Brand messaging that guides more than communications [case study]

Mar 30, 2023

When I develop brand messaging for nonprofits, I always examine their vision, mission, values, and priorities — because the brand must align with an organization’s strategic focus and direction. But for my client AlphaPlus, the process has come full circle: the brand we developed three years ago informs strategic business decisions today.

“Our brand messaging has helped us to express what we’re doing and why and be more consistent with internal management,” explains Alan Cherwinski, the Executive Director of AlphaPlus. “It has guided our direction, reduced duplication, and made it easier to communicate with key stakeholders — including funders, decision-makers and our board —about where we’re spending time and money.”

My work with AlphaPlus (an organization that helps Ontario adult literacy education professionals incorporate digital technology into their work) started in 2020 with a communications audit. The audit revealed areas of strength, including a relatively new strategic plan, visual identity and a team approach to communications. It also revealed several opportunities to optimize communications, including the following:

  • Aligning communications with organizational strategy
  • Defining a brand messaging platform and clarified audiences
  • Improving digital communications
  • Clarifying communications roles and responsibilities

Defining brand messaging in alignment with organizational strategy

Cover of AlphaPlus brand messaging guide

During the discovery phase of this project, we built on the SWOT analysis and audience prioritization that we had begun during the audit. We delved deeper into the organization’s strategic priorities, operations, audiences, identity and positioning through group consultations and stakeholder interviews.

I used a collaborative, iterative process to distill the information gleaned during discovery to develop the following elements:

  • Audience personas: Profiles of four priority audiences, including psychographics, contexts, information needs, and relationships with AlphaPlus.
  • Brand positioning: “AlphaPlus is Ontario’s leader and guide to incorporating digital technology in adult literacy education, building capacity throughout the province.”
  • Brand personality: “Intelligent, Helpful, Creative.”
  • Key messages: See the full suite of AlphaPlus key messages — and their relationship to the brand positioning — in the article Nonprofit key messages (or brand narrative): the basics.

Rolling out the messaging platform: website, editorial planning and more

Because the communications audit had revealed a need to overhaul the website and email newsletter content, we immediately used the brand messaging platform to guide these changes:

Communicating the brand through website content

We started with a website content strategy informed by the newly defined audiences and messaging, making decisions about the role of the website in the AlphaPlus communications mix. We determined objectives and calls to action for the site, and from there, we established the content required to address audience needs and the organization’s business objectives. By the end of this process, it was clear that AlphaPlus needed more than updated content: they needed to redesign their website. The website content strategy laid out the plan for doing this work.

Delivering the brand narrative via email newsletters

In the communications audit report, I had recommended increasing the email newsletter frequency from quarterly to monthly. Using the newly defined suite of key messages combined with a decision to focus on a single AlphaPlus audience, we were able to shape an editorial calendar for a monthly newsletter that delivers the organization’s key messages (or brand narrative) over time.

We started implementing AlphaPlus’ brand messaging platform with these two big projects. However, the team also started rolling it out when delivering day-to-day marketing communications.

“The key messages inform anyone writing copy: it’s a central guide that helps us to understand how to create ongoing messaging, strategies and campaigns. On our website and in our editorial calendar, we think about opportunities to put central ideas in front of our audiences,” says Alan. “In terms of overall positioning, we had already been working hard to be recognized for our leadership role in the adult literacy sector. The audiences and key messages have helped us speak more publicly about our role and know what to say when speaking on behalf of the sector.”


Note: The process I worked through with AlphaPlus (audit > brand messaging > website content > storytelling) reflects my recommended stepwise approach to building communications fundamentals.


Ongoing use of the messaging platform: informing business strategy and programmatic focus

Alan explains how the brand messaging platform has had impacts beyond marketing communications; because the brand is an extension of organizational strategy, it has now become a reference for helping to keep business decisions on track.

“In some ways, thinking from a communications point of view has made it easier to make decisions about business strategy. Clarifying our core audiences has given us a new lens through which to look at where we spend time and money. Internalizing the audience segments has helped the team think about the scalability or demand for a program or service and evaluate opportunities and whether they hit.

We also consider what we want people to know about us — our key messages — and what we must do. In terms of our overarching goals, we rotate through the messages to give us a focus for specific periods.”

Stronger brand messaging has led to enhanced communications capacity.

Since the audit and brand development in 2020, I’ve continued to work with AlphaPlus, advising in areas such as editorial and communications planning. They are a lean team with no dedicated communications staff, so I also provide writing support, including web copywriting (for the new website) and ongoing story development.

Individual AlphaPlus team members are still heavily involved in communications implementation, taking a team approach of distributed responsibilities. The audience personas and brand messaging framework help reduce the burden of creative and content decisions. We started with brand messaging, but the result has been an ongoing process of strengthening capacity and ensuring alignment between communications and business strategy.

“The value of working through this exercise has been proven by the longevity of the platform we created together. We haven’t had to throw out bits or go back to the drawing board; the brand messaging has been tested over time, which speaks to the quality of the work,” says Alan. “Beyond developing our brand messaging, Marlene has done a great deal of coaching and personal capacity building across the whole team, and I think of her as our communications coach or mentor.”

Would you like to work with me to develop your nonprofit’s brand messaging platform? Review my brand messaging package details and get in touch.

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