The Difference Between Branding and Marketing: A Nonprofit’s Introduction

5 min
lit up brands logos on screen
Robert Carnes

Among the buzzwords of nonprofit marketing, two that get used nearly ad nauseum are branding and marketing. They’re often used interchangeably, but they should be viewed as two different, but complementary concepts. 

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between branding and marketing, or determine how exactly they should be used together. However, making this distinction is important for any nonprofit professional hoping to clearly communicate a message to a target audience. 

Here’s an overview of the key differences between marketing and branding, along with how you can leverage both at your nonprofit.

Branding Is Perception, Marketing Is Promotion

Branding is how people see your organization. Marketing influences that perception.

While your nonprofit’s branding includes specific visual elements, branding as a whole is more than just a logo. It’s how people feel and respond when they encounter any of your brand elements. Branding is the collective perception that your audience has from every interaction they experience with your organization.

Marketing is your nonprofit’s activity to influence that brand perception. Marketing involves all of your efforts through various channels to grab and hold people’s attention. It’s ultimately your brand, however, into which these efforts are feeding.

Effective marketing gets people in the door. Solid branding keeps them inside.

For example, marketing is the email series you send out that informs people of your nonprofit’s latest updates or campaigns. Branding is how you sound in that email and how people see themselves in relation to your organization when they take action on your behalf. 

For instance, let’s say you’ve branded your recurring giving program and choose to call your recurring donors “Dream Builders.” That specific branding and naming influence the way supporters feel about becoming monthly donors and their impact on your work. 

Most marketers understand the importance of branding, with 89% saying brand awareness is their top goal. Heightened awareness makes all of your marketing efforts even easier.

After all, people are loyal to good brands, not marketing campaigns. We relate to identities that we understand and appreciate, not marketing tactics. However, your nonprofit can build brand loyalty through well-executed marketing efforts.

Download Now: The Nonprofit’s Digital Marketing Checklist

Branding Is Who You Are, Marketing Is How Your Brand Can Help

Branding is an exercise in clarifying your nonprofit’s identity and voice. Your brand should tell people who your organization is. The more clearly this comes across, the stronger your brand is.

Clarity is crucial, both internally and externally. Ninety-five percent of companies have a formal brand guide, but only a quarter of them actually enforce their guidelines. 

Consistency is also key for branding. The main thing inconsistent branding does for any organization is create confusion, which only makes your marketing more challenging. Studies show that brand consistency can lead to an estimated revenue increase of 33%.

Your audience cares about what a brand stands for. Most donors and volunteers want a brand to be authentic (86%), trustworthy (81%), transparent (94%), and to share their values (77%). Only a cohesive marketing strategy can express all of that effectively.

In his book This Is Marketing, Seth Godin defines marketing as “the generous act of helping someone solve a problem.” Effective nonprofit marketing serves others by demonstrating how your organization helps them and the larger community.

It’s tempting to simply think about marketing as sending out emails and posting to social media. But seeing these marketing channels as an act of service and a way to build your brand shows their true value. Use marketing to express how your brand helps people.

Read Next: What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Marketing

Which Comes First: Branding or Marketing?

This is a classic chicken-egg question. Can you market until you’ve built a brand? Or can you truly have a brand until after you’ve marketed it? You should build both simultaneously. Your branding and marketing tactics should remain fluid and change in coordination with each other.

If you do have to start somewhere, it’s usually best to focus on branding first. Think about how you want people to think about your organization. Imagine some experiences or emotions they’ll have when engaging with you. Then work backwards to intentionally develop these in your audience. 

Begin with defining the big picture for your nonprofit’s brand. Revisit your mission and vision statements. Collect your brand assets into a formal brand guide if you haven’t already. Create best practices around your brand voice and tone. Take time to get clear on your branding details.

Then move to some of the specific marketing tactics. Make sure your brand visuals and tone are being carried out through all of your marketing channels, including your website and social media. Determine the right channels on which your brand should create and maintain a presence to engage supporters. 

Branding Is Long-Term, Marketing Is Short-Term

There’s potentially another reason to start with branding first. Branding is typically a more long-term endeavor, as compared to marketing. It takes more time to establish brand recognition and loyalty. Brands change, but they should do so slowly.

On the other hand, marketing campaigns and tactics are more short-term deliverables. Your nonprofit should be intentional with all of your marketing efforts, but you should also constantly measure, reevaluate, and adjust these methods based on what is or isn’t working.

Think about your marketing as the methods to fulfill your brand vision. You may have to take several different routes over time, but ultimately your destination remains the same.

Both branding and marketing require perseverance. Studies show that it takes 5 to 7 marketing interactions before someone remembers a brand. So it helps to focus on growing the long-term value of a donor or volunteer over time. After all, about 68% of consumers report repeat purchases (or donations in the case of nonprofits) as a behavior driven by brand loyalty.

One example of how your marketing and giving experience affects your long-term brand image is through the online giving experience you provide. According to the Why America Gives 2019 report, nearly all generations of donors indicated they would have less trust in an organization if they couldn’t donate easily online or through mobile devices. This emphasizes the importance for nonprofits to provide a seamless online giving experience as part of the touchpoints they provide.

Download Now: Why America Gives 2019

Measuring Branding and Marketing Success

One way to make branding a long-term commitment at your organization is to actively measure it. While many organizations measure marketing success, only 48% of marketers measure branding-related metrics

Find ways to track brand loyalty to show how you’re making progress overtime. One to do this is through a net-promoter score survey to your audience. Plan on sending out at least one survey per year to your community to see what they think about your organization and their experience donating or participating in your campaigns. Ask only a few questions, especially whether or not they’d recommend donating or participating to a friend or family member.

You can also use digital tools like Mention or Social Mention to track your online brand sentiment and see what people are saying about your brand. Create Google Alerts for your organization name (and key leadership) in case they’re mentioned anywhere online.

Take time to review these brand measurements alongside your marketing numbers. Look at how an increase of social media followers may have actually impacted your online perception. A larger email list isn’t likely worth as much if the new audience members have a negative perception of your brand. 

The other benefit of measuring your branding efforts means you can also adjust and review your marketing tactics as you try and influence your brand reputation.

Using Branding and Marketing at Your Nonprofit

Balancing branding and marketing is a tricky act for all organizations. However, the task becomes easier when you begin thinking of these two concepts together. Understanding the relationship between the branding and marketing makes this more manageable. 

Never lose sight of the clear branding goals that you’re diving toward. These will help continue steering your nonprofit’s marketing efforts in the right direction well into the future.


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