A Conversation with Maria Ross author of Branding Basics

Posted on Aug 03, 2011

A Conversation with Maria Ross author of Branding Basics News Post Image

A Conversation with Maria Ross, Brand Strategist, Author, Speaker and Founder of Red Slice, LLC

Paul Skinner: Hi Maria and thanks for taking part in this interview to help our causes improve their marketing! Could you start by telling us what led you to write your book, “Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget”?

Maria Ross: So many reasons! In my work as a brand strategist and consultant, I see so many businesspeople and executive leaders who gravely misunderstand what brand means or how it impacts the bottom line. Brand is more than just pretty pictures or a logo. It is reputation. It’s the promise you make to customers and you need to communicate that consistently across visual, verbal and experiential elements. Good branding helps make sales easier and makes people contribute to your cause. I work with entrepreneurs and small to midsize growth companies on how to clarify, articulate and consistently represent a clear brand story in everything they do. And in doing so, I kept turning to the same key ten questions to get to the heart of the brand message. I decided to write this book to help educate on what brand is and why it matters and for those who simply wanted some guidance on how to craft their brand strategy on their own.

What do you believe are the main benefits to come from that kind of brand development approach for non-profits – and given that a lot of non-profits have extremely tight budgets – how well do you believe the sector is placed to achieve more with less?

Many non-profits are like scrappy small businesses: they try to do more with less. So your limited marketing actions have to be extremely effective. If you spend the time thinking through and clearly articulating your mission, benefits, target donor, value and personality – the essential ingredients of a fully-baked brand strategy - before going off and investing in a lot of random tactics, the brand will serve as a guidepost for making the right decisions and avoiding the wrong ones. You can ask, “Is that the best tactic for our message, our image or our desired audience?” If you don’t have a brand strategy in place, it’s hard to answer those questions wisely. For example, if most of your best donors don’t use Twitter, should you really be spending time and money in a robust Twitter account?

Once the brand is clarified, it can then be conveyed consistently at every customer touchpoint, which helps you be more streamlined and efficient. Everyone involved and everything you do makes the same promise and tells the same story. Therefore you can pack more punch with less activity. Consistency helps you stay memorable and stand out in a sea of information and marketing – and will save you from getting confused with other non-profits.

But brand also helps attract the right audience to your cause with much more ease. If you clearly and consistently communicate the right story in the right place, you not have to work as hard – or spend as much money – building a loyal base of supporters. They will be attracted to you.

For example, the ASPCA http://www.aspca.org/ portrays a consistent brand visually so you always know you are getting communications from that group. That signature orange and gray, stylized font and use of imagery is hard to miss. This makes their message pack extra punch because now they become memorable across all media. In addition, their verbal story is encapsulated well in their tagline: We Are Their Voice. You know immediately that the animal itself is at the center of their cause, and that humans are required to stand up and speak for them. This translates into the stories on their website and in their newsletter: they always take the angle of how animals benefit from human actions.

Pimp My Cause is all about scaling up the pro bono model of professional volunteering and applying it to marketing. Could you tell us about some of your own personal experience applying your ideas to non-profits as a pro bono marketer?

I have helped develop brand strategies for a few non-profits, most recently for the Seattle Animal Shelter Foundation here in Seattle, Washington, USA. In all my projects, I’ve polled all the various stakeholders for their brand impressions, the target donor profile, the organization’s mission, etc. and I’m able to bring the disparate opinions together to form one cohesive strategy that then gets communicated out in everything they do. It’s like all guns firing in the same direction rather than scattershot! For example, with the Seattle Animal Shelter Foundation, we discussed the organization’s “personality” and which other non-profits they wanted to emulate – or avoid like the plague! We also created Ideal Donor Profiles that help guide their marketing activities. Once everyone is on the same page, you can all steer the ship more quickly in the right direction!

Well Maria, this is the part of the interview where we put you on the spot and ask you to apply your thinking to one of the non-profits listed on Pimp My Cause, so which cause would you like to choose and why?

I’ve chosen The RSPCA Stafford, Wolverhampton & District Branch. Naturally! I’m a huge dog lover and animal advocate.

We are big fans of the RSPCA and in particular of that regional branch – and I believe that one of our volunteers has helped them develop a new digital strategy that they will soon be implementing. Based on their current profile however, how would you advise them to further develop their brand?

Providing effective branding advice relies on more than a gut scan of someone’s logo or website. A good brand consultant would first need to understand their goals, vision and target donors first. However, without that background, at a high level, I’d recommend they bring their visual look and feel up to date. It feels very dated, cutesy and cartoonish – is that what appeals to their ideal donor? It could be. By simply adjusting to a more polished font, donors who are not familiar with their great work already can rest assured that they are professional, good stewards of funds and run an efficient operation.

In addition, while this might not be possible for this organization, ideally it would be worth opening a discussion around a possible logo change to something more evocative or emotional. Right now, I hate to say it but gives the impression of a security company: very cold and corporate-like. With cause-related organizations, your visual imagery needs to connect using color, shape and even the right font choice. They could “warm up their logo” with a better design that more fully communicates their mission – and appeals to the type of donor they’d like to attract.

These changes would be easy for a pro-bono designer to do for them, provided they first sit down and really articulate their core value and outline their ideal donor.

From a brand messaging standpoint, I’d have them think about the three main benefits someone gets from being involved with or helping their organization and how they can back up those benefits – statistics, innovative programs, number or adoptions done each year, any recognition or press they have received. Right now, the website just asks me to do a lot of things without telling me why I should. Take the “customer” point of view. Why should I adopt? Why should I adopt from you? Why should I volunteer? What kind of difference can I make? Then I’d rewrite the copy to focus more on providing proof points and a compelling reason to get involved. I hope that helps them do even more to help animals!


Sign up to our newsletter