Branding a Secular Organization Part 1: How to Market Your Group to Attract and Keep Members

Note: This article is a continuation of “The Roots of Building a Secular Community” Read articles in that series here.

Why is Branding So Important?

A brand is the identity of an organization, what it has accomplished over time, and what it has to offer.  It is what others feel about the group and what makes them come back for more or disappear.

Neuro-associations in our brains connect directly to all the experiences we have had with an entity or organization. They create an immediate, automatic judgment or feeling about it, whether good or bad, whenever we think about it. This feeling is not something we can easily override. We either like something or don’t like it based on all the encounters we have had. One negative experience with something can nullify many positive ones. Also, to make an entity stand out from the rest, it should be very clear and distinct what its purpose and features are. This is where really good branding comes in.

After owning several businesses with my wife, Margaret, and being an accountant, I have studied marketing and the rules of creating a brand name for a business. The goal is to attract business and keep customers. This concept can also be applied to a secular nonprofit organization, which has definite similarities to a for-profit business, because you are trying to attract and keep members. A nonprofit can be run in a “business-like” manner in all parts of the organization.

I will draw from actual experiences that have been successful in secular community building. This is definitely challenging, because what seems like a brilliant idea may not appeal to the target audience. Don’t make assumptions. It’s important to know how others think and how to reach them.

Then there are established “laws” of branding based on thousands of real-world business experiences. I will tell you how these laws apply to secularism. A brand can make or break a business or organization, so there is some real discipline involved.

So, how do you make all of this work?  Once the concept of branding is understood, then a lot of what the group does is based on intuitive thinking. Branding and marketing are really based on common sense, although it is not automatically obvious. Once it all sinks in, it is easier to make good marketing decisions.


Some “Laws” of Branding

There is a wonderful book titled The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Jack Trout, who are two of the world’s leading authorities on marketing and branding. The book demonstrates why these laws are important and cites actual marketing campaigns by large companies. Some of these campaigns succeeded, and many that failed miserably, and the book clearly why.

Of the twenty-two laws, I’ve chosen eleven that I feel can best be applied to a secular organization. Two of them are specifically about creating a logo that will catch people’s attention and stand out. Most of the other laws not mentioned here are about beating the competition, which doesn’t fit the aims of the secular world. Collaboration is essential, along with getting into the minds of prospective members. First, the eleven laws are defined as they relate to business. Then, the laws are adapted to show how they can be applied to secular organizations.

1. The Law of Expansion

The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope. Don’t have many similar, related products. In other words, be careful not to be too redundant with regular events and programs, such as holding a class on atheism and a different class on humanism. One class on comparative secularism that discusses both atheism and humanism might be more appropriate. There are always exceptions to every rule, so if a monthly dinner social at a favorite restaurant becomes very popular, then a second dinner social could be added with a slightly different theme, such as going to a brewpub or trying a different type of cuisine. Spread the events out during the month.

2. The Law of Contraction

A brand becomes stronger when you narrow its focus. You can’t be everything to everyone. If you try to offer too many different varieties of products and services, then it is unclear what your brand is about.  People become confused and move on. Make sure events and programs are relevant to your mission. For instance, a class on mathematics would not directly relate to secularism, and might be better found at a community college. However, a class on science and evolution is definitely related to secularism as a real alternative to religion.

3. The Law of Singularity

The most important aspect of a brand is its single-mindedness. It should be very clear what the brand is, and it should not try to be too many things at once (“It’s a dessert topping—No, it’s a floor wax”). This is similar to the Law of Contraction in that you can’t be everything to everyone. Contraction is the relevance of your product line to fit the brand, where the Law of Singularity is a clear purpose of the brand itself. You can’t be both a secular group/candy store simultaneously, although you could be a candy store that raises money to help secular groups or a secular group that runs a candy store to raise money. (This particular example brings up the legal issues of a nonprofit running a business, which can be done with certain guidelines.)

4. The Law of the Name

In the long run, a brand is nothing more than a name. The name is the brand. Think Clorox or Apple. Avoid generic names and keep the name concise. For our purposes, names like Secular Hub, Boulder Atheists, or Jefferson Humanists are excellent. Notice that a two-word combination of the town/locale and the primary type of secularism the group identifies with is common. A name can encompass a larger demographic or geographic, such as Colorado Coalition of Reason or United Coalition of Reason. This is actually a whole different beast and requires more resources. Be very clear and don’t try to seem bigger than you are too quickly or others will perceive the organization as “all huff and no stuff”.

5. The Law of Publicity

The birth of a brand is achieved with publicity, not advertising, although some advertising is needed. Find ways to get your group publicized in the media and with other secular organizations. Make sure the publicity is positive and don’t try to get it by stirring up trouble just for that purpose. If a religious organization attacks your members without provocation, this can be used as a way to get recognition from other secular organizations. First, get them on your side by broadcasting the outrage. However, be extremely careful or this could backfire against you. Try to appear as the aggrieved rather than the aggressor.

6. The Law of Credentials

The crucial ingredient in the success of any brand is its claim to authenticity. Always be consistent, real, and honest about your mission. Just claiming to be authentic does not convince people that you are. Build up a positive and enduring base.

7. The Law of Quality

Quality is important, but brands are not built by quality alone. People think they can tell a high quality product from a low quality one, but can they really? Quality is also perception-based. However, by always offering well-planned and reliable programs, the perceived value of your brand will increase.

8. The Law of Consistency

A brand is not built overnight. Success is measured in years, not months. Markets may change, but brands should not. The group’s basic mission should be built on a strong foundation that is consistent. Determine the kinds of events and programs that work best and keep them going. Have regular monthly events on the same day each month, such as “the fourth Sunday,” and stick with it. Adjustments can be made to improve events and new ones added. If the event or program is not succeeding, it should be discontinued.

9. The Law of Fellowship

In order to build the category, a brand should welcome other similar brands. This can be about collaborating and opening your arms. Let it be known that your group loves to network and share events.  Never be in competition with other secular organizations.

These next two laws apply specifically to creating a “perfect” logo from a marketing perspective. They will be examined in the next section on logos. They are:

10. The Law of Shape

A brand’s logotype should be designed to fit the eyes.

11. The Law of Color

A brand should use color that is the opposite of its major competitors’.

In Part Two, I’ll explain how to put these rules into play for your own secular brand.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3