Narrowing down your nonprofit’s brand personality

Are you developing a brand platform for your organization, including a brand personality? Articulating a strong brand personality is important as it will serve as a guide for the voice, tone and visual style of your organization’s communications – but too many traits will create more confusion than clarity. Narrowing down a nonprofit brand personality to a meaningful number of attributes will help you to develop a useful brand.

A strong brand personality is important, but too many traits create more confusion than clarity. #NPMC Click To Tweet

Tips for narrowing down a nonprofit brand personality

Establishing a list of your brand’s personality attributes (just one step of several in developing or revising a brand) generally involves research and a good dose of stakeholder consultation. This research and discussion are essential for unearthing common themes and broad ideas about brand personality traits.

But your initial list of attributes will need to be assessed – and finessed. For example, after an initial round of consultation with key stakeholders in one branding project, our list of personality attributes looked something like this:

  • Approachable
  • Supportive
  • Professional
  • Skilled
  • Credible
  • Knowledgeable
  • Bold
  • Welcoming
  • Optimistic
  • Flexible
  • Nimble
  • Vibrant
  • Inclusive

This list is too long to be meaningful; it’s certainly too long to guide the voice, tone and design of future communications.

So how did we get to a shortlist of brand personality attributes that are useful? In this post, I share my approach to narrowing down a nonprofit’s brand personality, hoping that they will help you.

Note: I love writing step-by-step posts to guide you through a process, but this type of work is very nuanced and iterative. Think of the following tips as points to consider, test out, and re-visit throughout your creative process.

1. Select only words that would describe a person

Remember that giving your brand a personality means thinking about it as a person. But you might see words that aren’t personality attributes, such as “intentional,” “emerging” or “transformational” enter into the mix. Would you use words like these to describe a person?

Looking at the sample list above, we recognized that we wouldn’t use words like “vibrant” or “inclusive” – or even “nimble” to describe a person. But we didn’t want to eliminate them; instead, we made sure to convey their meaning with other words (more on that below).

Related note: There is a difference between your nonprofit’s brand personality and your organizational values. Stakeholders who are less familiar with the idea of branding and brand personalities may provide words that make more sense in your values statement. That’s okay! You can use them to help guide your selection of personality attributes.

2. Streamline duplicate or overlapping ideas

When narrowing down a nonprofit brand personality, look for opportunities to streamline duplicate attributes or overlapping ideas.

Looking at the list above, while “vibrant” may not quite work as a personality attribute, you might feel that the idea is covered by “bold.” Likewise, “inclusive” might be covered by “warm” or “welcoming.”

Make sure the personality you’re creating is multi-dimensional, not flat #nonprofit #branding #NPMC Click To Tweet

3. Make sure the personality you’re creating is multi-dimensional

You need to ensure that your brand personality covers multiple dimensions. For example, avoid using overlapping traits such as “happy,” “friendly,” and “open.” When I came up against this challenge in the past, I went off in search of a framework for ensuring a multi-dimensional personality, which led me to a few academic papers and three useful models.

Aakers’ Five Dimensions of Brand Personality

A commonly referenced model is Jennifer Aakers’ Five Dimensions of Brand Personality:


Note: this paper seems to be often cited (or plagiarized without citation) but misquoted or misrepresented. The link I’ve provided will take you to the actual paper so that you can read the original.

I discovered the next two models in a research paper about brand personalities of nonprofit organizations in Sweden, so they don’t come from the primary sources. Still, I have found them to be very useful.

Four dimensions of brand personality for the nonprofit sector by Venable et al


A three-dimensional model of brand personality for the nonprofit sector by Voeth and Herbst

Social competence and trust
Emotion and Assertiveness

To better understand each of these models and dimensions, follow the links to research papers.

You can use the dimensions in these models to group your long list of personality attributes – you can pick one model or play around with a combination. I find it helpful to play with groupings using all three models, looking at the list of personality attributes from different perspectives.

Note: This is also an excellent time to evaluate and select a balance of personality traits that are currently accurate, with those that are aspirational.

Play around with the groupings to prioritize and assess your list of traits, because at most, you should be selecting one attribute from each group – which brings us to the next point.

4. Aim for a maximum of three attributes

In one of my favourite branding books, Building Better Brands, Scott Lerman provides this advice about narrowing your brand personality down to three attributes, which he calls character traits:

“While there are many ways to define character, I recommend choosing three traits. Why three? It forces you to make hard and precise choices. Three carefully chosen traits will allow you to foster consistent behaviour without writing endless rules…”

“…it forces you to make hard choices. No endless lists that everyone can agree to but no one uses. Three words are memorable and actionable. And three traits are enough to express a complex character. Get them just right and everyone will see the true nature of the organization in an elegant triad.”

5. Ensure that your brand personality fits into your overall strategy

As you reflect upon and make tough choices in the process of narrowing down your brand personality, keep in mind that it needs to work together with your positioning statement (check out Sarah Durham’s post on the Big Duck blog that explains brand positioning and personality). And your brand personality also needs to make good business sense, as David Aaker (Jennifer Aaker’s father) explains in his post, How to Identify Your Brand Personality:

“First, the personality should have a role in advancing the business strategy and the brand. You don’t want to have a personality just to have one. Second, the personality should appear authentic and not contrived. It should be backed up with substance in the form of value propositions and customer experience. And finally, there should be programs in place that will bring the personality to life so that it will not be an empty aspiration.”

Narrowing down a nonprofit brand personality for a stronger brand

Updating and refining your brand personality is not a stand-alone activity. You should develop your personality as part of an overall branding or rebranding process – which I believe starts with a messaging framework.

However, if your current brand personality is too long to be useful, or if you don’t currently have a brand personality articulated, bookmark these points. When your nonprofit organization next undertakes a rebrand you’ll be ready to narrow down your personality attributes to a useful number.

Additional reading on brand personality:

Do you need my help with developing your nonprofit organization’s brand personality? If so, review my Branding through messaging package and get in touch with me.

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