CDFI Brand Awareness vs. Brand Clarity

22 Apr

Which of the following would you rather have at your CDFI?

  1. MORE people and organizations know ABOUT you
  2. The same number of people and organizations know about you, but UNDERSTAND your brand BETTER?

If you answered #1, you’re wishing for brand awareness. If you went with #2, you voted for brand clarity.

It turns out these are actually two very different things. Each is helpful and important, but for different reasons and in different ways. Let’s explore. Then–guess what–we’ll give you our take!

The Benefits of CDFI Brand Awareness

It’s not uncommon to hear people (at any company) say “we just need to get our name out there.” And at first glance, that makes perfect sense–if people don’t know you exist, they certainly can’t buy your product, refer you leads or become your advocate.  But implied in this comment is a belief that “our brand/product is great, clear and worth paying attention to…we just need to broadcast this perfect message further.” And that’s where the fallacy usually exists. In many cases, the truth is that awareness is low for many organizations because the message is not really WORTH being aware off.

So how do you create a message that’s worthy of awareness? Well, it takes two steps:

  1. Develop a high level of brand clarity (the subject of the next section)
  2. Make the message word-of-mouth-friendly (the subject of our next post)

The benefit of CDFI brand awareness is fairly obvious: when your name is familiar to others, it’s easier to start a dialog with them. One of the risky benefits of brand awareness, however, is that it tends to make you feel good–we all like to discover that we are widely known–and lulls you into thinking that broad awareness will automatically make you successful. Not necessarily the case.

The Benefits of CDFI Brand Clarity

Brand clarity is when a CDFI brand stands for something clear and distinct, and people know EXACTLY what that is. To be clear (pun intended), it doesn’t mean everyone LIKES that brand…it just means that the attributes of the brand are understood without question. As an example, think of Harley-Davidson. Everybody knows exactly what that brand stands for: rebellion, freedom and bad-assness. And while that brand is understood by everyone (it has a high level of clarity), it’s not loved by everyone (including me). It polarizes…which for a brand is a very good thing.

Brand clarity is critical in business–whether for-profit or not-for-profit. When people understand exactly what your brand stands for, they can determine quickly and easily if that brand is something they align with…or not.  Otherwise, without brand clarity you’re left with a whole lot of unclear, uninspired and confused people.

In the CDFI world, brand clarity means your brand must be distinctly its own. While you no doubt share a passion for community development with your fellow CDFIs, this passion is not enough to qualify as brand clarity for your organization. The important question is, “what is OUR unique, one-of-a-kind brand DNA? What is it that makes us who we are…unlike even other CDFIs?” Once we can answer that, we can begin to establish brand clarity.

Our Take: Focus First on Brand Clarity at Your CDFI

If you haven’t noticed yet, we believe CDFIs will be more successful if they focus first and foremost on brand clarity. Once the brand is clear and people “get it,” then it’s time to scale up awareness. But increasing awareness before enhancing brand clarity is not very useful.

The truth is, many companies have high levels of brand awareness–but this doesn’t mean they are necessarily strong brands. Take, for instance, US Bank, a huge company that has tremendous brand awareness (who hasn’t heard of US Bank, after all?). But what would you say their brand stands for? What are the personality attributes you associate with that brand? Good luck answering that one. I study financial brands for a living, and I can’t even tell you.

By comparison, take a look at USAA. You may or may not know about USAA…their brand awareness is high, but not ubiquitous. However, if you know of USAA, you definitely know what their brand stands for: patriotism and the pride of national service.  They are well in touch with their brand, and they realize that while it’s not for everyone, it’s really powerfully connected to veterans and their families. The brand’s attributes are clear, and USAA and its veterans stand for the same thing.

Conclusion: Brand Clarity Comes First for CDFIs

If all you needed was to create more brand awareness, you could solve that problem easily: spend more money on marketing to spread your message further; buy more ads. But in almost every case we’ve seen, the real issue is not brand awareness as much as it’s brand clarity. Take the time to build a clearer, more distinct and distinguishable brand, and the people who are aware of you will understand what your brand stands for without a doubt. Once you’ve achieved that, then go and find more of those people.

Is ‘Marketing’ A Bad Word to CDFIs?

15 Apr

As I’ve been out and about talking with more and more CDFIs lately, I’ve noticed something interesting: varied reactions to the word ‘marketing.’ It seems that for at least some CDFIs, the term ‘marketing’ either:

  1. Doesn’t seem [to them] to accurately describe their activities for finding new capital and new borrowers
  2. Doesn’t seem like a concept they want to be associated with

I thought it would be interesting to explore both of these–and I hope you’ll jump in by adding your own comments and thoughts to the discussion!

Does ‘Marketing’ Accurately Describe The Activities CDFIs Do?

When most people  think of ‘marketing,’ they think of advertisements. And while many CDFI banks and credit unions may run advertisements in the media, for many CDFIs, advertising is only a very small part of their business. Really, the term ‘marketing’ is quite broad and can indeed be used to summarily describe many of the activities that CDFIs do find themselves doing, such as:

  • Development and fundraising
  • Sourcing deposits (for bank and credit union CDFIs)
  • Finding borrowers to loan to
  • Improving the borrower experience
  • Borrower communications and updates
  • Creating referral partnerships with centers of influence
  • Attending local, regional or industry trade shows, events and conferences
  • Government relations and lobbying
  • Recruiting staff members

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that we define ‘marketing’ for CDFIs much in the same way that the American Marketing Association has defined marketing in general:

“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

For CDFIs, this means ‘marketing’ is any activity in which you must convey your message in order to develop the relationships needed to achieve your mission.

Our Take:  Marketing is Not One Person’s Job

Some CDFIs may have a staff member whose job title involves ‘marketing.’  In these cases, this person–or small team–is in charge of creating marketing materials, running advertising, managing the website, setting up booths at trade shows, etc. But when we really look closely at the bullet list above of marketing-related activities, we see that ‘marketing’ is not just one person’s job–everybody at the CDFI is involved with marketing. Here are a few examples:

  • The loan officer is doing ‘marketing’ when he is preparing the documents for the closing table
  • The development leader is doing ‘marketing’ when she is meeting with potential funders
  • The head of HR is doing ‘marketing’ when she’s meeting with a potential candidate
  • The government relations leader is doing ‘marketing’ when he meets with local politicians to lobby for more funding for affordable housing

In short, marketing is the responsibility of everyone at the CDFI.

Is ‘Marketing’ A Concept CDFIs Don’t Want to be Associated With?

Marketing sometimes gets a bad rap–many people consider ‘marketing’ to be the fluffy, soft and often manipulative side of business. Some think marketing is an optional nice-to-have when there’s extra budget. Some think it’s “that thing the creative folks do,” to “make things pretty.” Others think it’s disconnected from and inferior to the “real business” we’re in–making loans. And unfortunately some think marketing is about the evil manipulation of convincing people they need something they really don’t.

But as we’ve seen above, marketing exists in everything we do as CDFIs. And marketing doesn’t need to be evil, manipulative or fluffy–in fact, in most cases its none of those things.

‘Marketing’ at your CDFI is about telling your story–that thing you’re so personally passionate about!–to the world so that they join your cause. It’s about opening their eyes to social and economic issues they may not realize, and inspiring them to take action. It’s about communicating to them how you can work together to create a win-win situation–whether they’re a bank seeking CRA credits, a foundation seeking outcomes or a borrower following her dream to start a business.

Our Take:  Being Excellent Marketers is a Reputation CDFIs Should Aspire to

Marketing is about us sharing our passion for what we do, and enrolling others to help us. It’s about being an amazing, captivating storyteller that inspires others to take action. This is a fantastic reputation to strive for and aspire to. I would love to see future MBA students studying CDFI marketing case studies, mesmerized by how captivating CDFIs can be in their marketing.

Conclusion: Marketing is NOT a Bad Word for CDFIs!

Not only is ‘marketing’ NOT a bad word for CDFIs, we believe it should become a positive concept and word to CDFIs! If anything, ‘marketing’ is a misunderstood word in many cases. But when you consider all of the mission-critical activities CDFIs do that truly are marketing-related, it’s easy to see that collectively increasing our industry’s expertise in marketing could really propel CDFIs toward achieving our missions.

Three Strategies for Turning a Good CDFI Brand Into a Great CDFI Brand

11 Apr

In “The Seven Special Challenges of Branding for CDFIs–And What To Do About Them”, we discussed the unique challenges that only community development organizations face in branding themselves.

This is not to say, however, that no CDFIs have succeeded in branding. In fact, there are some notable CDFIs who have been hard at work with branding for years, and have some excellent brand development progress to show for it. (One of our favorite examples is The Acumen Fund…and of course Craft3).

But like any aspect of our organizations, there is almost always room for improvement. For these organizations who already have established brand traction, the main question becomes “how can we take our brand from good to great?”

Our experience has shown that there are several key focus areas where improvement can take a good brand and make it a great brand. In this article, we will discuss three of these key focus areas:

  • Differentiation
  • Buzzworthiness
  • Experiential

Read the entire post here!