Branding is belief. Branding is also action.

Last year, I led a series of brand training workshops for the nonprofit where I worked and I began each workshop with a personal story, which I called: The tale of my two YMCAs.

A bit of background: the organization had recently refreshed and updated the language and visuals of the brand identity, so I was training based on a 3.0 version of the organizational brand, considered more of a “refresh” or an “extension” of the brand than a re-do. We designed the training sessions to introduce board and staff members to the new content and give them the opportunity to practice being brand ambassadors in multiple possible scenarios.

Here is the story I told:

At that time, I belonged to two YMCAs: one near my home, in Silicon Valley and the other in San Francisco, where I worked. For reasons having to do with my tortuous commute to the city (and my need to get exercise out of the way in the mornings, or else it won’t happen), I often worked out in the early weekday mornings at the San Francisco YMCA. I also maintained a presence at the YMCA near home, owing to relationships with great instructors and my family’s ongoing membership there.

Once I started exercising at the SF YMCA, the differences between the two YMCAs were immediately apparent. The Silicon Valley YMCA is a gorgeous facility—wide-open, spacious, with some terrific classes and instructors. But administratively, this facility has always struggled: my family got to know teachers and camp counselors there and we have gotten numerous reports of a troubled administration. And accessing basic services, like registering for classes, or even finding clean towels, is an ongoing challenge.

The San Francisco YMCA? Completely different. The front-desk staff there learned my name immediately and always greeted me when I walked in and wished me well when I walked out. Any classes I took there, the instructors remembered my name thereafter. Basic services were never an issue and staff and volunteers were, without fail, always ready and willing to help with questions.

Both YMCAs regularly pitched me for donations; guess which one I gave to? Yes, of course: the San Francisco YMCA, and I remember the very first pitch vividly. One of the volunteer instructors for a spin class announced the start of the annual giving campaign and urged us all to give. He bluntly told us that the campaign was not for us to have better exercise options; those, we should take for granted, as part of our membership benefits. No, the giving campaign was about something more: the really important and amazing afterschool and summer programs sponsored by the YMCA for young people, which were an essential part of the YMCA’s mission and values and responsibility to the surrounding community. So the instructor’s pitch was essentially: don’t just come here to exercise. Be a part of our community. Support something bigger and more important than yourself.

That instructor delivered a hella successful pitch for the SF YMCA’s campaign. But it was made even more successful because those messages were echoed and amplified in multiple ways from other staff and volunteers at that YMCA. And the brand messages were reinforced by a strong foundation of consistent and friendly membership service. In other words, the San Francisco YMCA didn’t just have a brand and a mission: the people there delivered on their brand and mission. I am sure that my home YMCA has a worthy mission and set of values—but where they fall short, in their constant struggles with administration and basic services, is in the delivery and execution of their brand promise.

I firmly believe that successful branding is mostly about the execution, and not about the quality of the brand itself. It reminds me, of course, of that old saying, first shared with me by a CEO when I was just at the beginning of my career: “Success is 2% strategy, 98% execution.” When it comes to an organization’s brand, a gorgeous visual treatment and compelling words about your vision, your mission, and your values will only get you so far. What matters even more, and what is often overlooked by most organizations, is how effectively the organization’s communications and the people working there are conveying the brand promise—day to day, month to month, year to year.

Why do I keep on calling it a brand “promise”? Because in essence, that’s what a brand really is: a promise to supporters, customers, partners, and other audiences that the organization is what they represent themselves to be, and they will do what they say they are going to do. A brand promise is a living, breathing enterprise—the promise needs to be upheld in every possible way. It is very difficult, for example, for United Airlines to promise superior customer service when they become notorious for dragging customers off flights and violating rules for pet safety. It is not fair, but it is inevitable, that people forget about the thousands and thousands of loyal, hard-working employees who are faithfully working to deliver on United’s brand promise because the eff-ups are so major and glaring.

Most of the organizations where I’ve worked have gone through some stage of thinking about their brand promise. Some of the reasons for these internal dialogues were pragmatic: for organizations that have to raise money to sustain operations and grow, having a clear brand identity is essential to marketing the organization and cultivating strong, lasting relationships with donors and supporters. But even organizations without natural competitors or ones that don’t have to sell a product—like, say, foundations—should care about their brands, because brand is pretty much everything when it comes to creating impact. Branding is the set of practices and beliefs that helps organizations spread the word about good work and important causes and products they want to sell. The more quickly organizations working in common cause can get aligned on values and mission (and also understand and mitigate for where the alignment does not exist), the more good quickly good things can happen.

However: in all of the branding work I’ve either led or been a part of, the work emphasis has always been on the front end or the back end, and not as much on the execution. What I mean is: I’ve worked with consultants to create, clarify, or refresh a brand identity for an organization. I’ve also worked with consultants to audit an organization’s communication activities to measure how well and consistently the organization is conveying the brand identity and determine whether awareness of the brand identity has gotten through to the target audiences. But outside of a corporate marketing context, where sales figures reign supreme, most organizations don’t seem to invest any energy in to the day-to-day execution of the brand promise.

It’s kind of like those interventions companies sponsor for people who want to live a healthier lifestyle, where employees can get a read-out on their health metrics and maybe get advice about nutrition and exercise, etc. Maybe some of them will follow the advice in the first few weeks, but many won’t. This is why personal trainers, regular classes, fitness apps, weight loss programs are such a lasting trend—many people need more than advice and information on how to live a healthier lifestyle, they also need structure and expert guidance to actually commit to a healthier lifestyle.

The same, I think, is true of committing to a brand promise. Once you’ve gotten your pretty visuals and stirring language from the consultants or creative, once the staff has all joined hands and re-affirmed what the organization’s mission and brand are really about….well, then, what next? Successful branding does not happen automatically, nor does it magically follow from the front end to the assessment. It can not be inferred, intuited, or divined. It is an active verb AND it is a state of being.

After almost twenty years of working in the nonprofit sector, I think that nonprofit organizations, in particular, need to really up their game when it comes to brand discipline and brand execution. Some will cry foul on this: nonprofits, after all, have mingy budgets in comparison with for-profit companies, so functions like brand strategy and brand execution are often the first to be deemed non-essential. Also, nonprofits simply have to respond to more urgent calls for action than for-profit companies do; staff have to respond to some of the most urgent and pressing social issues facing our country. But paying attention to brand execution is one of the best ways nonprofits can ensure the long-term sustainability they need to stay in the social change business. Executing well on brand strategy can also help staff stay connected to the mission on an ongoing basis.

So here is how I see an organization that is committed to living its brand, and not just having one:

  • The organization should have staff who are primarily responsible for leading on brand strategy. There are many job responsibilities that tend to show up in communication staff job descriptions as secondary, not primary functions: internal communications is an example of a whole set of job responsibilities often represented as just one thing to do, and brand strategy is another. You can and should make everyone responsible for brand strategy and execution, to some degree, but then you’re missing an opportunity to send a message of how important and central brand strategy is to the success of the organization.
  • Every staff should be empowered and supported to serve as a successful brand ambassador. Several jobs ago, I organized and led brand trainings for staff where I asked for all staff to be invited, including folks like the IT team and the front-desk receptionists and the facilities management staff. I got pushback from those department heads, who said: “These people are not in communications, they have nothing to do with brand.” It took me no time at all to inventory and list the numerous ways that these staff members interacted with partners and vendors and information-seekers about the organization, and how in almost every single one of these encounters, the staff member wanted to convey the organization’s brand—what we stood for, why our work mattered.
  • All staff should be able to deliver the brand promise. Staff should be able to articulate what the organization does and what are the core values. (I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked during a brand training, jokingly, “Will I be tested on this?” My first response is usually, I hope that this content becomes so natural and integrated into your work, you won’t need a test But if that’s what it would take to keep you on brand message, then yeah, I’ll test you, and also give you opportunities to practice and refresh your skills.) In addition, all staff—not just fundraising and communications staff—should be able to share what distinguishes their organization from others, and they should be able to share vivid stories and examples that bring the organization’s work to life. And if the organization truly has a commitment to all staff becoming brand ambassadors, that means that new staff coming on board need to be oriented to the brand, right away, and existing staff should have regular opportunities to refresh their skills.
  • I feel like this should go without saying, but if the organization has serious issues with its organizational culture – as evidenced by less-than-stellar employee survey ratings, lots of internal grumblings, and a lot of confusion about what the organization’s mission and values are—than successful execution on the organization’s brand identity is not going to happen. Satisfied, fulfilled employees make the best brand ambassadors. A positive organizational culture is the prerequisite for a successful brand, and in the best of circumstances, you can have a plan for how to execute intentionally and compellingly to make progress on both. I’m not saying that organizational cultures are easy fixes—in fact, I think the opposite—but I am saying that you won’t be able to make much headway on brand execution if your culture is seriously messed up.

So if your organization is in the hunt for brand success, as a means to engage more deeply with your audiences and partners and supporters, then pay as much attention to how you plan to live your brand promise as you would to the creation or updating of your strategy. Think about what it would actually look like and feel like, to deliver on that brand promise. Think about what the rewards would be in terms of organizational outcomes, including employee satisfaction. In other words, be your brand.