CC Family 2

My wife and I took our three girls out for a holiday outing this week — a couple of hours at Cradles to Crayons, a Boston-based nonprofit that collects and distributes quality clothes to Massachusetts families in need.

I drive by the warehouse each day on the way to Hairpin but I had never set foot in the place. My oldest daughter, however, knew it well, having held her 13th birthday party there in the fall. She says it was “pretty cool,” which is high praise from a middle schooler. My expectations, however, are modest.

I checked out its pitch, from the organization’s website: “Cradles to Crayons collects new and nearly new children’s items through grassroots community drives and corporate donations. Donations are then processed and packaged by volunteers, and are distributed to disadvantaged children across the state through a collaborative network of social service agencies and school partners.”

The building is big and nondescript. The block is light industrial. Through the door, however, the space signals a warmth and sense of purpose that is both reassuring and fun. A sign-in table has preprinted name tags for every family member and the dozens of other volunteers for our same time slot. A volunteer coordinator guides us into the main work area, past photo walls of happy kids, local sports figures and Bill Clinton.

We join others on metal bleachers, painted Cradles to Crayons purple. A youthful staff member with a clipboard gives everyone a crisp briefing — relaxed but well-rehearsed — sending groups to various stations.

As a brand-obsessed communicator, I marvel at the thought that went into the space, the presentation, the signage, and even the piped music (Julie Andrews). The warehouse is clean and well-lit. “Street signs” pointing to the various sorting stations would fit in well at a Disney theme park. Staff members share a friendly, professional style and purple-apron look.

Cradles to Crayons understands that its brand is not the logo, or the color scheme, or its mission. Rather, it’s the experience. Every touch point is a brand signal, shaping our gut feeling about the organization. Cradles to Crayons is upbeat, can-do, fun and organized.

Our family is off to Shoes. I stand at a table taking an old toothbrush to the treads on a Size 13 kids snow boot. My twin daughters are doing similar work, chatting, smiling with their buddy who joined us. They’re thrilled — scrubbing used boots. That’s a neat trick.

One of the values driving Cradles to Crayons is the belief in dignity. The idea is that low-income children need self-respect as much as they need the warm coat. So, trashed used clothes and toys don’t make it past inspection.

Dignity is a value that informs how the organization treats the volunteers, too. We’re thanked often. We’re given guidance when needed but allowed to use our judgment.

Our two-hour session at Shoes speeds by, and we reconvene with other families and business co-workers for a debrief. A  guide consults her clipboard to thank each station group, and reports out the number of children helped by its work that morning. The simple detail gives each of us an understandable metric that quantifies our impact, while reinforcing the feeling that Cradles to Crayons cared about efficiency and effectiveness, not just charity.

We all leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Exactly what good brands do.

– Burt

CC Street Signs

CC Guide

CC Quality

CC Shoe Station


CC Benches

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Few people in the country have studied nonprofits brands as methodically as Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. I gained plenty of new insights when she presented some of her research insights on campus more than a year ago, and today I enjoyed hearing how she’s pulling it together nicely during a workshop for folks at this year’s Massachusetts Nonprofit Network (MNN) annual conference in Framingham.

Some of the takeaways from Nathalie’s session:

Brands are assets, and as such deserve cultivation, protection and investment. Paradoxically, brands may have value for an organization but are truly owned by customers and external stakeholders — something she admits is “very freaky.”

Everything has a brand, whether you think so or not. After all, a brand is an idea that lives in the minds of people outside your organization. People have a notion of you.

Brands play a critical role for nonprofits. Specifically, they set you apart;  offer a shortcut for decision-making; bring cohesion and (welcome) limits; elicit emotions, responses and action; and create trust and loyalty.

The highly performing nonprofit brands have three elements: integrity (an internal alignment between identity and image); democracy (that allows for stakeholders to shape and own the brand idea); and affinity (that welcome partnerships and collaboration).

Later in the day, Shaun Adamec provided a nice bookend with his workshop on storytelling. The former press secretary for Maryland’s governor, Shaun was well-versed in the art of using narrative to frame the issue at hand, and provided with simple but effective exercises to demonstrate. Some of my takeaways from his session:

The elements of a good story must include people (characters); a solution or resolution; and process (journey) to get from the first to the second.

In writing, we should give our audiences more metaphors, more imagery and more stories — and fewer facts and figures, fewer acronyms, and less wonk language.

Frame every conversation you start so you’re set up to succeed. He clearly is a fan of George Lakoff and the Frameworks Institute, as am I, and gave several examples of how frames work.

I was thrilled to see this year’s agenda feature both topics so prominently, and hope it reflects MNN’s belief in the importance of brand, storytelling and communication more broadly.

brand_idea_cover2Buy Nathalie’s book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy and Affinityhere. Visit Shaun’s company, Adamec Communications, online here.


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Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman (Allworth Press) features interviews with some 22 brand, design and identity thinkers. A thoroughly enjoyable beach read this week on Cape Cod, I was delighted by some of the tangents Millman took the conversations, pressing the ad hoc panel on the social role of brands and the business around them.

Many times, she asked for a definition of brands. I found the answers both confirming and provoking — and worth sharing:

Wally Olins, founder of Wold Olins:

Fundamentally branding is a profound manifestation of the human condition. It is about belonging: belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that sense of belonging. It has this function for both the people who are part of the same group and also for the people who don’t belong.

When branding moves into service, it becomes much more complex. From that point of view, a brand is a produce or service with a distinct personality. And that distinctive personality is what enables people to differentiate one brand from another.

Phil Duncan, Vice President and Global Design officer at Procter & Gamble:

A brand is something you have an unexplained, emotional connection to. A brand gives you a sense of familiarity.

In earlier years, I thinking branding was a lot about a recognition and an attachment to a person that you aspired to or held up on a pedestal…Now I think we’ve evolved, and brands now have the responsibility to enhance the communities in which they exist.

Brian Collins, formerly of Ogilvy & Mather, working on Dove, Motorola and Hershey’s:

The best brands embody mythic archetypes. They literally are stories. Nike is a great example. Nike calls on the goddess. She is not the goddess of sport, or sportsmanship, or of fair play, or achievement. Nike is the goddess of victory. Now, Nike — the brand — has done a remarkable job bringing the story to life.

Stories are how we give meaning to happens to us. When we call upon them, they activate archetypes — “archetypes” as defined by Carl Jung. They remind us of eternal truths, and they help us navigate through our lives.

Brian Duckworth of Turner Duckworth:

Branding is an experience, and advertising is a temptation. Branding leads to an ownership, one that has a touch-feely aspect to it. Advertising is more distant. It offers a promise, but it doesn’t actually give you the product. Whereas design is the part you pick up, the bit you touch, the bit you wear. People have a more intimate relationship with brands than they do with advertising.

Stanley Hainsworth, former Creative Director for Nike, and former Vice President Global Creative for Starbucks:

A brand is an entity that engenders an emotional connection with a consumer. Consumers emotionally connect with brands when the brands repeatedly provide something that the consumer wants, desires or needs.

I think the best brands are those that create something for consumers that they don’t even know they need yet.

Cheryl Swanson, president of Toniq and adviser to Pepsi, Kraft and Nestle:

A brand is a product with a compelling story — a brand offers quintessential qualities for which the consumer believes there is absolutely no substitute.

The brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture — about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help su figure out where we’re going. Brands have become time capsules, and in many ways, they’re now navigation and identity devices. They’ve transcended their transactional economic function and now reflect our culture and who are in a way that no other objects can.

Seth Godin, marketing author:

I believe that “brand” is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.

Sean Adams of AdamsMorioka:

I think the biggest misconception is that people typically think their logo is their brand, and they believe that if they redesign their logo, they’ve somehow managed their brand. The logo is irrelevant. The logo is a nice foundation, and it’s an identifier. But it’s not the brand.

The brand is not necessarily visual. It’s a promise of an experience.

Daniel Pink, author:

(A brand) is a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service, or if you engage in the experience.

You can buy Brand Thinking here.


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John Barros finished outside the top two last night in the preliminary election for Boston Mayor. He impressed voters, his opponents and the media with his ideas, energy and campaign style.

We take some solace that his campaign logo – created by Hairpin – came out on top, at least to the Boston Globe and the design experts the paper polled to evaluate the signs of all the candidates.

Edward Boches, a Boston University advertising professor, and Lindsay Kinkade, a graphic designer in Phoenix, both agreed the best-designed sign belonged to John.

His two-toned, blue and green background adds depth, Boches said in the article. “It’s modern and clear,” Kinkade said, “but more considered and beautiful.”

When we first met with our team, John came to us with a clear vision, about himself and for the city. This clarity, we thought, came through in the mark.

The blue in the logo was a personal reference to the Cape Verde flag and John’s family roots. The two tones of blue spoke to the candidate’s sophistication.

The tall letters remain readable yet differentiate the mark from what we anticipated to see from the rest of the pack, especially the san serif type popularized by the Obama campaign.

Hairpin first met John during a video shoot we produced for the Barr Foundation. (He was a recipient of the foundation’s well-regarded fellowship program.)

While John will not be moving on to the next stage of the mayoral election, he had his share of victories during the campaign. He received a laudatory endorsement from the Globe and praise from the Boston Herald.

We hope it’s not the last we hear from this promising candidate.


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I recall a story from the (good) times working at Fenton Communications in San Francisco. A colleague told me how his team got into a disagreement with a client, a California land trust nonprofit, over the colors for a new logo and visual identity.

The client’s board was dead set on green, blue or both. After all, they were environmental colors, right? Why were the consultants giving them an identity dressed in a lovely shade of magenta?

Then the Fenton staffer, prepared for the question, threw up a slide on the wall with the logos of all the other California land trust organizations, each one colored in hues of green and blue. The client got it.

The point of branding and, in part, all visual identities is to be remembered. How could prospective donors, the land trust’s target audience, keep everyone straight if they all looked alike, sounded alike, talked alike? They couldn’t.

I was reminded of this truth again during a pilgrimage to Shake Shack, the hot new hamburger-and-fries joint from New York. Boston’s first outpost just opened, so I found myself with family in tow and belt loosened waiting in a long line this past weekend. Shake Shack had attracted a cult of followers. I was curious.

I can report the food was, indeed, worth the wait. And unlike most competitors, they had a nice microbrew on tap. But what caught my eye was their visual branding work. Shake Shack’s signature color was a sort of lime green. Nice.


And best of all, it wasn’t red. Someone smart at marketing central at Shake Shack took the time to review the competition: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Five Guys, In-N-Out, Jack In The Box, Hardee’s, Sonic, Rally’s, Tasty Burger, Red Robin. All red, or mostly so.

I predict good things for Shake Shack.

For more on zig-zag thinking in branding, pick up a copy of Marty Neumeier’s “Zag.”

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We all live awash in information. Since the introduction of mass media – radio, television and now internet communication in all its forms – people receive thousands of messages a day.

Predictably, our minds are not wired for the onslaught and try to filter what’s valuable and what’s not. We seek cues to make this decision, quickly. This is the animating idea behind branding.

One advertiser calls brands sorting devices. They give someone a way to make a judgment when he or she doesn’t have time or energy to dig deep into the particulars. Consequently, a brand lives and dies on the trust that comes with it. “I trust Tide to work,” goes the thinking, “so I don’t have to research the ingredients and read the Consumer Reports article.” Some in our field refer to logos, a visual expression of a brand name, as a “trust mark.”

To foster trust, the best brands share four qualities:

  • Differentiate. They set the company, product or idea apart from peers.
  • Authentic. They are based in demonstrable truth.
  • Relevant. They speak to the desires of the target audience(s).
  • Simple. They convey these qualities in ways that are clear and memorable.

Brands live in the heads and hearts of people outside your nonprofit’s offices. They can’t be fully controlled, but they can be shaped. That work (brand-ing) is done through brand signals – everything from how you answer you phone to the words on your website to the quality of the services your group delivers.

Your nonprofit’s name is among your most powerful brand signals. If we chose it well, your new name will echo many of the same qualities of a good brand you hope to build in the minds of your target audiences: differentiating, authentic, relevant and simple.

In addition, your name should be:

  • Durable. Because we want equity in the name to grow, we don’t want to change it any time soon.
  • Visual. Because your target audiences may encounter the name only by seeing it online or in print, you want it to transfer well to a logo mark.
  • Verbal. Because your target audiences also may encounter the name only by hearing it as a recommendation or in conversation, you want it to memorable, understandable and convey desired emotions.
  • Audience-oriented. Because a name is for people outside your office doors, we want it to meet them where they are.
  • Internet-friendly. Because a online communications are so vital for your marketing efforts today, we want a name that’s easy for searching and intuitively connected to an available internet domain.

By evaluating nonprofit names against these criteria that I’ve become adverse to names that easily get collapsed down to acronyms. More often than not, these names are not audience-oriented since the acronym is rarely memorable, smacks of insider-lingo, and never carries any emotional resonance. Acronym names are extremely difficult to secure as domain names, too, unless you jumped on a domain years ago. And while the specific initials and their order may be unique, they can sit in memory as an alphabet soup jumble, not easily distinguishable.

Use of this criteria has helped us take aim at names with flabby, not essential words. Common culprits include “fund,” “foundation,” “committee,” and “project.” We successful argued, for example, that Virginia Organizing Project drop “Project.” Now the name (Virginia Organizing) has a nice punch, and the group eliminated the need for yet another acronym (formerly VOP).

A final word for now: Names can’t explain it all. The words you choose can suggest but they can never tell the whole story. Like a logo, a name’s job is to convey an essential idea quickly, and do it with some emotion behind it.

So what’s in your name?


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Batman and logos, two favorites better together:

Thanks and more here:
Logo Design Love
Todd’s Blog

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It certainly looked bad.

Last week, political watchers fully expected the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act. The country was about to go back to square one on healthcare.

Democrats seemed resigned to the loss, and the back-up plan seemed to consist solely of saving parts of the law.

Republicans had no plan. Which I later realized was exactly the plan.

So what should be the progressives’ play? After exhausting the least-bad options, return to what made sense from the start, of course: expanding Medicare to cover everyone.

Such a move — also known as Single Payer, referring to government’s role as the only payer to independent hospitals and doctors — was endorsed by President Obama when he was State Senator Obama. It was the favorite solution of President Truman and Sen. Edward Kennedy, too.

The Progressive Caucus in the House already signaled it was ready to present Single Payer as the alternative. But the corresponding bill, HR 676, only boasted about 80 cosponsors.

The grassroots activists championing Single Payer have been at it a long time, especially the doctors behind the Physicians for National Health Plan (PNHP). But none of them wield much clout in Washington — partly because they don’t involve themselves in the dirty business of raising and giving money away.

Normally, a three-piece ecosystem of nonprofits support successful campaigns, usually dominated by several 501(c)(3) educational nonprofits able to accept tax-deductible donations but limited in their ability to lobby; one or more 501(c)(4) nonprofits unable to accept tax-deductible donations but less limited in their political activity; and political committees that give money directly to the campaigns of candidates or get otherwise involved in elections.

But Single Payer lacked the third piece. So late last month, anticipating a court decision that could re-open the healthcare debate, Hairpin set out to create a political action committee. As we set to work, we tried to follow some of our own advice.

First, a name. We were well aware that “single payer” is a tad jargon-y. “Medicare for All” explains things well to a broader audience. But if we were to raise the hardest kind of money — political money that gives no tax benefits — we needed to speak to a more narrow, more dedicated audience. We bet that that audience will respond to “single payer.” Similarly, our second audience — members of Congress and their campaign staff — know the term. They would have no confusion as to what message was attached to the money. So we let our audience guide us.

Then we grabbed the Facebook and Twitter handles for “singlepayerpac,” and the website URL for the same. So we prioritized internet real estate.

Next, we got clear about our identity in words, starting with a single sentence that might appear in a news story or in our Facebook “about” block. We settled on one that both explained its purpose and the void its filled: “Single Payer PAC is the only political action committee focused on electing candidates who will champion an expansion of Medicare to cover everyone.” So, with the use of an “only” statement, we defined ourselves in a way that set us apart.

Fourth, we created a visual mark. True, we hadn’t raised a dime yet. And with only 48 hours before the court was to hand down its ruling, we hadn’t yet recruited impressive endorsers. All the more reason we needed to signal that we meant business. A professionally rendered logo, we knew, covers numerous sins.

Hairpin Senior Designer Aaron Bouvier took the lead, working off concepts from the group. The mark’s icon image plays off the familiar medical cross but combines the number 1 (as in single) and gives it a third dimension with a shadow — enough to make the point but simple enough to work from distance and in various sizes. It also filled a square space nicely, ideal as a Facebook and Twitter identity and meshing with our vision of an internet-powered organization.

He added a bold typeface, slightly tweaked, in Futura Bold for the full name and identity. We coupled it with a declarative tagline that, following the Supreme Court’s (expected) ruling, reminded audiences of one of Single Payer’s new assets: it’s legal.

Next, we created a national press list from Hairpin’s database service, culling it down to a tidy 700 reporters, bloggers and producers covering healthcare reform, the Supreme Court, U.S. politics and left-of-center activism. We drafted a pithy, one-page release.

With time running out, we succumbed to reality and used a pre-fab WordPress template. We chose “Reddle” by the folks at Automattic because it was super clean and browser responsive, so its look adapted automatically for viewing in smartphones, tablets and traditional computer screens. We added an email sign-up form from MailChimp and a PayPal button to accept donations. We loaded basic content, including the launch day news release, and pointed our newly minted URL to the site but hidden behind a password wall until the court’s announcement.

The announcement was unexpected. As everyone knows now, by a 5-4 vote, the court upheld the law. The political opening for single payer had, for the moment, closed.

So we never launched. But should the Affordable Care Act be repealed, we’ll have Single Payer PAC at the ready.

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The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence represents virtually all of the statewide coalitions in its field, yet suffered from low profile in Washington DC — troublesome, since the alliance is focused solely on federal legislation. To punch above its weight in a crowded marketplace of inside-the-beltway players, NAESV needed a fresh start.

The organization’s stakeholders needed to believe in the identity and help us shape it from the get-go. So Hairpin surveyed volunteers and allies, interview board members, studied their peers before any design. The identity had to follow bedrock principles of good branding: be authentic, be relevant to target audiences, be clear and above all, be different. Projecting the identity had to succeed within very real constraints for our client, since it operated within a limited budget, staff time and an environment that required cooperation among allied nonprofits.

We virtually banished the use of the group’s unmemorable acronym and focused on the name’s action words — “end sexual violence” — a mission statement and call-to-action in one. On a whim, we checked on the phrase’s availability as a URL and, surprisingly, it was available. We re-wrote the organization’s stock descriptor and elevator pitch to echo that language and cut out unnecessary detail. We designed a simple square mark built around the bumper-sticker phrase that formed a natural wedge while reflecting the activist, tenacious personality of the organization.

We embraced the color teal, adopted by the broader movement of anti-sexual violence activists as their official color — a nod to the organization’s desire for cross-organization solidarity. We took full advantage of the block design by creating a brochure and business card as squares. The website, too, melded the signature teal within a no-nonsense, black-and-white design.



Website set to launch in February 2012:

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Today is the first Food Day, a nifty new campaign to promote healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food. Great cause, but we especially appreciate the marketing touches, from the use of the imperative in the tagline — Eat Real —  to the attractive logo mark.

Even better: Hairpin BFFs Corporate Accountability International are making a nice tie-in with their efforts to get McDonald’s to stop marketing junk food to children. They’ve made it easy to celebrate Food Day by firing off a short note to McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner.


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