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Gary Wexler
Reinventing myself again at the age of 70.

Jewish organizations wasting millions on branding

So there was a public smack-down between branding studio Big Duck questioning Shalom Hartman Institute about its ties to Israel. But that uproar is a tempest in a teapot. There is a bigger issue here that no one is talking about or even considering.

The more important issue we all should be discussing revolves around the millions of donor dollars wasted every year by Jewish organizations when they farm out work to branding firms like Big Duck.

Big Duck is a lesson for the Jewish world, a lesson about the ways in which Jewish organizations conduct their business and the firms they take on as business partners. The leaders of Big Duck have obviously, at best, acted disingenuously. More likely, they have been utterly dishonest.

They didn’t know that Hartman is based out of Jerusalem?

They didn’t know that Hartman is a Zionist organization?

They didn’t learn of the influence that Hartman scholars have upon Jewish leadership and the content they produce?

They didn’t do their research and go to the Hartman website? Big Duck has been trafficking in Jewish world organizations for years and they didn’t know about Hartman? Really?

Baloney. Big Duck was making a point to Hartman and showing its fangs about Israel to the world. Clear and simple.

A branding firm has no right to intimidate a potential client, Jewish or not, about whether the client organization’s mission fits into the branding company’s values system. Big Duck should never have engaged with Hartman in the first place. Branding firms have no professional right to put Hartman — or any organization for that matter — through a third degree.

But there is also a bigger, more universal issue that we should all examine here. The concept of “branding” in the nonprofit Jewish world is a fallacy. It rarely produces measurable results.

Yet, the money keeps flowing to these firms in ridiculous enormous amounts.

For many years, I taught advertising, branding and nonprofit marketing and communications in the Master’s program at the prestigious University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication. Before that, I spent years working in the marketing and advertising worlds, and a long stint as the head of the leading marketing firm servicing the Jewish nonprofit world.

Over the years I worked on the branding of behemoth for-profit clients like Coca Cola and Apple. But I also worked on the so-called branding of a multitude of Jewish organizations in the US, Canada and Israel. I have studied the results carefully.

During my ten years teaching at USC, I had ten different nonprofits collaborating with students in my classes every semester. I also facilitated Communication workshops for hundreds of nonprofit organizations, many of them Jewish. I had a front row seat to observe all these organizations’ branding efforts.

Branding, an element of marketing, by itself can work for big products and services, helping them reach their bottom line sales and investment results. But only if the company is willing and able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it.

Successful branding campaigns require these companies to buy serious media and plant multiple repeating impressions of their brand for weeks, months and years. Companies of this type can hire scores of brilliant marketing employees and staff large departments of communications professionals to carry out continually evolving branding strategies, tactics, social media campaigns, collect data, perform analytics and implement changes.

That’s how branding succeeds.

In contrast, most nonprofit budgets allow expenditures, including on staff, of at most a few hundred thousand dollars. Those kind of budgets, while significant sums in the nonprofit world, fall orders of magnitude short of the dollars required for a serious branding campaign that can generate real results.

Not surprisingly, the results of so many nonprofit branding campaigns I analyzed were dismal.

Even more troubling, the nonprofits themselves were rarely clear about the results they hoped or realistically expected to achieve from their expenditures.

For Jewish nonprofit budgets to realize results from any marketing campaign, they first must hire firms that know how to talk to Jews, that know how to approach and touch the Jewish soul. No matter what branding they do, it will never work if it can’t effectively inspire Jews.

Can anyone believe, after their interaction with Hartman, that Big Duck knows how to touch the Jewish soul?

Would anyone believe that the folks at Big Duck are committed to successful outcomes for Jewish organizations and the Jewish world, as a communication firm working with the Jewish soul has to be?

Like for-profit organizations, the bottom lines Jewish nonprofits want to achieve should direct their marketing expenditures. But that is where the similarities end. Most branding firms don’t have the faintest idea about how to understand the complexities of those Jewish bottom lines, much less how to achieve them.

Jewish organizations should approach their marketing in a very different way from for-profit organizations. Jewish nonprofits require an approach that goes far beyond the limited creation of tag lines, logos, storytelling, websites and social media, which are the services that branding firms sell to nonprofits and how branding firms make their money.

What are those Jewish bottom lines? Unfortunately, frustratingly, most Jewish organizations never ask that question with respect to their own bottom lines when entering into branding or broader marketing discussions.

When I would ask them what they wanted to achieve with their branding, they would answer in two ways. “Awareness.” Or, “We are the best kept secret in town.” The worst answer I ever received came from synagogues. They would tell me that their bottom line was haimish. (Haimish is Yiddish for warm, friendly, homelike.) Of course, every synagogue should be haimish.

But, haimish is not a bottom line. Nor is awareness.

This failure to identify these institutions’ real bottom lines is killing them. Why? Because it’s an excuse not to challenge themselves to change and become relevant for a new era.

Hearing these answers over and over, I began to ask the question differently. “When you stand in front of your board and have to explain what this expenditure achieved, what do you really want to say we accomplished together?”

That was when the real answers surfaced, as the organizations would finally open up to disclose their difficult realities which they rarely wanted share. “We have a participation or membership problem.” “We have a money problem.” “People don’t understand what we stand for.” “We need collaborations or partnerships, especially in our fundraising and sponsorships.” Now we could get to work. And the answers to their challenges were rarely branding.

The real bottom lines for these organizations were much more significant.

Identifying these real Jewish bottom lines would lead the organizations down the path of analysis, powerful ideas of engagement with the identified market segments, building relationships with influencers who would reach out to their networks, and community organizing.

Achieving these Jewish bottom lines required a great deal more strategy and creativity. Achieving them demanded organizational change — a collaboration between the communication professionals and the membership people, the fundraisers, the advocates, and those responsible for identifying potential partners. It meant framing conversations which engaged targeted people’s intellects, emotions and caused a relationship of back and forth dialogue, rather than messaging which only went out one way. It required setting up attainable goals and evaluation systems. Once these actions became the engine of the communication, then the branding, social media and storytelling would follow.

Yet, no matter how many times I would speak and write about this with Jewish organizations, the results were always the same. The organizations returned to branding firms, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, because it was easier to believe the firms would produce a magic bullet.

There is yet another reason branding doesn’t often work for nonprofit and particularly Jewish organizations. Jewish organizations have an overwhelming amount of lay entanglement in their processes. This kind of bureaucracy can become a death knell when working with creative people. It expands the approval processes, taking months for interactions which should have taken days or weeks, with too many people involved, changing direction and asking for revision after revision. It depletes the enthusiasm of creative people. It leads to branding firms spending more time than initially budgeted and they begin to lose money. Tensions rise, people get angry, and the firm just wants to finish the work, before hemorrhaging even more dollars.

We are now in a world rooted in communication and marketing. Communication today is everywhere. It is changing everything. It is now in partnership with each step a Jewish organization takes. The Jewish world has to understand its importance, its priority, and decide to do it properly in order to reach success. That means a lot of open minds and change. Can we do it?

About the Author
The National Library of Israel recently established the Gary Wexler Archive, twenty years of communication and marketing materials for the Jewish world. Gary recently spent ten years as a professor in the Masters program at the USC-Annenberg School of Communication. His first profession was as a copywriter and creative director writing award winning campaigns for clients ranging from Apple to Coca Cola.
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