Webinar Transcript: Create Communication Cohesion at Your Nonprofit with Valentina T. Parissi, The Great Books Foundation

59 min read

This transcript is from the March 6, 2019 Independent Sector & Prosper Strategies webinar, “Create Communication Cohesion at Your Nonprofit By Getting Your Team on the Same Page About Your Brand.” Listen to the full webinar recording here.

Alyssa Conrardy: Today, we’re going to take the idea of strong brands from theory into practice by digging into Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto commitment number three, which says that: “we will build communications cohesion internally and communicate with consistency externally.” So, before we get to Q&A with Valentina, we’ll be able to shed some real world light on this commitment. Let’s break it down for a moment. I’d like to help you each kind of understand a bit better what we mean by this commitment. What this commitment is really saying is that we will recognize that to advance our mission in the nonprofit sector, we must build trust and that to build trust, there must be consistency in how we see ourselves internally, how we act, and how we represent ourselves externally.

We will build communications cohesion internally and communicate with consistency externally.

So, these are things that might sound like high aims for some of you or just 101 basics for others, but communications consistency and cohesion are not just small details of running your day to day operations at your organization. They directly contribute to the advancement of your nonprofit strategy and mission impact. So, it’s really important to get that right.

The best way to understand this idea of consistency and cohesion and how brand image and identity are related to strategy and mission impact is through the role of the brand cycle, which is sort of an idea or model that was first introduced in the book The Nonprofit Brand IDEA written by Nathalie Kylander and Julia Stenzel. The role of the brand cycle is something that we really subscribe to here at Prosper, and it says that every organization has an identity, which is how it shows up internally, and an image, which is how it shows up externally. And these things are ideally couched in your organization’s mission and in its strategy. When the image and identity of an organization are strong and reflective of one another, so the external reflects the internal and vice versa, the organization achieves effective positioning.

And that, in turn, builds cohesion internally, meaning everyone is on the same page about what you do and why it matters. It also builds trust externally because you’re saying the same things over and over. Trust creates leverage which leads to increased capacity internally and increased impact externally, what we’re all aiming for, which in turn starts this whole cycle over helping your organization grow bigger and stronger and more impactful as you go on. This is a great model for you to share with others at your organization as you talk about why brand matters.

I wanna break it down even a little bit further. I think everyone sort of has this question of when we talk about an effective and identity, what does that mean? What does it mean to align these pieces? And it really requires three things, which I’d like to share with you here today. This is again from The Nonprofit Brand IDEA and something that we subscribe to here at Prosper.

First, is brand integrity, which is when a nonprofit’s mission and strategy are consistently aligned with it’s internal brand identity and all three are consistently aligned with the external image. So, you have to first have that brand integrity, that alignment, to foster strong brand consistency and cohesion.

The second is brand democracy, which is when a nonprofit trusts its members, staff, participants, and even volunteers to really participate in the development of the organization’s brand identity and the communication of that identity. And you’re encouraging, with brand democracy, cohesion, people saying the same sorts of things, through guidelines but not through strict standards. So, it’s this idea that individuals feel really comfortable personalizing what they say, but they’re still tying back to the same consistent overarching message and strategy.

And then the third component here is brand ethics. When a nonprofit brand itself and the way that it’s developed and shows up in the world reflects the core value of an organization. So, an example of this is let’s say one of your organization’s core values is hope, for instance. In that case, you definitely should not be showing hopeless images of the people you serve in marketing. You know, of the destitute homeless person under the bridge with the tear running down their cheek is probably not the best imagery for you to use in your marketing if one of your values is hope. We’ll talk about this more in one of our webinars later this year where we get on the topic of poverty porn and stereotype porn. Really unfortunate trends that the nonprofit sector’s beginning to turn away from, but still certainly exists. So that will come up more.

But, three components are what you want to keep in mind when you think about a strong brand. Integrity, democracy, and brand assets. And so to that end, we’d like to offer you all a self evaluation that’s featured in our Nonprofit Brand 2.0 resource that you can go through to determine how your brand ranks in terms of integrity, democracy, and assets.

The first part of it will give you examples of organizations that have really built strong brands through these concepts of integrity, democracy, and ethics. And then the second part, which I hope many of you will take the chance to engage with, will help you evaluate how your organization ranks on those factors. So, hopefully you can use that as a tool to begin important conversations about integrity and democracy and ethics and figure out areas where you might need to focus in as you work to strengthen your brand and achieve what we’re all here to talk about today, that consistency and cohesion in your communications.

That said, we certainly understand that one resource can not do it all, so achieving communication consistency and cohesion is going to require a lot of conversations within your organizations internally and with others who are on this journey. It’s no easy feat and the job is definitely never done. It’s something you’ll strive for through the entire trajectory of your organization, and that’s why I’m excited today that we have Valentina Parissi, the president and CEO of The Great Books Foundation and a past client of Prosper’s on the line with us to talk about this work. Her organization’s really in the middle of it now. And I have quite a few questions for Valentina today, but, Valentina, before we dive into them, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself to your audience.

Q&A with Valentina T. Parissi, President and CEO of The Great Books Foundation

Valentina T. Parissi: It’s a pleasure to be here today. I’m Valentina Parissi and I’m the president and CEO of The Great Books Foundation. My experience with the organization is interesting because this is my second time around and it’s given me a historical perspective on its evolution. And people often ask me why I would return to Great Books after 10 years, and the honest answer is that Great Books embodies all the things that I care about. We are an independent nonprofit organization that creates reading and discussion programs for students and adults based on our Shared Inquiry method of discussion, and we believe that literacy and critical thinking help form reflective, knowledgeable citizens equipped to participate constructively in a democratic society. So, three years ago, I didn’t think twice before saying yes and becoming a part of the Great Books team once again.

Conrardy: Well, I know they’re happy that you did, Valentina, and so are we because it gave us the opportunity to work with and learn from and alongside you. So, really thrilled to have you here today to talk about communications consistency and cohesion, because it’s something I know you’ve worked on a lot in your time at The Great Books Foundation and in your career and that we’ve had the opportunity to work together on. So, can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts as we dive into the questions.

So, you mentioned that you returned to The Great Books Foundation a few years ago after a hiatus and that you were tapped during sort of a challenging time, a time of change, and I know that one of the things you ended up addressing in regards to that challenge was brand consistency and cohesion. So, why were you tapped to return and what did you tackle first after you returned that second time around?

What did you tackle first after returning to the Great Books Foundation the second time around?

Parissi: Yeah, it’s a great question. Well, I was rehired as a director of strategic initiatives, which gave me the flexibility that I needed to get started. And the first few weeks I focused on getting reacquainted with everyone internally, and then I called and visited external partners. And at the time, we had been experiencing a reduction in the market and it truly affected the internal culture. Luckily, our external partners were still responding positively to our Great Books programs in spite of the shrinking budgets affecting our footprint in the education space. But, as you can imagine, going through those changes was really affecting how the staff felt about the foundation’s future.

So it was after a few months of deep searching and discussion that we realized that we needed to refresh our brand and rebuild the strength in our messaging to help us inspire a positive outlook for the future and reinvigorate our staff.

Conrardy: That’s so interesting. Must have been a really interesting time for you to come in and really feel like you could make change quickly. So tell us, what were your next steps after you identified the desire to rebrand?

What was your next step after you identified your desire to rebrand?

Parissi: So, we felt that our first steps needed to include a new visual identity and brand messaging, and we also felt that an external expert would be key in helping us do that. So in a serendipitous way, Substance came highly recommended and as part of the process, it was very natural for our team to be very open to a reflective discussion model. Shared Inquiry played an important part in bringing everyone’s vision to the table and giving the team of Substance a robust list of ideas and information for them to build on. We’re never short of ideas and opinions at Great Books, so Substance had plenty to work with.

But, the most valuable part of the process was that we asked ourselves “How can we transcend and evolve as an organization, but yet include our history in our narrative?”

Conrardy: Yeah, that’s such an interesting question to ask in this process and one that required a really thoughtful approach, which I know you’ll share a bit more with us about. Here, you can see an example of how The Great Books Foundation identity has evolved since their founding in 1947, and it sounds like asking that question, all the questions that you asked through the process really helped you, Valentina, and your team, figure out what the next iteration could look like, feel like, and sound like and then really, importantly, how it would position you for growth and change in the future.

So, always love to hear these stories of rebrands and everyone, I’m sure, is chomping at the bit, because there were question marks on the last slide, to hear what were the outcomes of the rebrand and you can take a look as we talk about this at where the new brand identity ended up.

What were the outcomes of the rebrand?

Parissi: It was definitely an invigorating, challenging, and really fun process, and I would say that one of the most important outcomes was that we came together to create this new look and messaging that represented everything that we saw we were, but also what we hoped to be in the future. So, our logo is a strong representation of that process. We love our logo, and here it is.

It really allows for multiple interpretations, and that’s something that we do at Great Books with literature, with art and music. We love that our logo allows for that, as well. Some people see a stack of books, which is an homage to our history. And others see it as stairs going inward and up, and others see them as sticking out. But, my favorite answer so far as part of the process, which is a completely biased opinion, was my 10 year old son whose comment was that he thought they were stairs to greatness.

But, jokes aside, I think everyone being part of the process. Everybody got to vote for their favorite logo. Substance presented the top three logos to the entire staff, and to our surprise, which this hardly happens at Great Books, the final logo received 98% of the votes, which speaks volumes about the importance of those initial investigative and inclusive conversations with all staff. So we arrived together. We all understood how we got there. And the new brand and inspiring messaging made us feel good about ourselves. It reminded everyone why we love Great Books and in that process, we changed how we present ourselves to the world.

So, there’s a new energy that everyone internally and externally can feel and feed off of.

Conrardy: That’s so fabulous. And you’re getting some positive response here in the question box. I know you might not be able to see these, but Michelle says “It’s a wonderful logo and message.” Kathy says “Terrific.”

Well thanks, Valentina, for sharing that. It’s a really inspiring rebrand story and a great outcome.

I’d love to hear about now the future of looking forward. What opportunities has this created for the Great Books foundation? Having this reinvigoration with the new brand and messaging and image?

What new opportunities has this created for The Great Books Foundation?

Parissi: Well, I would say that the brand is not the only factor. We’ve done a lot of internal work and new partnerships, like working with Prosper Strategies. But, we have generated quite a few new partnerships over the last two years, and through that process of molding ourselves for these new opportunities, we have identified another key element of Shared Inquiry that can be applied specifically to leadership. So, having been through the branding process, we knew that our next step was to bring Substance back and work on creating a sub-brand for this new initiative around leadership. After our previous experience, we thought it would be just really easy to find a new name, because everybody at Substance, they’re geniuses and they were just gonna tell us what the new name should be and that would be it.

But, we were very wrong. They gave us over 200 names to choose from. After several in-person meetings and brainstorming sessions, we realized that the name had to be descriptive, that we didn’t want our team to spend 10 minutes trying to describe what the program was all about. We wanted people to easily realize that this was an inquiry-based approach to leadership from the Great Books Foundation. So, we named it Inquiry in Action, a Leadership Program of The Great Books Foundation. And we stayed with our original logo, which again just has a lot of meaning and interpretation for us. So, here it is.

Conrardy: There it is. And a nice way to add on a sub-brand is keeping that same mark and font, changing the color scheme slightly and adding a tagline. Probably the simplest way to add a sub-brand under an umbrella. So, this is a good example for those of you who wonder how can we keep our brands in the same kind of consistent pattern but have program brands or sub-brands attached on there. There’s, of course, many other ways to do that, as well. But, this is one straightforward example.

Parissi: It’s an interesting challenge. It was definitely a good process for us to go through.

Conrardy: A lot of organizations can end up with such a library of brands that don’t all work together and consolidating them into a consistent image can be difficult. So, luckily you had the foresight to do that with this additional brand. And it sounds like you’re continuing to evolve, right? With this new initiative, as any strong organization should. So, would really like to dig into that a little bit further and to the topic that we’re all here to talk about. What are you going to do, Valentina, your organization, as you continue to evolve, to make there’s consistency in your brand and communication as you continue to grow and change?

What are you going to do to ensure your organization continues to ensure communications cohesion and consistency as you grow and evolve?

Parissi: Yes, that is a very big question, but I think I can confidently say that the first step that we’re taking is to work closely with Prosper Strategies like we did when we launched our first brand refresh two years ago, and we’re going to develop a key message framework. We’re developing one for the organization as a whole, which we worked on together originally, and we’re also gonna build one that aligns Inquiry in Action with the organization’s key message. And the key message framework will not only give us a roadmap as we develop internal storytelling and brand cohesiveness, but it will also provide our team with guidelines as this new program is introduced to our external partners and potential donors.

Conrardy: So, here’s a look at, as Valentina said, this is a work in progress. But, the key message framework that we’ve developed for The Great Books Foundation.

And, if you want communications, consistency, and cohesion at your nonprofit, which I’m guessing many of you do, that’s why you’re here today, a key message framework is really one of the very best tools I can recommend that you have your organization put in place. And here’s an example of how we tend to structure ours.

We always start our key messages with a master set of messages for the organization as a whole, and we encourage our clients, people we’re working with, to think of these master key messages as the foundation from which you can build and the most general version of your story that appeals to the broadest audience possible. That’s what you’re seeing at the very top of the slide. There are different ways, of course, to structure key message frameworks, but we always build ours with five types of key messages, the ones that you’re seeing here, because we really feel that key messages should answer the most critical questions about your organization. At least your starting point key messages should. And those questions are what, why, who, where, and to what end? So, you can see we structured some very, very basic key messages that exist as a starting point for bigger and broader communication for The Great Books Foundation.

And then, after getting key messages in place, we, with The Great Books Foundation, and if any of you are following this process, we recommend doing the same. We built segmented key messages by stakeholder. So, in some of our earlier work with Valentina and her team, this is before Inquiry in Action was born, we had identified five key stakeholders. School admins, principals, teachers, donors, and adult book group leaders. So, we wrote versions of these key messages in this framework for each of those audiences, and some of them were just tweaked slightly, a word here or there. Others were tweaked or overhauled significantly. But, the aim with the segmented by stakeholder key messages is really to get out what nuances about this communications point are going to matter most and be most resonant with a specific stakeholder group.

The key message framework is really, really useful, the segmented version, any time that you have the opportunity to segment your messaging, whether that’s through email marketing, a specific event that might be targeted at one of these groups, even personalization on your website if you’re using advanced systems that can tell which stakeholder group someone fits into. You can serve them more specific messaging. But, I think one of the most important things that this segmented key message framework does is it can get your entire team in this mindset of tailoring the way they talk about your organization to the stakeholder they’re talking to, to the audience and what they care about, while still keeping them on the same consistent narrative.

Hopefully those are helpful. Also happy to, when we share all of the links here, share real versions of worksheets that you can use to build your own key message frameworks. The framework as we’ve developed it, because it’s simple and straightforward, could also be applied really easily to specific programs or initiatives. So, here you’ll see we’re also in the process of developing a set of key messages for inquiry in action, which will be extremely important to staff because this is a new program and they’re needing to learn how to talk about it for the first time in concert with The Great Book Foundation’s overall messaging.

So, just a word before we go back to the Q&A, this process, because I think this is so important to the way that we like to work and fortunately syncs up with the way Valentina and her team like to work, developing key messages is ideally a really collaborative process that we engage in after research or during research and workshops with staff. So, ultimately, as that brand democracy commitment which I shared with your earlier says, your stakeholders really should play a role in shaping your message and we want to involve them throughout this process. When we say these key messages are in progress, one of the main reasons for that is because we really do need to seek more input from internal and external stakeholders as we shape them.

So, after key messages like this are set, we’ve gone through the process of drafting them initially, getting feedback from internal and external stakeholders, and feeling like “Okay, this is the final version,” we then often suggest holding messaging training to help staff and other stakeholders understand how they can actionably use key messages in their work as a guide, but not as a script. That’s really, really critical. We want these to be helpful but not create an environment where everyone’s just parroting the same message over and over again. They should be the touchstone, essentially. We also see often that when we develop frameworks like this, staff will place these key messages in their workspaces and refer back to them when they’re on the phone with someone, especially the segmented by stakeholder ones. So, they really are useful and actionable tools for building consistency and cohesion.

And, as I mentioned and will beat to death because it’s so important, key messages are guidelines, not rules. So, Valentina, I want to talk a little bit more about that and just hear from you. As you roll these out, what will you do to ensure that these guidelines don’t stifle individual stories or cause communication from The Great Books Foundation to lose it’s sort of personal nature and the emotional appeal that you get from people personalizing the stories they’re telling?

As you roll key messages out, what will you do to ensure that guidelines don’t stifle individual stories or cause communications from The Great Books Foundation to lose their personal nature or emotional appeal?

Parissi: Right. As I hear you talking about different organizations, it helps me realize how everybody’s so unique. You know, our team is very invested and dedicated to our mission and for us it’s extremely important to make sure that they’re part of this process, because they’re gonna be the influencers out there. They’re gonna be the ones sharing the importance of this program. So, our plan is to go back to our initial process of inquiry and as a team gather stories about current programs, partnerships and experiences and how we can see leadership strategies in them. We want to bring the team to a final destination through a genuine exploration of their ideas, and then revealing the key messages that we have developed with Prosper, and if needed we will tweak the final framework to include the team’s contributions.

Our organization is structured in a way that there’s very few lines where people are not connected directly with the outside world and our mission and implementing it, so this process is gonna be key for us to be successful at owning it and also getting excited about the program as we talk to everybody in the outside world.

Conrardy: It’s so exciting and can’t wait to see what the next few years hold and beyond for The Great Books Foundation as you continue to grow and evolve, roll out Inquiry in Action and just explore so many new initiatives and opportunities that hopefully the brand has played a role in helping you to open up. And we’ll love to hear from you down the road, Valentina, about how you can continue to see this commitment to cohesion and consistency through. I hope we’ll be able to do a follow up blog post in a year or so and just see how things are going for the organization.

Parissi: Absolutely. Thank you for helping us get to where we are and for continuing to be a part of The Great Books family and guiding us as we take these new exciting steps.

Conrardy: It’s been a pleasure and I hope that others really can learn a thing or two from this experience. And on that note, I could ask so many more questions, but I felt on the last few webinars that our time with audience questions has just been so short and we’ve only been able to scratch the surface, so I wanted to leave a bit more time for audience questions this time around. I hope that you’ll all find the questions box and start chatting in questions. Could for me, could be fore Valentina, could be for both of us. And we’ll try to get through as many as we can here today.

Audience Q&A with Valentina T. Parissi

Did you get any external input from key stakeholders in developing and activating the rebrand?

Parissi: That is a great question. I think the majority of our external research focused on how they felt about the current brand. Like what were the things that they found most valuable. We wanted to make sure that we were not gonna take away any meaningful and important pieces of our brand. But, we didn’t reach out to talk about the new brand. I think we just considered their input and kept that in mind as we were trying to develop a new brand.

Conrardy: And that’s a pretty common approach, I will say, having shepherded quite a few organizations through this process, is that there’s input at the front level but not at the testing of different identities and getting external feedback once you’re at a workable concept. Of course, it’s always ideal to get feedback at both points in the process, but it can definitely draw the process out a bit and make it more costly and time consuming. So, anytime you can have external feedback is great and it’s better than none at all. One thing that we really suggest as a best practice and an ideal for a rebrand is developing a rebrand steering committee. And this ideally would include leadership from your organization, so someone you know in the C-suite or at that executive level, leadership from within the marketing department, which hopefully has some presence at the executive level, and if not, whoever is kind of at the helm of the marketing dept, representation from a couple of key departments.

It’s always great to have some representation from program staff. We talked about this a bit last month on the webinar with Erin, too, simply because they’ll be hopefully your internal champions or at least your internal message spreaders about why are we doing this and why does it matter. And then lately, we’ve also started suggesting that the rebrand committee also have a few external stakeholders on it. So, that could be people that are still related to the organization in some shape or form, recipients of your programs and services, that sort of thing. Ideally, volunteers. Board members are sort of an internal stakeholder, so categorize them with that first group I talked about.

But, ideally you’re developing this committee that’s seeing through the entire process. All the way from, in some cases, an exploration of whether you even should rebrand to various iterations of names and visual identity and language and logo and can really understand the entire process. One thing that can be really hard about involving external parties is when you try to do it very late in the process and they haven’t been brought along with all the research and exploration and discussion that got you there. It can be difficult to have them understand how you arrived at your decision and really give the most educated and insightful feedback. So, always great to bring people along the whole time if you can.

Parissi: And one thing I would like to add is the nature of the relationship that we have our external partners is so closely connected to a lot of the people at the organization. So, for example, our instructors and trainers are working one to one with teachers and principals out in schools, so they’re very in tune and aligned with how those people feel about a brand and a product. So, as we were doing that internal search and investigation, we were able to get a sense of how the stakeholders outside felt and what they loved so much about the brand without having to reach out to them directly because of that close relationship that I think, you know, not everybody works sitting right next to their clients the way that our trainers do, for example. It just depends on the structure of your company.

Conrardy: Good point. Good point. Okay, so I am going to jump around in the order that the questions came in a little bit just so that they kind of logically lead one to the next as much as possible. So, don’t worry if you chatted early on that I’m skipping your question. I will try to get back to it. But, would like to jump to this one from Kristina who asks “How did you roll out your brand, Valentina? Did you ease into the new brand or did you flip a switch?”

How did you roll out your brand? Did you ease into the new brand or did you flip a switch?

Parissi: We worked with Prosper Strategies to work on a rollout. We kind of did flip a switch, because we, the visual identity was so different and we weren’t changing our name. There really wasn’t a lot of explanation needed as opposed to someone who’s doing a complete rebrand and you have a name change. So I think, in those instances, you really need a lot more handholding and gentle rollout. So, for us it was just a new, a brand new … I’d call it a new coat of paint. We just felt fresh and new and it was easy to kind of make that switch.

The other thing we did to roll it out is we tied to our 70th year anniversary. And Alyssa, I don’t know if you wanna talk a little bit about how we tied the two together and kind of tried to create some relevance through this refresh with the 70 year anniversary.

Conrardy: Yeah, definitely. So, the relevance component I think is what I can most deeply to and what’s freshest in my memory. But, the 70th anniversary was just time of greater attention to The Great Books Foundation history and how The Great Books Foundation had continued to stay relevant through really changing social and political climates. And, we came in to work with the organization sort of at the tail end of the rebrand, when the new brand was selected and they were just starting to roll it out. And one of Valentina’s roles was to bring media relations and PR into the mix.

And I should say Valentina and her team. We worked with several great members of her team on this because they really wanted to, surrounding that 70th anniversary, tell the story of the organization’s continued relevance and relevance today and how Shared Inquiry is really a methodology that lasts. It doesn’t come and go with the tides of different educational standards. It’s relevant almost no matter what. So, one of our most successful initiatives from a PR and media relations perspective involves pitching stories to the media about the role that The Great Books Foundation and the shared inquiry methodology plays in helping young people learn how to have respectful discussions with one another, even when their opinions differ from one another.

So, civil discourse is the term that The Great Books Foundation uses, and we had the good fortune of working to pitch stories about this during the presidential election, and specifically during the end of the presidential debates Trump and Clinton. So, you had many, many examples of adults who, within the debates and within sort of their daily life and back and forth, were not having civil discourse and that was not being modeled for students. So, some of our most successful stories involve those where we pitch media coming into classrooms where children were learning to have these civil discussions and debates about text. In some cases, text about really heavy topics like immigration, and discuss them in respectful ways that honored others opinions, helped them learn from each other, helped them use close reading to further investigate and explain their opinions and then we were able to, with those media opportunities, interview the students on how what they were learning compared to and contrasted with what they were seeing in the presidential debates.

So, it was a really interesting, timely opportunity for us, but at the end of the day it tied back to the continued relevance of The Great Books Foundation and the ability of the shared inquiry methodology to really just last over time. Valentina, anything to add on that?

Parissi: No. Very impressed at how much detail you remember from two years ago.

Conrardy: Digging back in the archives of my memory.

Parissi: I think, just not completely rebranding but refreshing gave us an opportunity to really highlight what we’re all about and why we’re still relevant today.

Conrardy: So, we touched on this a little bit already, but in just a brief couple of words here, Valentina, how has The Great Books Foundation messaging changed? What’s the biggest way your messaging has changed as a result of the brand refresh or the rebrand?

How has The Great Books Foundation messaging changed? What’s the biggest way your messaging has changed as a result of the brand refresh or the rebrand?

Parissi: That’s a really interesting question because I really feel that our essence as an organization is what hasn’t changed and what has continued to keep us relevant and is an important part of the education space and I don’t know that it has really changed. I think what has changed is how we position it to people. I’ve noticed that through the years, a lot of the changes that we have made to adapt to the changing climate is more in how we … the words that we use to explain the same thing. So, when I think about changing our messaging, is more to use current words and to really highlight things that we feel are kind of important with the times. But, the actual message, the fact that we’re saying our inquiry methodology can increase critical thinking skills, can help you in any sector work on civil discourse, the importance of looking at a problem, a text, a piece of art, or anything of relevance from multiple perspectives and the importance of that.

I think that’s just been part of The Great Books Foundation since 1947 when it was founded. So, the messaging has shifted and grown with the words that people are using each day to continue to inspire that same essence that continues to be there.

Conrardy: Right, right. I agree with that from what I have experienced with the organization and I would just add to that that it seems that the brand refresh created opportunities to talk about messaging, brought it more to the forefront of people’s minds and was a great jumping off point for making sure that people were on the same page about messaging rather than fully revamping the messaging and changing the way you talk about the organization or what it does.

Parissi: Right. And I think as part of that process, the original intention was to reinvigorate ourselves internally, and I think in that search, when were looking at what our stakeholders felt about the organization and our skills set and what we bring to society, it really was kind of a learning to love ourselves again and realize why we’re still relevant and why it’s worth fighting for and why it’s worth going through all this work to reposition ourselves as relevant. So, it was as much an internal messaging exercise as it was for the external partners.

Conrardy: Right. Absolutely. So, I think this is a good question for maybe me to take a first crack at but somewhat related to what we’re talking about. Another Alyssa, hi another Alyssa, asks “What if you aren’t rebranding? What is a good way to jump start brand cohesion when your brand is already in place?”

What if you aren’t rebranding? What is a good way to jump start brand cohesion when your brand is already in place?

This is a really good question and one that we got asked on the last webinar, too, because we talked about a rebrand there as well. You absolutely do not need to rebrand to jumpstart brand cohesion. It can be a great jumping off point, like we just talked about, or a reason to bring it to the forefront for people. But if you are struggling with cohesion and don’t need a rebrand, one of the best processes you can go through is the process of developing a key message framework and engaging your team in developing that framework.

The process of talking about it, of saying how do we talk about ourselves and what needs to change about that since the last time we thought this through is a really great way to just start these critical conversations, and then after you have updated, if you don’t already have them, new key messages or updated key messages in place, I think hosting some messaging kind of training sessions or workshops with your organization where you can use key messages or any other frameworks you might have to present kind of real life situation and say “How would we use these key messages in the way you know to talk about the organization to make sure that your messaging is consistent but that you’re still personalizing your story?”

So, give people an opportunity to use it, give them an opportunity to help them shape it, start those conversations internally, and even without a rebrand that typically helps a lot to create consistency and cohesion. Okay.

So, Anne Marie asks, and this is a question for you, Valentina, “What method of communication did you use to obtain responsive audience feedback that you received?” So, when you were asking internal or external people for their feedback during the rebrand process, how did you get that feedback? Was it a survey? Did you call people? Have interviews? How did that work?

When you were asking internal or external people for their feedback during the rebrand process, how did you get that feedback?

Parissi: Yeah. I didn’t use a survey for that. We do use surveys quite frequently for other data collection, but for this, I really wanted to have a more personal conversation and I couldn’t go out and say “What do you like about our brand? We’re thinking of rebranding.” So, it had to be a more tactful conversation, so I wanted to make sure that it was very much one on one, so I called a lot of people, I visited kind of our larger school district administrators who have connection with many schools and many teachers and have been working with The Great Books Foundation for a long time. I actually had a lot of fun reaching out to previous clients because my life at Great Books was, I was a educational consultant and bilingual trainer. So, I had worked directly with many principles and teachers and curriculum directors and it was a pleasure to reach back out to them and say “Hey, remember me? How are things going?”

And I was able to build that trust very quickly with them because of the relationship I had had prior. Again, it speaks to our program. You know, people that used the Junior Great Books program in their classroom 15, 20 years ago when I initially trained them and worked with them still were using it and were still very big fans, and were happy to welcome me into their classroom again or in the school. I had several principal meetings. I met with district administrators. And that’s how I did a lot of my investigating. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I probably didn’t visit everybody I could have visited or called, but I did spend quite a few weeks doing that.

Conrardy: Great. I hope that’s helpful. And thank you for the question, that’s a good one. I’m gonna go back up to an earlier question. This one comes from Mickey. And I think, Valentina, you and I can both give a take on this question. So, Mickey asks, or says “This is great when your organization has one main service or program. What if your organization has four key program areas that you need to encompass?”

What if your organization has four key program areas that you need to encompass?

I’ll take a first crack at that, Mickey, because we at Prosper recently helped an organization with communications consistency and cohesion that has 35 programs. So, if you think four is bad, try 35. And this is a common challenge for organizations that it’s hard to bring all of your program identities and messaging together under one umbrella, particularly in situations where you might have one program that’s more well known than the others or one program that’s more well known than even your master brand, right?

So, my biggest suggestion is make sure that your parent brand, the organization brand that the program’s fall under, is getting the spotlight, that that organizational brand is strong, it’s consistent with the program brands, but that that one takes center stage and that you’re leading with that organization-wide brand. And often, the organization-wide brand really needs to be more general in nature and focus on things like impact, you know, what sort of impact are you having, or population served across all of your program areas or things like that. It needs to find that common thread across all of your programs.

So, get your organizational brand straight first. Make that the spotlight brand, and then build your program brand messaging or anything that you might do to create communications consistency under your sub-brands, build that under the umbrella of the main program brand. There are, of course, a few exceptions where you don’t want to take that approach, but almost always you want the organization-wide brand to take the spotlight and be developed first with the program brand developed underneath it, often through the lens of impact rather than “These are our programs, so therefore this is our brand.” It’s a challenging process, for sure. But one of the huge benefits of doing it that way is that you’re ensuring that any fundraising operation you might have, funds will coming to your organization overall, not your programs. People can get very confused about where to give if they know you through your programs or if that brand takes center stage.

And is also is uniting from a culture perspective with your team. So, that’s my take on it.

Parissi: This is really interesting. I’m glad you went first because we were not in partnership with you yet when we made this decision, and we’d face a similar issue that there’s The Great Books Foundation, then we have our K-12 programs which are under the brand of Junior Great Books. We have our adult program, which was at one point named the Great Books Discussion Groups. And then we also have professional development. And we chose to go with the overall brand, which is The Great Books Foundation, and we really felt that that is kind of the parent organization that everything should fall under. And not knowing that we were going to focus on leadership and bring Inquiry in Action into it, I’m just really glad that we went in that direction.

We could have gone with Junior Great Books. It’s where we receive the majority of our funds to support the organization. So, in terms of revenue and focus, that could have taken our eye off the ball and really distracted us from The Great Books Foundation as a whole. But, hearing Alyssa, I think I’m glad we went in that direction. It was definitely part of the conversation. Why are we focusing on The Great Books Foundation? And some people internally when they were calling schools, they would say “We’re the Junior Great Books Foundation.” It’s like “Well.”

How do you encompass all of it, you know? And how do you bring them together but still give them their own identity? That’s definitely a challenge, and I think this framework where you identify the common thread, which for us is shared inquiry methodology, which can be applied to all of the different programs, is really helpful because you’re still consistent throughout. You find what the, you know, I call it the essence of who you are and you start to find those common threads, and then you can build around that and they can be very different and unique in their own way, but maintaining that consistency to the main brand, I think for us is very important.

Conrardy: I love it. That’s so helpful. Such good real world examples. Thank you. So, I wanted to transition to this question from Savannah, and I think I can answer it pretty quickly. She says “Do you use your key messages to shape the organization’s impact statements on the end of year report, website, etc.?”

Do you use your key messages to shape the organization’s impact statements on the end of year report, website, etc.?

The short answer to that, Savannah, is yes. You use those key messages to shape everything. That doesn’t mean that you are copying and pasting them word for word and that all of your communications is exactly the same. That would be really tiresome for your audiences. But, everything should have that common thread that points back to the key messages, alludes to them, stays consistent with them.

So, we always suggest that our clients, as they’re developing content or things like web copy, impact reports, even an executive speech for an event, things like that, that they’re looking back at the key messages and saying “Maybe we’re saying these things in a different way and we should be in different cases, but are we consistent with this framework?” And that’s the thread, then, those key messages that run through everything and help build that consistency and cohesion.

And on that note, Susan asks “Is cohesion the same as alignment?”

Is cohesion the same as alignment?

I would say yes. Cohesion, well cohesion’s a little more external. So I would say it’s more consistency is the same as alignment. Cohesion is … So, consistency is when everyone within the organization is using the same consistent framework for how they talk about what you do and why it matters. Cohesion is when externally that consistency is perceived and everything seems cohesive. And alignment is probably really a good word to describe what happens when the two are in sync. I hope that’s helpful. Again, a lot of jargon in our industry, so call it what you want. What’s important is that internally you’re on the same page. What you’re doing externally, it reflects what you believe and stand for internally, and that both are in sync with the same mission values, organization strategy, key messages.

Parissi: That’s exactly what I was gonna add, that the mission should, if you’re a nonprofit organization, you’re mission drive, that the mission hopefully can provide that for you. That can be the driving force to build that alignment, to have the cohesion and to be consistent.

Conrardy: Right. Yep. Absolutely. So this one might be for me. “What’s the usual expected timeframe for a rebrand?” And that came from Anna.

What’s the usual expected timeframe for a rebrand?

Anna, I would estimate anywhere between six months to a year and half. And I know that’s a wide range. It very much depends on the size and complexity of your organization when you enter into the rebrand as well as the size and complexity of your brand, right? So, do you have sub-brands? How and where does your brand show up and how robust would the process of updating that look like?

But, typically, with a more simple situation, we can go through a research process, exploration of new names and visual identity, development of key messages within about six months, and then you estimate the second six months for rollout and updates and sometimes campaigns related to rollouts. Another thing that can lengthen the process, and this goes to another question that someone else asked that I might get back to, is that often we will do a brand exploration study. So, an organization will think “Hm, maybe we should rebrand,” or there’s rumblings of our brand isn’t working for us anymore in staff meetings, at board meetings, from donors even, things like that. But, you don’t know for sure that rebrand and you wanna explore what the impacts of that are going to be. It’s costly. It can be a dangerous pursuit if you don’t do your due diligence and research.

So, often we’ll enter into the process with a three to six month period of exploration where we’re doing different types of surveys, focus groups, interviews, looking at examples of other, similar organizations to determine the likely outcomes of a rebrand and the risks of that rebrand. And it’s a great process to go through, a best practice really, but it can lengthen the process significantly.

And I think … I wanna get to the other question that that relates to. Let me just see if I can find it. Yeah, okay. So this comes from someone who wants to remain anonymous, but asks “What would you recommend for an organization where almost all the staff feel a rebrand is needed, the organization has grown and changed and the name and visual identity no longer reflect the mission or values, but the executive director, who has been the ED since day one, is against the concept of a rebrand, perhaps because of the fear of change?”

What would you recommend for an organization where almost all the staff feel a rebrand is needed, the organization has grown and changed and the name and visual identity no longer reflect the mission or values, but the executive director, who has been the ED since day one, is against the concept of a rebrand, perhaps because of the fear of change?

So, I’ve actually been in that situation before with clients. Just wanna add, there’s a second chat here that says: “Even though all staff have expressed why rebranding could be a great opportunity to reintroduce ourself to the community, donors, and people we serve” was the addition to that question. So, as I said, I’ve been in this situation before with clients of ours where there’s a long standing executive director who has possibly some emotional tie to the brand or a fear of change, maybe even just a fear of all the work that it will be to change, which is fair.

So, I think in those situations, one of the very best things you can do is find examples of other organizations in your space that have successfully rebranded and share those examples. If you can, ideally you can even look at examples of their financials both before and after a rebrand, and that can make the case for at least considering the possibility. I think, then, a good step, if there’s openness based on that sort of initial case making, a good next step would be that you suggest a rebrand exploration process, like the one I just talked about where you’re exploring whether you actually should go through a rebrand and getting some data to back it up rather than suggesting that you dive in head first since they do have some resistance.

Parissi: Can I add one tiny comment there? I tend to think sometimes when you come at a problem with the full idea, if you have resistance like that, it become easy to say no because you’re saying no to the whole thing. And I wonder, Alyssa, maybe it’s a question for you to answer her question, would it be appropriate to suggest small steps and what would the first step be? Like, can you say “Let’s look at our messaging for this particular area,” and maybe bring that person to see the potential and benefits of refreshing and rebranding in a way that’s more just like smaller steps. You know, that’s more tangible for them. ‘Cause it is hard to move someone when they’re that firm in their belief, but perhaps step by step … I don’t know what step you would recommend first, Alyssa, but that’s usually how I approach a problem. If I get no to the big question, I start introducing smaller, more tangible changes and then by the end you can see the big picture and maybe you can change their mind fully. But, it’s a process for sure.

Conrardy: I agree with that, Valentina. I think it’s chunking it out into small steps, baby steps in the right direction. And my best suggestion for your first step is that you suggest sort of some exploration, right? Even if it’s just small exploration, doing a small survey or something like that. But, if you even that’s too big, I do think messaging is a good place to start. Looking at messaging and how it’s limiting your ability to be who you need to be or do what you need to do and thinking about making changes there. It doesn’t seem quite as overwhelming as an entire rebrand, overhaul of your identity on every piece of communication, and see if that’s a good place to start.

I think it’ll depend somewhat on your executive director and what they’re going to be most receptive to and you need to read them a little bit. Best suggestion, though, is start small and start with hopefully some data to prove out what you want to do.

Parissi: Right. Even a small campaign is what I was gonna say, that it could be just one particular campaign to achieve one small goal, and that could be kind of the door that opens for you in terms of opening that communication about other, bigger projects.

Conrardy: Yeah, yeah. That’s great. Okay. So, next question asks: “Communications and branding professionals are constantly seen as having ‘a job that anyone can do.’ We here today know that that isn’t the case. So how do you balance wanting to an extent and needing to be democratic with also needing to be assertive about your work and expertise so that the work can move forward?”

How do we, as communications and branding professionals, balance the desire to be democratic with needing to be assertive about our work and expertise?

And I think that’s speaking from the communications role, right? If you’re the communications leader, how can you be assertive and own the process while still involving others? I’ll take a crack at my opinion on this, and then, Valentina, curious how you feel it worked out at The Great Books Foundation.

But, in an ideal world, I think you want to establish that brand committee that I discussed a couple of minutes ago, but ultimately that committee needs a leader, a chairperson, and a ultimate decision maker. So, there should be some ground rules and guidelines, ideally, set up for that committee from the beginning where I believe that whoever is in the most senior role within your marketing communications or similar, we all use different titles, department is the ultimate decision maker and they’re gathering and gaining input.

I think you can definitely be very open minded to feedback and insights and input in the process, but you’ll never get anywhere if no one gets to make the final decision. So, I think you just need to identify that from the beginning and keep reinforcing while still actively listening to input from others. And I think that might be, actually, as I’m thinking about it, a bit of a hard one for Valentina to answer because she’s not in a communications role. She has more experience on the other side of the table. But I’ll say I think you’re in a lucky position if you have an executive director or president who recognizes that you should be the leader in that process, and if not you, perhaps it could be them.

Let’s see. I have time for a couple more questions. I like this one. Valentina, if you have an opinion on this one, chime in. So, Michelle asks “We’re going through a new naming process with new branding to follow. Is it okay to roll out the new name even as we develop the new look? Mostly verbal and social media usage right now.”

We’re going through a new naming process with a new branding to follow. Is it okay to roll out the new name even as we develop the new look?”

I would be hesitant about that, Michelle. I don’t think it’s an absolute no go, but I think it can create a lot of confusion for people when they’re seeing a disconnect between your visual identity and how you’re referring to yourself, even if it’s just verbally and in social media. We tend to see a better uptick with the new brand when there’s a clean break. That doesn’t mean that you might not have a curative time where you refer to your organization as organization Z, formerly known as organization Y.

But, I would be very hesitant to have kind of both going on at the same time. Valentina, is that something you’ve all explored or discussed at all?

Parissi: Yeah, and I can speak directly about Inquiry in Action because it’s something that we’ve been working on for quite a while and it’s actually not on the website yet, so I am currently talking about it before we launch it. But, I think I would have more specific questions to the person who asked this in terms of why are you feeling the need to do that, and I’m assuming it’s to test the market to see how people react to it. That’s been when I’ve used it. I’ve used it in conversation with people, but not when everything wasn’t ready. I’ve used it, like I said, very informally just to see how people react and see how it rolls off my tongue and if it makes sense. So, a little bit of kind of market testing that way. But, I definitely, I agree with Alyssa. That was my gut reaction as well, is to say that definitely nowhere in print, because you will create confusion most likely.

But again, I don’t know your organization or what the motivation is for releasing bit by bit. If it’s a replacement for something that already exists, I, again, would advise against it just because of you’ll have a dual brand out there that will create confusion.

Conrardy: Yeah, and she says “Big event coming up with excellent opportunity to announce.” Yeah, that’s hard. And I get the desire to do that, but I would caution you against it and say there will be time, there will be other events and opportunities and the impact of going at it just because there’s this opportunity on the horizon when you’re not quite ready could be more harm than good. I’m happy, though, Michelle. I feel like this is something we’d need to talk through a little bit more to figure out the best approach. I’m happy to chat about this by email if you want to shoot me an email after.

Parissi: Yeah, I was gonna say, if you have something tangible that you wanna get ready for it, having a team of experts like Prosper and Substance to help you get ready quicker than you had already planned, you definitely don’t want to lose out on opportunities. And there’s probably ways to get the shorthand ready, but have it ready enough that you can roll it out pretty quickly right after the event. I’m sure there are ways around it, but we don’t have all the details we would need to give her proper advice.

Conrardy: Yeah, we’re advising you in a vacuum, so don’t take it as a hard no. We’ll talk more about it if we can be helpful.

Parissi: We have opinions, but we’re not really sure.

Conrardy: They’re educated or informed by a conversation.

Parissi: Yes. We need more detail. Yeah.

Conrardy: Okay. So, I wanna circle back to an earlier question that I missed getting to earlier ’cause so many questions have been coming in. But, I think this is a really relevant one for many of you on this webinar, many organizations we work with. Skye says “We have a really great new brand but struggle internally to connect it to the organization’s culture. Can you talk about strategies and tactics to do that effectively?”

We have a really great new brand but struggle internally to connect it to the organization’s culture. Can you talk about strategies and tactics to do that effectively?

I personally feel that your brand should be a direct reflection of your culture, and that’s one of the main reasons to involve your team in the development and delivery of your brand. So, if that was kind of skipped in the process, I think that’s okay and you can backtrack. But, ideally for organizations that are concerned about making sure their brands align with their organizational culture from the get go, which all of us should be, you wanna involve your team in helping to shape the brand from the beginning, and ideally, your brand is a reflection of your mission and values and your culture is also a reflection of your mission and values.

So, if you involve your team in shaping it, hopefully those things will be in sync right from the get go. Working backwards, though, strategies and tactics where you have a great new brand but you’re struggling internally to connect it to the organizational culture, one thing that I might suggest is that you just do some listening sessions with people across different areas of your organization to talk about where they see disconnects and opportunities. Culture is such a organic thing, right? It’s driven by your mission and values, but also by the people on your team, your history, how they come together over time, your leadership. So many things. So, I would do some listening, and your answers, I really feel, to this challenge lie within your team. So do some listening and then determine what do we need to do? Is it trainings? Is it engagement sessions that go back to some components of the brand that maybe we missed developing, even though we did the image and identity? What do we need to do to get everyone to feel more like this is a reflection of our culture?

I think you need to first understand why the disconnect exists.

Parissi: Yeah, definitely. I was thinking along the same lines, and it’s funny when I get a question, I can see my Great Books training. I’m ready with more questions for the person.

Conrardy: It’s hard not to be able to chat with all of you, vocally.

Parissi: It needs to be a dialogue, but I think one of the things that I find really valuable is immersing the team in what you do. And, again, I don’t know what it is your organization does, so it’s hard for me to think of specific examples. But for us, you know, when we have new people joining Great Books, we send them to a teacher training so they can see what that’s like. And if they’re in the area and they wanna volunteer and be, observe some other programs in action, they can do that. We have a lot of videos of our program in action, so they can see the kids engaging and just really, you’re making a case for why they wanna work here, why they wanna be part of this mission with you. I think we often look to the outside. We want people to buy our products or be part of our organization or, you know, what can they give to us? But I think we forget that we need to sell ourselves to our team, too.

And I know the word selling is usually a dirty word, but I really believe in pitching internally, telling people on a regular basis why it’s important that they’re here. What is their role, why they’re so important to the organization for the mission. And that also kind of ties all those key messages into everything that you’re doing. If you have multiple programs … I’m sorry, go ahead.

When you have multiple things that you’re doing, then maybe identify which programs or which messages each group is more connected to or it’s more important that they buy into, and really look at your team as part of the selling process. Make sure that they’re sold on it, ’cause I don’t think anybody can sell anything that they don’t really care about. It’s hard to get those messages out there when they’re not passionate about it themselves and when they don’t realize what their part in it is and how important they are to the mission.

So, just finding a way to engage them in what it is that you do so that they have firsthand experience what it’s like to be a customer or a person that gets the service or just seeing it in action if they don’t have that opportunity on a regular basis.

Conrardy: Really great. Thanks, Valentina. And I am going to take one last question that I think is one for me, and then we will close out here. This is from Catherine, and Catherine asks “Is there a template you’d recommend for a rewrite of the brand for internal use in writing, press releases, staff contacts, and for board members?”

Is there a template you’d recommend for a rewrite of the brand for internal use in writing, press releases, staff contacts, and for board members?”

So, yes. The key messages framework that we shared is one component of it, but we develop very often for our clients at Prosper Strategies is a deliverable called a brand base. And the brand base includes a couple of key elements. It includes an internal positioning statement. It includes stakeholder profiles. It includes key messages. And then it also includes what we call a brand timeline. So, a look at how you would roll out new messaging over time and evolve to what you want to become known for from what you are today.

So, it’s not necessarily a template that I can send you. It’s something that we engage one on one with clients to produce. But, that’s just a look at what our deliverable looks like and what we might suggest you put in place. If you just need something very basic, though, writing a set of key messages could be a good place to start.

So, with that said, we are almost out of time here. Thank you again, Valentina. You were fabulous. I hope everyone enjoyed hearing from Valentina as much as I did. And just a couple of quick housekeeping items as we wrap up.

Our next webinar is on April 15th. It’s a little bit longer schedule between this one and the next. We’ll be meeting a little bit later, but we will feature on the next webinar Amy Levner, who is the vice president of marketing and communications at KaBOOM!, an organization I’m sure many of you are familiar with. They’re working to ensure equitable access to play for all kids.

So, you can sign up at prosper-strategies.com/webinar. This will also be in the follow-up message. So, I hope that you’ll be able to join us for the next webinar in the series. Know that we’ll be sending around today’s recording and slides later today, early tomorrow at the latest, depending on our recording timeline. And, in the meantime, for the next webinar, I hope all of you will continue to build toward your own marketing revolution.


Leave a Comment