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Sharing the secrets behind “Brand of the Year”

This spring, Habitat for Humanity International—the group that oversees nearly 1,400 U.S. chapters and operates in more than 70 countries around the world—was once again named Brand of the Year in the social services nonprofit category based on the 2016 Harris Poll EquiTrend® Equity Score. It’s the second year in a row this 40-year-old nonprofit has received the honor. We talked with Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Chris Clarke about the importance of a strong brand, the award-winning work they’ve done to build it, and the challenges of keeping messages consistent, yet adaptable, in a federated model. Here’s what he told us:

I think Habitat for Humanity is so well known because of our local footprint: Habitat is in close to 1,400 communities across the U.S., and in 70 countries around the world, and our local presence is incredibly important. As a federated organization, we maintain committed to local leadership, local fundraising, and local impact. I think those factors work together to build a really strong bond in each community, with supporters, volunteers, and the people who live there.

One of our greatest strengths is our federated organization model, but it also presents some of our biggest challenges in terms of messaging and branding. Essentially, we are 1,400 different voices telling the same story, but each in our own way. Flexibility is important in being able to speak effectively to our own communities, but sometimes we make the mistake of focusing on what’s important to us, the organization, rather than the people we’re speaking to.

That’s why, two years ago, we conducted both qualitative and quantitative research about what aspects of our work resonate with our audience. We’ve found that in the “why” of Habitat: everyone needs a safe and decent place to call home in order to live, prosper, and grow, and that it simply isn’t attainable for some people without a little bit of help. People partner with Habitat to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter.  We’ve found that it’s best to lead with the “why,” and save the “how”— getting into the details all our various programs and how they work—for a later conversation. As experts in our field, we know a whole lot about housing and the impact it can have on families. But if we lead with the “how,” we risk going deep into the topic before our audience is ready to follow us.

We used qualitative research to identify the people who support philanthropy, either through money or time, and to understand their attitudes. We tried to determine from their input what drives them when choosing how to spend their time or disposable income. Our research informed our new brand platform, which we rolled out at the beginning of this year.

Something else we’ve learned to keep in mind is that we aren’t the audience. We can sometimes get tired of a phrase we use, and want to change it to keep things fresh. But we’re going to hear that message so many more times than our supporters will, and sometimes we risk changing a good message before the public has really had a chance to hear it.

Chris Clarke is senior vice president of marketing and communications at Habitat for Humanity International.
David Terraso is communications director at GCN.

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