While the world has struggled with a global pandemic, brands have struggled to keep up. The struggle has been even more difficult for non-profits.
Our guest on a recent episode of CMO Convo, Aki Temiseva, CMO of non-profit Children Believe, has been leading the brand through these troubled times and made the bold decision to launch a rebrand. But how do you maintain a sense of empathy for both the people the brand helps and its supporters while everyone’s struggling? And what lessons can be taken away by both profit and non-profit brands?
Originally an episode of CMO Convo (which you can find right here), but read on for a write-up of what we discussed.
- Aki's background and approach to the CMO role
- The role of branding in non-profits
- Relaunching a brand in the middle of a pandemic
- The role of empathetic branding
- Lessons for-profit brands can take away from non-profits
- Planning ahead
- Golden rule for brand relaunches
Aki's background and approach to the CMO role
We're gonna be talking about some very relevant and interesting things which are about relaunching brands in the middle of COVID which has got to be a challenge. It's got to be a very unique set of circumstances for a brand relaunch, it's got to set you up for relaunches in the future in any kind of circumstances.
But before we get down to that, maybe we'll get into a bit of your professional background and your role as a CMO at Children Believe.
Sure. So yeah, for the first half of my career, I worked for the for-profit side of things, started my career with Procter and Gamble. All about brands, all about building strong brands, and always also learning about consumer needs and understanding why we're doing something. So I think I've carried that over.
About 20 years ago, I moved into not-for-profit and worked in mostly the international space, international development agencies, focusing mostly on children's rights, especially underprivileged children.
Worked in the UK in London for a long time, then moved on to the US for a bit and now the five last years in Canada, and now currently with Children Believe as the CMDO.
So this mixed background of profit and non-profit, do you think it gives you a certain philosophy with how you approach marketing, a different approach than somebody who might have only stuck with profit, or only stuck with non-profit? Does it give you the best of both worlds do you think?
Yeah, I do feel that there is a definite advantage I can draw on from that background, where you really learn to be very clear about who you are and why you are.
So where things are both based on facts and research, but also then a blend of when you'd need to bring in a gut feel in there. So I think that it's definitely a benefit of seeing the business from both sides.
Definitely. So what are the unique perspectives to being a non-profit CMO? Because a lot of our audience won't be familiar with the non-profit sector. What are the unique duties of being a CMO at a non-profit?
Sure. I'll come to one big difference in a second but I think the things that are similar, which I've carried, people take different things as marketers as their thing. One of the things I've said is let's keep it simple, focus on what is the core driving engine of whether it's a corporation, whether it's a brand, or whether it's an organization or not for profit.
Sometimes, we're all lured into the newest gimmicks and the newest different things going on in the world. I think we need to be aware of those and bring those to balance things. So you can't be stuck in the past. But really keeping it simple.
And then working with people, really empowering and understanding that you can't achieve things by yourself. Those are the things that for any good marketing plan, any good brand building, are absolutely essential.
The thing that's very different working in a for-profit, the kind of non-profit I'm working on, is we have two sets of customers. You've got the people who you want to buy your services, in our case to support your cause, and donate or volunteer their time.
But you also then have a business and in business terms taking care of the people who you're actually helping. So whereas in usual business, you produce products to one audience, you have a core model, and therefore in not-for-profit, I think the best way to build a business is to be a very good partner.
If you're working in brand and marketing be a very good partner with your program folks, the ones who design the programs you're doing. There's a bit of debate there always like, should the programs lead with the fundraiser that's happening? Or, it definitely shouldn't be the other way that the donors decide what we do.
I found in my experience when there's a perfect balance, that's the best, they should both inform each other. And if that relationship exists in an organization, a not-for-profit, then you can go and do great things.
The role of branding in non-profits
So what role does branding play in developing that balance?
I think in terms of brand, the brand really has to reflect what you do. It's the same thing in for-profit, as in not for profit. What you do at the field level is often very complex. So if you see programs or reports of what's the impact on the ground? For a normal, even for me, or just a donor who's not even working in this space, it's highly complex, you're like, "Okay, well, what are you really doing?"
What a brand does is brand actually simplifies the work you're doing and packages in a way where people can feel that there's a role for them to support that. And that's absolutely crucial to have clarity. There are some brands that don't have clarity or some brands that promise everything.
And I think, especially in this space where we're now with increased competition, if you're not very sharp and focused on what you do, and also brave enough not to try to be everything for everyone, I think those kinds of brands will really thrive and last.
Relaunching a brand in the middle of a pandemic
It's interesting you talk about bravery because it must have been a very brave decision to relaunch a brand in the middle of a global pandemic, particularly a charity brand. What necessitated a brand relaunch in such unstable circumstances, why do it now? Why not wait?
Great question. As you can imagine, there were some discussions there. Obviously, the discussions had started long before because it's not overnight that you feel that our brand is outdated, or it doesn't work anymore. So that's the first thing, my advice is you have to listen to whether what you do on the ground reflects anymore to your internal or external stakeholders, what you're actually doing.
And if there's a mismatch in that, and then secondly, it prohibits you from growing, those are two key criteria. So these discussions had happened prior to COVID and we were moving into the brand launch with the planning. The train had kind of left the station.
Yes, maybe most would have said it's not the best time, let's stop, let's come back later. But I think we felt confident we'd done the pre-work, and this was now the right move, and we didn't know what COVID would bring with it. But we felt that there was no going back. We just wanted to forge forward.
So what were the considerations you had to take into account when you were developing the brand relaunch? What did you look at first? What was the essence of the brand relaunch?
I think the first thing, as funny as it sounds in a way, counterintuitive, you're thinking you want to grow the brand, and you want to bring new supporters and new fans to your cause. But the first thing you have to look at is the existing supporters.
So in our organization, Children Believe we're lucky enough to have very loyal monthly donors, most of them quite comfortable with the old name and the old brand. And so you had to really first talk to them as soon as you started the process, understanding their needs, and then actually we frankly went out with them and said, "What if we called ourselves this? Would that be a problem?"
And that was quite a survey to be nervous about. If they'd said, "Yeah, horrible. We'll leave you the moment you do that" we probably wouldn't have done it. But it was a very, very small minority, there are always some people who feel very attached to what they're used to.
We said okay, the risk was minimal from that perspective but it was about communicating to them why we're doing this, what more goodness does it bring. So it wasn't only about making them be okay with it, but for them to embrace it. So we spent quite a lot of time ensuring that when we do transition, we take them with us.
Then from a branding perspective, that's where there's a real challenge when you're transferring your brand, which is quite different in terms of the aspirations and even the look and feel of the old brand, you still need to have all your existing customers, in our case, supporters donors, feel comfortable.
This is the organization I'm supporting and I've used to support for 10 years or 20 years. So in all of the even design, you were always thinking about, take, for example, one of our fundraising tools is a gift catalog. Some other organizations have it too, to buy gifts that their recipients can use in their countries.
So we said, okay, let's make sure the first edition in terms of layout and design, from a brand perspective, looks very much the same. You do have this transition where you can keep things as much as you can the same.
I think that's the first thing and then you look at also the markets and where's the opportunity? Where do you want to go? And how far you can stretch the brand, to think of the way forward? But you can't leave the people behind.
Speaking of the way forward in the current circumstances, how do you plan for a brand relaunch with everything that's been going on? How do you come up with a stable idea of 'this is how we're going to relaunch it, this is what we're going to do in the future, this is the next step' when you don't know what the situation is going to be in the next few months?
Yeah, I think the one thing that was probably evident for me and all of our colleagues is that you have to be very comfortable with the uncertainty. The trick, it's just a side comment, is to make sure your board supports the uncertainty, which is another whole different thing, of course, to begin with, you, yourself have to be comfortable with that.
So the way we really went forward was that you have to have in my mind in addition to the mission that you sign up for, and that inspires you to get up in the morning, I like to have a very visionary goal, a goalpost that excites you. So having that clear in everybody's minds, in your team's minds, in your own mind, will then give you in some way, also the comfort that we know where we're going.
With COVID the way that became even more uncertain so then you trusted again, going back to the basics, you know how to, as a brand person and with experience, launch a brand. It's all about integrated marketing, what weight do want to put in, so you kind of take it one step at a time.
So you say, okay, first of all, we went through the process of who are we and what do we want to look like? Then you just build a launch plan that you trust in and obviously in our case, even the launch plan was interrupted by COVID. And then again, you pivot. If you stay still and wait for something, you'll be still waiting.
The role of empathetic branding
It must require a lot of empathy to control branding around non-profit, you've got to have empathy for your donors, for what they could potentially want to see from the brand, and you've also got to understand what they empathize with as well. How do you go about getting in that mindset when it comes to creating a brand for a nonprofit, particularly a relaunch of an existing brand?
It's a great question. I think that's one thing when we talk about what kind of brand do you recreate? It shouldn't be done in a vacuum, in a think tank, working with a partner, and you come up with a great brand because actually, our organization has years past done some of those exercises, but they didn't feel like it was us.
They could have been a great startup, but it didn't look like us. So you have to start from that empathy point of view of understanding that kind of comments we get, what kind of caring and warmth there is for our existing brand, and then you unpick that and build that into even more of its origins.
It has to be the real ingredients that are already existing, you can't just introduce a whole set, imagine baking a cake. It's just a different cake but it's the same flour, sugar, whatever they are and where we started was from the donors’ hearts.
We just then made ourselves... we felt that we were already the caring and warm and there was some kind of... we use them in our branding, the word quirky, so we want to be a little bit quirky and that makes everybody also relax.
Brands can't be too serious. I guess there might be some brands, funeral companies might not be too quirky in the branding so there might be some exceptions.
But I think brands are best when the whole organization when they read that they can embrace and they can feel that they can add to with their own thinking. So empathy is definitely one of the key areas that we always look at.
You touched a bit on internal processes, the brand relaunch wasn't just about changing your external representation it's also changing your internal direction. How much involvement did you have from other departments when it came to developing the brand relaunch?
Was it just the CMO and marketing going off and doing this themselves or did you have input from other departments?
I can truly say that it was a total pan organizational process. Of course, we had what we called the brand action group that got together in the last six months we actually - not very nice term terminology for non-profit - had our war room where we got together and had lots of late-night pizzas. But for every different milestone, we engaged the whole organization.
We had bi-weekly full organizational updates with quizzes about the new brand, with the past and so by the time we had the brand launch people were celebrating. It could have been very different because also internal stakeholders could have been like why are we doing this? Is this another marketing gimmick? We have our mission, we have our value, so what is this new brand about?
But I think when you took them along in the journey and you also ask them some critical things for example, on the brand design logo, at some point we had two choices and we asked the survey, the brand action group and myself we had our favorite so we were again a bit concerned what if the other one wins.
But it didn't, nine out of 10 people agreed that the one that we went with was the one. So again people felt "Oh yeah, we're part of this and we're all launching the brand." So by the time we had the internal launch party, it really was truly people felt that we did this as an organization.
It's got to be nice to have that win in the middle of the pandemic when people are in lockdown, people are stuck at home and stuff, having that big win has got to be a nice force aligner kind of thing. Was that something you had in mind for keeping going with the brand relaunch? Or was that just a happenstance?
Yeah, I think it turned out nicer than I thought to be honest. You knew you had to bring them along but you never know again if people get excited but people did get excited. But also then going a little bit into the launch it was really nice that prepared everyone that as we then do launch remember our name and brand awareness will be starting from zero.
So although an important point to keep in the transition was, again, communication towards the existing donors, you'll always have the "formerly known as" in the letterheads and things so people would still be absolutely sure it comes from us.
But you know, when you measure brand awareness in the public space, you kind of start from zero, Children Believe didn't exist and now all of a sudden does. So, not only we did grow much beyond the targets of brand awareness in the first six months, we grew from zero to 17% unaided in six months, which is quite remarkable.
But more so we were happy that the secondary values under it when we looked at the research, which were around trust; would you consider giving to this charity? Would you recommend this charity?
Those out of the 17%, who recognized the brand name already, were equal to our long-term competition, if you will, our peers in the sector. And then we did another year after, and we even strengthened and we even actually surpassed in the secondary value.
So also, overall awareness could still take quite a few years to catch up to where we were and catch up with peers, the secondary values, which can tell the story that we were able to come up with a proposition that resonates with the public.
Speaking of resonating with the public, the public in the COVID era is very different in different countries. People's abilities to act in certain ways, and their response to branding and marketing will be very different, depending on the stage that the country is in response to COVID.
How aware did you have to be of that when you were developing a new brand for an international audience? Did you have to think "maybe it's not right to market in a certain way to a country that's really struggling with COVID"? Or vice-versa?
Excellent question. Although we're an international development agency headquartered in Toronto, most of our funding does come from Canada. So we were able to know that's the priority to get that right.
But you're right when we then had to simultaneously launch in all of our peer countries and then there are also other audiences that with COVID, the boundaries between countries have kind of disappeared, especially in the digital space.
So whenever you put out there, which is positive in things like when we have, for example, with our new brand, we've had influencer events with some high-level guests. We were expecting just Canadian attendees mostly and we had attendees from all over the world.
In my other charitable work, I've seen that too, those boundaries are coming down quickly in the digital space, because you can join from anywhere. And I think that was something that will probably stay. I think going and linking that international, your question about those differences, it's even more important than the brand you build, that it is distinctive.
Because the level of noise, the level of information, one wouldn't think was possible, but has, again, extrapolated in the digital space, because everybody rushed there, everybody thought, that's one of the things of the learnings where I said, keep it simple.
And one of our successes was we didn't shift everything to digital like some did because everybody was going to focus on that space even more. So you had to compete in that space but you also have to have your brick and mortar strategies like face-to-face marketing and other things to fundraise, which are the key things, key acquisition drivers in this space.
But we've found that our brand, which is Children Believe is about breaking barriers to education, so children can live and dream fearlessly, that really resonates. It's very clear, it's breaking barriers to education, people go, "Okay, I get that. So why do you do that?", so children can live and dream fearlessly.
Of course, to get to that point, it's a bit of work to simplify what we're really about. I think that's really worked really well for us. Again, that by itself, as you can imagine, works very well in different countries, it's not country-specific.
So if you're not into education for children, probably we're not for you. There's a risk of saying we're not trying to get everybody's dollars, but it just makes you stronger when you know who you're about.
There was a lot of concern in the UK, at least, about how children were being educated during COVID. Was that something that you had to take into consideration with the brand relaunch, how different countries were responding with their schooling during the pandemic?
Yeah, absolutely. We're at the center of it all the time. And so from a marketing branding perspective, sometimes it is confusing because some kids are going back to school, some are not. Some are somewhere in between, some are hybrid. And then you also don't want to get into local politics because it's kind of a hot potato in many countries.
So you have to be very clear, we're helping the children far away and underprivileged children. Because that's the one thing in our industry/sector, you want to be very clear about what you take a stand on.
If you're an advocacy organization for a certain cause then be that, but if you're not stay on your channel. Not that you can't react to horrors happening in the world. But how we always approach is always about the children, the children who don't have the chance to dream fearlessly. That's the nugget that we hold on to.
But yeah, even with that is a lot of navigating. How can you do that, because each country is different, from how we help them do that. In some countries, we're able to do digital learning when there was some connectivity, somewhere we used Jeeps with megaphones.
And by the way, when it first happened that's interesting because the first pivot is before you can start thinking about bringing in various education, you have to make sure children stay alive and so we also had to make sure that first of all there was an education about health and hygiene and also providing as much as we could, let's just be hypercritical about doing something about it.
So in some segments, you have to be flexible in our program model quite quickly. That's where I talked about the brand being and having an umbrella statement enough, like we said, so you could always say, "Well, we can't break barriers to education if the first barrier right now is let's keep kids alive."
Then you have to make sure the programs deliver because the brand cannot say one thing and then if it doesn't happen on the ground so that's one of the things I've always lived. The brand cannot be a separate entity, nor marketing, just thinking in marketing gimmicks, it has to be fully integrated into the business building.
Lessons for-profit brands can take away from non-profits
It's something we're seeing more and more in the for-profit sector as well. It's something that's been a part of the non-profit sector for a long time: practicing what you preach when it comes to brand values. But now we're seeing more and more for-profit brands having to say these are the values that we stand for and this is how we're acting on those values.
Are there lessons to be learned for CMOs in the profit sector from how non-profit brands behave in that regard do you think? Is there something that CMOs, say, for a SaaS company or a tech company can take away from how non-profit companies build their brand?
I think there's definitely the word authenticity that comes in both industries and sectors now and there have been some great examples from the for-profit during COVID where companies who did that beyond nice slogans of "we're all in this together" which is all nice. And maybe the first organization who said that was still kind of sweet and cute but then the fiftieth one that did that wasn't compelling enough at least.
But if a person, and also it is more about individual leaders being brave enough to be themselves, not wearing a uniform whether it's a marketing uniform, a CEO uniform, where you hide behind.
Coming out and then really showing that they do care about the values of that company and that those values were not created so you could attract more millennials to work for them but they were actually something that they lived through.
I think in our industry we probably have had a longer time to train for that because we've been under scrutiny, which is also very weird, I've always thought that was the weirdest thing.
Because we're in the for good, we're in there to create good but there's almost like more "well you can't be". I don't know if it's because we can't be that good so there must be something.
I know that's been catastrophic failures by different incidents but there's that extra scrutiny so we've had to always have that transparency and have who we are and what we do very close to us. So I do feel that there's more shift from the for-profit into what we've always done.
In the past if you heard about a for-profit company committing tax fraud and stuff it was like "Oh, that's just what they do" where if a charity did something like that, it's like "Burn down the building".
Exactly. There's been a bit of a double standard which probably is going away, which is really good. I think we've had a bit more practice in that, but I think what works in our industry is to keep it real also because we also have our jargon that we can fall into.
Again, not probably intentionally, but if you keep working the space and then it comes almost automatically "Well, we do this and this and this" but then it doesn't come with a heart. So I think that's why rebranding during COVID times probably helped us to sharpen our internal who we are and allows us to tell the story even more clearly and brightly.
One other thing about COVID times, why I think it's actually probably good... I don't know if it's advisable to say you should rebrand during COVID times, it just happened but COVID has prepared people for change. And in times of change, people are somewhat more open to change.
So you can bring more change and you can say, "Hey, this is who we are now". Rather than if everything's all stable, all fine, and then you create change, people are more like, "Why are you changing?" So it's more understandable during the turmoil to change so I think in some way, that could be an advantage.
Speaking of the lessons you've learned from having a relaunch in these unstable circumstances, not to say you're going to relaunch the brand again in the next two to five years because that's a mammoth undertaking to do.
But do you think you have learned lessons in how you're going to approach it differently in the future? If you were to relaunch a brand? Or just in terms of how you're going to manage the brand moving forward? Do you think there are lessons you've learned?
I think, not that I could even in the future be the guardian of that, but I would have probably tried to secure even more continuous funding.
Because I think once you had that launch, big bang and so had we had probably more marketing oomph and dollars continued on that wave, I think we could have gained even more in that momentum. So I think that's one thing you kind of say, and you can't get that moment to back.
So I guess the advice would be, for future me or others listening is if you're able to, don't plan just a big bang launch, which I think is beneficial in most cases, depending on your brand. Try to keep it going and ride the wave, especially if the first readings of the brands are positive. Just keep going.
The other learnings are probably, which we tried to do very well, is be even closer to your programs. If you're able to report even more, and in COVID’s case, it's hard because you can't travel there but people like to know what's happening right now.
People are even more impatient about the news. But again, I think with all the travel restrictions and nobody wanted to move, so we had to react but we couldn't always get all the reporting on it as fast as the market would have wanted.
In terms of moving forwards, is there still space for long-term plans when it comes to branding? Or is it just about being adaptable? Is it just focusing on the here and now moving forwards?
Super question. Honestly, you have to have... we have a five-year strategy but it will be checked every year, and within the year we'll follow things. I think there's still a place for both because if you have a roadmap, then you have something to veer off if you need to. But if you don't have a roadmap, then you could lose your way.
That's why I've always talked about the goalposts, I think if you have the goalposts, it's good to have a roadmap just from the brand investment point of view and marketing and fundraising.
Do you know what is needed to get there, you've done the financial planning, you do the due diligence but then you're very aware that you need to really follow I would say probably on a quarterly basis of what you're doing and be ready to adapt. But if you've got your brand, and you've got your goalposts right, it's not such a massive exercise to do those pivots.
But yeah, you can count on doing those because we see and rightly so all the discussions about equality and diversity, all those societal things. So again, whether you're in for profit or not for profit, you have to also build those into the experience of the people.
You can't be saying, "Oh, those happen outside us", anything that happens to society also happens with your brand and your marketing plan. So you just have to keep building those in. But I think it's tougher if you don't have the roadmap. So I believe in a roadmap that can be changed quite quickly.
It's interesting when you say if you don't have that route, you don't know where you're veering off. You can't just be stabbing in the dark, you need to know what you're reacting against if you're making changes, is that what you're saying?
Golden rule for brand relaunches
That's fantastic advice, both for marketers and just for people's life progressions in general. One last final question, what is the golden rule of a brand relaunch? What is the main thing to keep in mind while you're relaunching a brand?
I think the golden rule is what I started with, when you do relaunch, assuming it's an existing established brand that has its followers, or customers, or supporters and donors, start with them.
Don't get excited by the glitter and gold of where you want to go, start with the people. Because they can also inform who you really are. Because you as a marketer, whether you've been there a year or 10 years, it's just you and even if you talk to a marketing agency.
So really get into that and do some surveys and learn about them and visualize that first. I think that's the golden rule.
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