Unless not-for-profit organisations develop strong, desirable brands, they will fail in the face of growing for-profit competition, writes John Carroll strategist and joint CEO of Omnicare Alliance Ltd.
The line is blurring between not for profits and for-profits. The number of commercial businesses playing in what, not that long ago, was primarily the realm of government or donor-funded NFPs, is growing fast. They smell potential profit. That’s the brutal truth.
The smarter for-profits are starting to recognise that their brands need to be seen as more community minded if they want to remain attractive to consumers. So position jostling in the new-look human services marketplace has begun in earnest. And the only real difference now between NFPs and FPs is that NFPs can’t distribute profits to shareholders.
I know, I know… I used the “P” word in conjunction with the NFP word. The point is, without reasonable profits – call them “surpluses” if it makes you feel better, but I think the sooner we stop hiding behind window-dressed terminology, the better – how will NFPs fund the growth required to compete against the “big boys”? And how will they afford the level of salaries necessary to attract the professional staff they need to produce, promote and deliver high quality products and services in the new open-market environment?
You simply can’t sustainably run a worthwhile charity or service organisation on the smell of an oily government rag any more. Profitability and non-government funding, perhaps through social enterprises, is the new imperative for NFPs.
But what will cause the downfall of many NFPs goes way beyond funding alone. Unless they can develop strong, desirable brands, NFPs will fail in the face of competition, often competition that can throw serious money at winning consumers by their sheer presence in the market.
And that raises an issue that many appear to be overlooking: developing strong brands requires good leadership. I’m referring to real leadership, not management dressed up as leadership. I’m talking about genuine, caring leaders who understand that, as Tony Robbins puts it, “True leaders don’t create followers. They create more leaders.”
If NFPs can find, nurture and develop real leaders at all levels, they just may be able to steal a brand-driven march on some of the competition. Commercial businesses still have to woo their shareholders. NFPs don’t. If NFPs can be smart about the way they structure their business models, and can steer clear of moving from over-dependence on government funding to over-dependence on public donations, they don’t have to woo any type of investor other than their customers. And doing that is dependent on developing strong brands.
What Builds Strong Brands?
People do. And good leaders do.
Brand and people development go hand in hand for all organisations, but nowhere more so than in the human services industry. In that industry it’s the relationship between your service staff and the customer that is your brand. That’s because a brand is all about perceptions and emotions, how people feel. How you’re perceived, the feelings you generate in the marketplace, is what will set you apart from the competition and will either gain or lose you customers.
A brand is not so much about logos and colours as it is about the people who deliver it. It’s not that hard to get a design agency to create nice looking stuff for your products and services and to put out ads intended to sell what you do. But it’s all a waste of money and effort if your customers have a bad experience with your people.
And that’s why real leadership is crucial to brand development and ultimately to survival for NFPs.
Brand Culture – Aligning Leadership, Your People and Your Brand
As Simon Sinek so succinctly puts it: “People don’t buy what, they buy why”. Nowhere is that more true than in human services and NFPs generally.
To succeed long term, an NFP brand needs to deliver on a clear, strong set of values and real meaning. So do its staff. If the staff don’t deliver on the brand values and brand promise, the brand is a fake. And consumers can smell it these days.
So how do you do align your staff with your brand values? Through a shared sense of purpose – personal and organisational – and the development of a genuine, values-driven corporate culture.
Often overlooked is the fact that brand image is just as important, if not more important, internally as externally. Your brand heavily influences your corporate culture and vice versa. I call this “brand culture”.
To develop a healthy brand culture, you have to create the right environment inside the organisation for a strong sense of shared purpose and values to develop in alignment with your brand image. You have to have a very clear people philosophy, a very clear brand philosophy, and a working environment that melds the two. That takes genuine leadership throughout the organisation.
Underpinning the concept of brand culture is a simple philosophy: develop your people fantastically well in here and they’ll develop your brand fantastically well out there. For that to happen, your leaders at all levels must understand that their most crucial role is to support and develop the people who report to them so they’re willing, able and excited to deliver your brand exceptionally well to those in need.
So do you and your leaders truly believe in people? If not, perhaps you should consider some training and personal development to change that. If you can’t shape up, it’s likely the marketplace will ship your brand – and you with it – out. Sorry, but that’s the brutal truth.
About the author: John Carroll is a leadership, brand and business strategist. He is joint CEO of Omnicare Alliance Ltd, where he is helping lead the organisation through a series of major changes in the human services environment. He is also an engaging speaker and the author of Purposeful: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Clear Direction in a Chaotic World.