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Priceless Brand Advice: How Nonprofits Earn Consumer Trust

They don’t have the budgets you have. Or the staff. Or the reams of market research, behavior studies, and focus group debriefs.

Yet without all those resources, many nonprofits are far better at earning consumer trust than most for-profit brands are. Since consumer trust is the ultimate prize of good branding, it’s worth asking why.

To say that trust comes easily to nonprofits simply because they are nonprofit—and thus, their motives are not as suspect as those of a corporation is—well, lazy. First, because getting people to write a check is just as much a motive for nonprofits as it is for Wal-Mart and Apple. A nonprofit’s existence depends on it.

Second, because the only thing about nonprofits that the public generally assumes without question is that they aren’t making a profit. Period. Trust that it’s well-managed, that the money raised is being spent appropriately, that something measurably good is being accomplished—this isn’t the birthright of a nonprofit. It has to be earned, just as your brand’s does.

I’ve served as a trustee for two nonprofits, our agency counts two others among its clients, and over the years I’ve worked on the marketing for probably a dozen others. There’s a lot I still don’t know about how nonprofits earn consumer trust, but here are five things I do know.

1. You can’t buy your way into it: Yes, advertising can buy brand awareness, interest, and consideration. But not trust.

A couple years ago, Forbes reported on research that found only one out of 100 Millennials said a compelling ad could make them trust a brand more. (If it makes you feel any better, this is equally true for nonprofits. A separate study found that 41% of the public sees cause marketing as “just spin.”)

2. A mission statement is not a mission: Nonprofits are born with a mission: a clear, singular, and heartfelt purpose that anyone within the organization could recite on request. But that mission doesn’t just inspire the troops; it also defines what people expect from the nonprofit.

Its staff has a North Star to guide its every decision, every move, so that the public trust is not broken. Businesses, on the other hand, routinely draft formal mission statements that sound inspiring but are unfocused, inert, or forgettable to the point that they give no guidance to employees.

There are exceptions, and we can all learn from them. TOMS is on a mission to “use business to improve lives.” Virgin America’s purpose is to “banish mediocrity from the sky.” Nike’s is to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

3. Transparency dissolves doubt: Transparency isn’t just how a nonprofit maintains its tax-exempt status. It’s a necessary part of a culture that relies on donors to give money and on volunteers to give time.

Your brand can go far in building consumer trust by opening up about where and how your products are manufactured, how you treat your staff, or what the long-term goals of your company are. By showing consumers what goes on behind the curtain, you can erase questions about your practices and bolster their trust.  

4. Relax your grip: A couple of years ago I read an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled, “The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector.” While the piece was full of useful insights for nonprofits, one that struck me as relevant to for-profits is that of brand democracy. The authors make a case for engaging “internal and external audiences in both defining and communicating the organization’s brand.”

In an era of social media, this couldn’t be more crucial. Relinquish your iron grip on image and message, and trust your audience to be a part of what you create. That could mean allowing people to contribute content around your brand or it could even mean letting them customize your product. If you show your customers that you believe in them enough to be a part of your brand, they’ll return that trust.

5. Be your best you: If your company’s “inside voice” (what the culture of the place feels like to employees) is out of alignment with its “outside voice,” there will always be something insincere about your brand. It may take time for consumers to sense it, but they will.

With many nonprofits, there’s little difference between cultural personality and brand personality. Learn from that. Your company’s cultural personality may not seem as clever or polished as you imagine marketing is supposed to be, but at least it’s honest. And that’s a pretty good thing to build any brand on.

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