on the topic. Several examples of their work are illustrative of the perils associated with branding or re-branding. Regarding logos, here are a couple.

Some years back (1976),  the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) decided it wanted a new visual image. With much ballyhoo and an expenditure later reported to be  a million dollars, NBC "rolled out" its new logo, plastering it everywhere.  A month later, the network heard from another NBC - the public educational Nebraska Broadcasting Corporation, which pointed out its years-old logo was exactly the same but for the color. Nebraska filed a trademark infringement lawsuit. The giant NBC settled out of court and went back to the drawing boards.

Recently New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled a new logo to replace the one widely in use since 1971. That logo was an elegant single letter M,  based on a work in the museum's  collection, a woodcut by Luca Paciloli, an associate of Leonardo Da Vinci. The new logo, designed by a "London-based global-branding firm," illustrates The Met. A storm of protest arose, much of it emanating from art and graphics critics. New York magazine's architecture writer Justin Davidson   called the new logo  a "graphic misfire," looking like "a red double decker bus that has stopped short, shoving  the passengers into each other's backs." The public weighed in too. After all, the previous logo was like an old friend, seen for over 45 years on publications, admission buttons and gift shop bags.

The aesthetics and sentiment aside, other commentators wondered: "Why?"and "Why Now?" The museum, responding to the controversy, explained the logo was designed to support its effort to have the institution, informally known as The Met,  be so re-named by the museum, throughout all of its communications. Why now?  Perhaps the reason is that the museum has new leadership. In 2008 Thomas Campbell was named the director, succeeding Phillipe De Montebello, who served in that post for over 30 years.

Given the time and money spent on the logo project, The Met is not likely to back down and will widely employ all its resource to use and promote the new image, which is essential if the re-brand is to be firmly established.

Changing a name as part of a branding effort can be even more challenging. Often the desire to re-name comes about from public confusion about the original. When I became director in 2006 of the historic site  Boscobel I was puzzled by its official name, used in all communications, including roadside signs: Boscobel Restoration, Inc. What is being restored, I asked myself - sofas? works of art? We changed the name to Boscobel House & Gardens to more accurately describe the organization and its property. Another Hudson Valley resource, known  for years as The Museum of the Hudson Highlands found it was constantly having to answer the question: museum of exactly what?  After a re-branding project, it became The Hudson Highlands Nature Museum. The name questions stopped.

A very recent name change in the Hudson Valley region has led to much head-scratching. In 1946 a handful of doctors joined together to form the Mount Kisco Medical Group, in Mt. Kisco, New York -where I grew up - in northern Westchester County. Originally based in a small wood frame house near the hospital, it expanded over the years. Now it has 500 physicians in 40 locations in the Hudson Valley.  In February of this year, it changed its name to CareMount Medical.

Clearly it had outgrown its own original geographical location, but that hadn't stopped patients from going to Mt. Kisco Medical Group locations in other counties. The name CareMount has all the markings of puzzling work by a branding consulting firm, as it appears to have come out of the blue, with no historical or mission-related logic. If it didn't include the word "Medical" in its title it would be a total mystery. "Care" comes close to its mission, but "Mount"?  I am surprised a wag hasn't renamed it "Costs Mount" - not far from the truth in health care.

A few lessons for nonprofits might be claimed from the above illustrations.  First, look before you leap into branding or re-branding. Is there a good reason to make changes, and if there are, make sure the new logo or name change solves the problem. Resist the  siren song of change for change's sake. Second, make sure the new logo and/or name reflects as much as possible what the organization does, as that is the whole point of the exercise. Thirdly, remember the organization's brand goes beyond names and symbols.  A true brand is what the public thinks about you - what associations your name evoke. Volvo's brand, most would agree, is safety, a message it has been  promoting about its vehicles for years. Communication has to go beyond symbols and into substance if  a brand is to have any meaning.                     

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