Fireside Chat: Justin Melnick on the Power of Brand

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Some of the best conversations are inspired by sitting around the fire and thinking of possibilities and visions – large and small.

Guest Justin Melnick has a rich experience working with major brands like QVC. He also is a professor at Temple University where he teaches branding and marketing strategy. For any nonprofit that’s thinking about doing a brand refresh, has recently completed one, or is thinking about how to invest in branding, read on for a deep discussion on what branding has to do for nonprofits.

Our Fireside Chats are designed for audiences with varied experiences with technology. In this Fireside Chat with Justin Melnick learn more about the power of brand for your nonprofit.


Kyle Haines:  Hey, everyone. Welcome back to Transforming Nonprofits, where we explore topics related to nonprofits and technology. In these episodes, sometimes the link between nonprofits and technology is incredibly clear, and sometimes these topics might feel a bit tangential. This episode might feel a bit in the latter category, but as you listen to this episode, the links between brand and technology hopefully become a bit more apparent.

Personally, I’ve always been really curious about the topic. A brand. Brand for me is something that I can experience, but I can’t always describe the things that are creating that experience. It’s something I’m incredibly interested in, and I’m excited for this episode to learn more about brand.

My guest is Justin Melnick, and he has a rich experience working with major brands like QVC. He also is a professor at Temple University where he teaches branding and marketing strategy. I think for any nonprofit that’s thinking about doing a brand refresh, has recently completed one, thinking about how to invest in branding, there’s a ton of interesting stuff in here. Thanks so much for listening to this episode.

This is Transforming Nonprofits. Justin, thank you so much for being here today.

Justin Melnick:  So happy to be here. Thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Haines:  Justin, I’m curious, just a little bit of background on yourself and how you got more interested in brand. Your background? Is it something you did in elementary school? You know, primary school, branding in primary school?

Justin Melnick:  Probably, and I love that question. And of course, that’s another Fireside Chat, too. That’s always a fun story to share with others. But I got into brand because I was fascinated by the power of what something looks like, feels like, smells like, tastes like, that can drive an outcome and an intended result on any type of audience. I was just always fascinated about why.

I like the one example I think a lot of people can relate to. If you’ve ever gone to a theme park and you’re waiting in line for a ride, there’s a deliberate experience that surrounds you. People are making design decisions, and they’re making very deliberate moves to create and evoke a sense before you experience the actual thing you’re there to do. And I was always fascinated by those details and the music, the look, the decisions that went behind it from a very early age, likely elementary school, yeah.

Kyle Haines:  It’s interesting because I think about, and we talked a little bit about this  before meeting today, I think of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Immediately when I went into that building, not having the expertise to describe specifically what was being imparted by that experience, but I walked into the lobby and before you even get into the museum, I had a similar experience. I had this wow, somebody was really thoughtful about reading and evoking this feeling before I even get into the content itself.

Justin Melnick:  Yeah. And that is a really powerful example. That’s an instance where you have visitors that are experiencing something where they’re bringing a lot to the table already. And what you decide to do with that story and what you want people to walk away feeling relies a lot on one of the most important things in branding. And that is consumer perception, cause that’s our truth, right? We can’t create truth from nothing. We have to start from what people already know about whatever it is we are asking them to experience with us.

Kyle Haines:  Ethereal, at least I think it’s ethereal.

How do you define “brand” and make it accessible for people who don’t know what brand is?

Justin Melnick:  Yeah, another great question. I think the best way for me to answer that is remembering the audiences that I work with. Brand is this intangible thing that leads to tangible impact.

And so when you’re trying to convince people in an organization or have them understand why it’s important to understand brand, the best thing I can say is, think about brand as what people say about you when you leave the room. It’s the sum of all parts. Like you said earlier, Kyle, it’s more than just a logo and identity. It’s decisions, it’s strategy. It’s all of these things coming together that do allow you to have an impact.

Imagine that Coca-Cola for example, they left the room. What are people saying when they leave the room? And how can we use brand as a tool to control that and then further develop a relationship in the future?

Kyle Haines:  Love it. So often, Justin, we work with nonprofits and the point at which we’re working with them, they are doing a larger strategic refresh. They’re looking at technology sometimes that comes in close proximity to this brand refresh, and we aren’t involved in that explicitly, but I’m wondering, what are some of the things that you would say are good drivers of a brand refresh?

How do you know when it’s time to take a look at your brand if it’s something you haven’t done in a while?

Justin Melnick:  Oh, this is not a quiz, right?

Kyle Haines:  It’s not a quiz. You’re not being graded. I mean, we’ll see how well this is rated after it’s posted, but.

Justin Melnick:  Understood, understood. I might owe you money after this? Yeah.

Kyle Haines:  Yeah. I do have some easier questions later. I wanted to start with some of the foundational, “how well do you know your stuff?” questions.

Justin Melnick: No, these are great. And I think these are the key questions that your audience is going to want to know that will help them.

Well, first, I’m a big fan of trusting your gut. When you have leaders at an organization, especially in the nonprofit world where resources are always scarce, and time and everything that you need to achieve your mission is always scarce, when that seems to become more and more difficult. You just can’t seem to get the attention from the stakeholders that you need, there’s nothing wrong with your mission, why you exist. It’s just how we communicate that and show up for those people that we’re trying to speak to. It’s not hitting.

That’s when it might be time to take a look at your brand and just clarify how you’re showing up in the world. It can happen in minutes. You already have the answers in front of you. You already have the proof that you’re not achieving your goals.

I’d ask you Kyle, too, what are the things that you would ask your clients and your friends that you’re working with, what problem are you trying to solve? We spoke a little bit earlier and over time, and I’ll put it back to you. There’s one thing that you’ve said that I think is really key, and that is being very clear about the problem you’re trying to solve.

So what things have you noticed that say it’s time to take a look at our brand?

Kyle Haines:  My wife’s aunt said this to me about 15 years ago, and it has really stuck with me. What she said to me is that oftentimes the work that you do is about getting down off of your rock and getting up on somebody else’s rock.

I think that that is a great way of thinking of when it’s time to do a brand refresh. And I think what I’m interested in is how brand impacts those who you are trying to serve.

You talked about an amusement park earlier. If somebody is receiving services, what’s the experience they should have? Whether those experiences are happening at your organization, whether you’re a food distribution center or whether you’re delivering the services digitally. I think that when you get to the point that you don’t think you’re capable of reaching those people anymore or making an impact on those people, I think that’s the time to think about your brand.

My guess is that how you serve those people, how you get up every day and serve your constituents, that’s really the story that you would want to tell to the broader world about the impact that you’re making and the importance of your organization and why your organization is worthy of support.

Justin Melnick:  Yeah, absolutely. And I would like to add to that and say, sometimes people can’t get to that place where they don’t understand why it’s not working. So if you imagine well, this is why we exist, it’s just not working. We’re just not getting through. Anyone that’s committed and passionate about what they’re doing and why they exist and what their purpose is, it’s hard to take a step back.

What’s really, really hard is to ask your audiences for feedback. Because it’s the last thing anyone wants to hear.  This sounds crass, but I don’t care what anybody says, we cannot be objective when we are the ones that are out there professing a message. It’s because it’s our message.

Kyle Haines:  Yeah.

Justin Melnick:  In order to make sure that message becomes loud, clear, concise and works, we have to step back and we have to ask for help. And that help comes in a simple form of research.

There’s so many tools out there, Kyle, that can be used, like Google Forms. Such rudimentary, simple things that don’t take a lot of time. It hurts to sometimes hear the truth about why what you’re doing isn’t working. So if someone that we’re speaking to or you’re working with, comes to the point of I’m just not sure what to do, research is always the starting point.

Kyle Haines:  Yeah. We talked about some of the good reasons to do a brand refresh. I’m going to guess I know some of them.

What are the things that are signals to you that people are trying to get more out of a brand refresh than is reasonable to expect or they’re just not ready to do a brand refresh?

I know you’ve worked with a lot of different organizations and companies. What are the things that signal to you that there’s some larger questions that need to be answered, or you’re just not ready?

Justin Melnick:  My head is going towards the reality that we encounter a lot. And that is you have different decision makers in organizations that are going to have a different opinion on whether brand is: number one, important or not; and then, what to do and what course of action to take.

Our personalities can get in the way of the best course of action. I want to make sure I’m answering your question, too.

Let me answer the opposite. When do you just leave things alone? If your business is not doing what it needs to do and it’s not meeting the objectives, we know there’s always a number of factors behind that.

I’m thinking about a really timely example. When I worked at an agency in Philadelphia, we worked with an organization called Mural Arts and it was a nonprofit. They were a great storytelling organization that really rallied a lot of different communities across Philadelphia to create opportunities for artists to get on the map and to carry messages: political, economic and just human stories to different audiences.

The pandemic hit and everyone experienced something somewhere, but they were able to really utilize that as an opportunity to continue to further their mission. They had known inherently, it wasn’t time to relook at their brand. We need to relook at the offering, the category offering.

A brand refresh is not this panacea that’s just going to fix everything. It does require you to really sit, take a look:

  • Is our product offering what it needs to be?
  • And then, how we’re communicating that, is that working?
  • And then, are we creating an experience that is seamless and people want to come back?

Believe it or not, artists and the audiences of mural arts experience that, too. So we talked about technology, and technology plays a key role in that. So when it comes to, how do I get on your list? How do I sign up and donate my time?

If that experience doesn’t feel the way the brand wants it to feel when it comes time to actually being part of that organization, you’ve already lost. Unfortunately, there’s no direct answer to that question. It’s really taking a look at the journey for all of your audiences and saying, are we able to actually deliver on the experience that we say we are? My mission could be whatever I want it to be. If I come upon a step in that journey that’s broken, all bets are off. You’ve already lost. It’s kind of a roundabout way to answer, but it’s ongoing.

You don’t just sit in a room one day for an hour and say, let’s take a look and see if we need to do a brand refresh. You have to stay close to the way your business or your brand is performing.

Kyle Haines:  That’s super interesting. Something I said earlier maybe was a little off. Based on what you just said, if there’s a volunteering opportunity for the mural arts project, that’s more of a product rather than the brand itself. Did I understand what you’re saying correctly?

Justin Melnick:  Well, it’s really both. Mural Arts, creating these opportunities for their community members, the way they speak, how they present, that’s the proof. That’s the waiting in line for the rollercoaster at the amusement park. That’s what tells you that the experience you’re about to have with this brand is in line with your expectation. And then people have no idea what they’re getting into. Are you creating and evoking that sense that that really lives up to what you say you are about to deliver on?

Kyle Haines:  That makes sense. I wanted to ask a question about QVC and something that I thought was really interesting.

It’s the decision, as I understand it, when they talk about the customer at QVC, they use the pronouns, “she” and “her.” I would imagine it is a distillation of the brand and in some ways foundational to discussions about brand. Am I thinking about that right?

Justin Melnick:  Yeah. That’s a great question. With any brand, when you are really close to your audiences and you really understand them, their perception is your truth. So if we determine that we need to figure out a way to get them to think differently about what they currently believe, that’s one challenge, and that’s one opportunity.

I want to know about your experience with this too, because you’re probably in this more than I’ve ever been. When it comes to referring to an audience and a group of people, we’ve frequently relied on stereotypes, which are not a negative thing when you’re trying to make decisions for millions of people and delivering what you know that you want them to love about you.

And so, pronouns have always been a way to help us just isolate and captivate the minds of team members and employees so that they’re making decisions with very little information that are going to be good decisions. Pronouns have always played a key role in that, because when we say things like he or she, it does evoke a sensibility in different generations because those definitions and how people identify have changed.

We, as the practitioners, need to evolve and change. So while I can’t speak to the behind the curtain world of QVC, I can say that there are many discussions about it. Was that appropriate? Is that appropriate? I personally have begun to replace she with they. It doesn’t mean that we weren’t still targeting certain types of product categories and speaking to them in a way that our audience could identify with.

But what we never wanted to do was make anyone feel that they weren’t welcome to be a part of our experience. Especially where we are now, it’s more important than ever for us to just say that at the top. We are still trying to be able to admit that is really important. So for us internally to have said historically, we are for women, we are for she. Well, now to say, we don’t know what that means anymore, but here’s what our product still is. Here’s the experience, here’s who it’s for. This is what we want to evoke.

We want to do it the right way and I was fortunate enough that the leaders at the top of that organization, they meant it. We know that’s a whole other conversation, but I’m curious. Where have you come across that? Because we want to constantly make sure we are talking to people the way we need to. We are going to make mistakes, we’re going to trip up, use the wrong words. What’s your experience been when it comes to pronoun usage and things of that nature?

Kyle Haines:  I think it’s a new frontier. What I think about is more on the data side and wanting to understand who the audiences are at an organization. I think this is a roundabout way of answering your question. Really making sure that we understand who our audience is and we are speaking to them in ways that resonate with them.

I think that oftentimes in my work, the data has challenged some of those assumptions that people have made. And I think that for me it’s a balance.

This is a non-specific answer because this isn’t a client, but in an organization, for example, that perhaps serves a cancer that overwhelmingly afflicts people who at birth have the gender assignment of male or female. How do you speak to them in a way that resonates with them, meeting them where they are, but also makes room for others as well? I definitely don’t think that I’ve come across a way to perfectly solve for it other than perhaps what you said in an earlier answer that it’s evolving and it’s an openness to continuing to have the conversation. And I think I can speak personally, a willingness to get it wrong and make it okay that I get it wrong. And it’s more about learning from getting it wrong, as opposed to trying to avoid making mistakes and getting it wrong.

Justin Melnick:  A hundred percent, a hundred percent. One of the things I really love about us navigating that new frontier, we are people in a room making decisions on behalf of people that we don’t know. At our organization, we were very fortunate that we brought in a leader. We had a vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion added to the executive team. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

We had what were called Team Member Resource Groups where each was autonomous. They were allowed to create their own charter. And we would reach out to these groups. So when it came time to, we asked ourselves, what harm are we doing if we continue to refer to our audience as “she?”

We went to these different team member resource groups and we asked them because they are part of the other side of that conversation. I think we forget that we can do that, and it’s okay to do that, and we need to do more of that. So whether you’re nonprofit, for-profit, whatever, an individual, your neighbor, if we’re all getting on that side of asking that person that we are hoping to interact with, how they would expect to be referred to, there’s your answer. And it’s constantly learning, constantly evolving.

Kyle Haines:  Yeah, and you unintentionally created a great segue into a question that I had. For many nonprofits, the way people experience that brand, that are receiving services from that brand, are the employees themselves or the volunteers themselves. It’s not something external facing in terms of a website or a brochure or a social media ad, those sorts of things. The way people are experiencing that brand is through the people working at that nonprofit.

As you think about brand, what are other ways that you integrate the employee perspective into the brand?

You talked about DE&I, how valuable that’s been. Are there other places that you think employees can contribute to, whether it’s the overall brand architecture, if you’re doing a redesign or just these ongoing conversations? What are things that you’ve seen that have worked well to keep employees engaged around brand?

Justin Melnick:  Yeah. Kyle, I’ll tell you one of my favorite things about these types of discussions is the general nature of just digging in and talking about brand, but what’s really helpful for people that don’t have the knowledge we have is to know, well, what am I supposed to do with this information?

I’d like to answer that with something tangible. Here’s something you can do that not only answers your question, Kyle, but also gives your audience something that they can go and make today.

When you have your employees, your team members, your advocates, your volunteers that are part of your organization that you know are part of delivering on the purpose of why you exist, whether you’re a Coca-Cola, whether you’re Mural Arts, whatever you are, give them actual tools and templates and things that help them do what it is you know will help them help the organization.

I don’t want to cheapen that by saying that in the world of retail and QVC specifically, we have a lot of customer service representatives that answer the phones. Usually people are calling when there’s a challenge, when we are able to arm them with tools and talking points and something they can put on their wall. A few bullets that say, this is who we are. This is constantly the experience we want to convey. Remember these words, smile when you’re speaking. Just these simple things that can help convey the brand as we want it to be.

That’s going to work so much harder than a seven day employee-led immersive workshop thing that people are just going to be exhausted by. Create tools that are going to actually allow people to make real-time decisions. And then they end up teaching themselves so people will start to become their own best teacher.

So if I use the Mural Arts example, they have an annual event called Wall Ball, and we don’t have enough time to talk about how cool that is and why everybody should go and experience that. But if an email comes through for that on anybody’s email desktops, just please buy tickets to that. It’s an amazing event.

We’re talking about that, and then you have others in the organization that are trying to tout why you do a part, be a part of this. Creating materials that allow them to talk about why they did it in the past. Testimonials are so powerful. You have members in your organization that already have a testimonial. That testimonial could be why they joined your organization to begin with.

There you go. There’s another tool that you can make. When someone can share with another person whose attention you’re trying to get, here’s why I joined, and here’s why I give my time to this organization, whether it’s volunteering, whether it’s a paid opportunity, that’s going to be so much more powerful than a beautiful website.

Of course you need to have the tech stack to power those types of things and make sure that that happens effortlessly. We’re not talking about huge investments all the time. Going back to your earlier question, Kyle, have you ever had that where you’ve talked about brand with clients and they’ve said, oh, we don’t have the money for that?

Kyle Haines:  Absolutely. Yeah, or I think that it becomes a big exercise and the biggest artifact that comes out of that is a brand guidelines document and an expectation that that’s the end product of it. That’s what I’ve seen is that’s the end product with a lot of guidelines around brand colors, logo usage, type fonts, things like that.

But there’s not really an implementation around what are we going to do in an ongoing way, what are we going to do with employees? That’s what really piqued my interest around that question. I don’t see a lot about the small things that you can do that are more tangibly experienced by those interacting with the brand, whether they are constituents that are receiving services or people supporting the organization.

Justin Melnick:  Don’t get me wrong, the identity part is key. So we do need those guidelines because the last thing you want is the same message going out that looks like it’s coming from many different places. So it is worth the investment and it is important.

But like you said, there are little things that create consistency and clarity that everybody’s on the same page wherever they’re working from. Whatever they need to convey, it’s all coming from the same place.

Kyle Haines:  Yep. When I’ve been engaged with organizations over a long period of time and increasingly seen as a de facto staff member, I think this amplifies your point, Justin, I begin to make and put presentations on their branding rather than Build Consulting’s branding because I want it to look like an extension of the work the organization’s already doing, rather than something that’s out there in isolation.

It’s a small thing that I’ve always had this awareness that my work needs to look like a consultant, an extension of the broader work of the organization, and those little visual cues are incredibly important.

Justin Melnick:  Absolutely. A hundred percent.

Kyle Haines:  Well, Justin, I really appreciate your time. I have two softball questions to end with.

Justin Melnick:  Oh, no.

Kyle Haines:  I’m curious what you do to stay inspired, blogs that you follow or magazines you subscribe to, HGTV channels that you watch constantly?

What are the things you do to stay inspired around brand?

Justin Melnick:  Oh, wow. What a great question. I admit this because I think it’s important that other people out there feel okay about this, too. I do not like to read, but I love what happens as a result of reading. So I force myself to read as much as I possibly can. I subscribe to a lot of the gurus and branding space. And yes, I’ll pick up an occasional novel here and there, very occasionally, very minimally, but snackable content.

You don’t have to have your hooks into every smart blog and email. Who has time for that? Right? And it’s okay to do that. We know that content proliferation is real and it’s just going to keep compounding and just getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

The inspiration for me comes from simple things, too. I go outside, I go and I watch people and I’m a fly on a wall in environments. Is it eavesdropping? Is it creepy? Depends on who you ask. But just being around people, seeing when they smile, what led to them smile, seeing when they frown, what led to them to frown. That is inspiration.

As much as I’d love for all of us to be happy a hundred percent of the time, that’s not the human experience. I’m inspired by seeing how people get to where they are, but then also how they stay that way and how they change the way they are.

It doesn’t cheapen it, but to see how brands play a role in how their lives become better and how they achieve what they need. That is not a softball. We need a seven day Fireside Chat for that one, Kyle.

Kyle Haines:  Well, the way I thought you were going to answer, why I thought it was a softball is going back to where you started. What I heard you say is a big part of you. What’s been an inspiration for you is remaining curious and present. And I think about you waiting in line for the roller coaster just looking around and being aware of the things. How am I feeling right now? Is it intentionally trying to soothe me before this? Is it trying to get me scared and fired up? Do they construct this line in a specific way so you could see people speeding past upside down to get your adrenaline pumping?

Justin Melnick:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kyle Haines:  To me, I think those are the things that inspire me, even if I don’t have all of the expertise always to draw a line between how I’m feeling, eg. at the Holocaust Museum, to how they did it. And that’s the thing that I think is fascinating about the work that you do, is the ability to unpack how they created those feelings. I’m only capable of saying, I’m having a feeling right now, and I think there was some intentionality behind it.

Justin Melnick:  Yeah.

Kyle Haines:  Justin, for people who want to reach out to you, what are good ways to connect with you and see the things that you’re interested in and following? And I’m curious for our audience, where can they find you?

Justin Melnick:  My LinkedIn is probably the best place to find me, reach out, send a message. I’m fairly active there. Also, because I am more of an observer, I don’t post a lot. I do like to see what everybody else is up to, but the easiest way to reach out is certainly through my LinkedIn. And I’d be happy to engage with everyone. I am that person that comes up to complete strangers in the airport and asks them questions just because I have that one opportunity to ask them a burning question and I do. So, I love when people do the same.

Kyle Haines:  Excellent. I really appreciate you making time to talk today. I heard an offer to do seven or eight more Fireside Chats that would take hours and hours and hours.

Justin Melnick:  Yeah. And based on what we’ve talked about and what we’ve talked about before, Kyle, I know you work with a lot of partners and a lot of clients. You have a lot of really interesting folks that you’re encountering. How do you help them think about brand? And I’m sorry if that’s a big thing to close on, but I would like to know because that would help me as well.

Kyle Haines:  Oftentimes, the work that we do, the people who are engaging with the technology that we’re talking about, even at the most tactical level, impacts their experience of working at a nonprofit. And so this is a really basic example that is more about hardware rather than software. But if you’re giving your employees or they have five year old laptops that are constantly crashing and are really slow, that’s a brand experience.

Justin Melnick:  Absolutely.

Kyle Haines:  And in some way that brand experience is sending the message that it’s an organization that’s working from a place of scarcity rather than abundance. And I believe that a decision as small as that reinforces to people that work there to work from a scarcity mindset. Then it becomes part of the DNA of the organization.

Perhaps they’re making decisions about investments that are client facing or constituent facing. And so that’s how it comes up. I think about the technology that I engage with, even if it’s not consumer facing and it’s internal facing, that’s an extension of the brand experience. If things don’t work well and are difficult to work with and challenging or they don’t get adequate training or it’s murky about how to use these tools, that is part and parcel with a brand experience and it impacts nonprofits in ways big and small and ways that are obvious and sometimes incredibly subtle.

Justin Melnick:  Yeah. I think that that’s key. And brand does allow you the proof point to say, yes, we understand that this is a challenge and resources may be scarce, but the reallocation discussion needs to happen because it’s not going to solve itself.

That’s great. You are absolutely helping a lot of the folks you’re working with to think about the things that are important because technology powers brand. I’m just happy to hear that. So maybe we should do a few more follow ups cause I know there’s a lot more I can learn from you.

Kyle Haines:  Yeah. I can learn more from you as well. And it sounds like you offered to do a pro bono brand refresh for Build Consulting.

Justin Melnick:  I, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that, but.

Kyle Haines:  We can talk about that offline. Well it was really, really good to spend time with you today. I appreciate it. I know how busy you are and we’ll find a way to do this again.

Justin Melnick:  This was a pleasure. Thank you so much, Kyle.

Kyle Haines:  Of course. Thanks Justin.

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