Thriving Design for Legacy Organizations

Nonprofits, foundations, and other mission-driven organizations that were incepted 50, 60, or even 100 years ago may struggle to keep up with the pace of digital advancement. Decision makers often include a board of directors that might not accept change readily, even if others know/they know it’s time. An aging board, or older staff members, or a business with family members find their branded materials are like a family crest: made a long, long time ago, embedded with its business’s DNA.

Audience have expectations with the shift of technological advancement. People want to see if an organization has a website that is easy to view on phones. People want to check out the Instagram or Twitter account of a business to see what that organization is talking about.

To thrive today, legacy organizations—organizations and businesses that have a long history, or may be owned by a multiple family generations—need to look at and transform (one might say, redesign) their brand identity and online presence if they want to flourish in the future.

Thrive in the digital age.
In March I had the great opportunity to attend the 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference. The conference was a 3-day event addressing the technology needs for nonprofits, which includes data management, digital marketing, web development, and digital inclusion.

I attended a breakout session titled 100 Years Young: How a Historic Brand Stays Digitally Relevant. I was intrigued by this since the topic was addressing how marketing and design agency Beaconfire Red and 100 years-young League of Women Voters worked together and, as the session stated, “reinvigorated their brand and voice to reach a new, primarily digital audience.” The problem was that the League’s audience was stagnant and aging. What they needed was to grow audience and build lasting relationships with next generation.

Their advice felt familiar to experiences I’ve had working with legacy organizations, such as a 30-year-old family-owned New England retail business who needed a new brand identity, and a 160-year-old private education institution that needed a refresh on their admissions materials. Here are a few recommendations to transform and rollout a new brand identity, website, and collateral that feels current.

Make your voice and messaging active.
Instead of speaking as your organization, speak to what people are searching for online. It’s most likely that someone will be hopping on their phone, searching for something to feel like they can be an active be a part of. Because of this, make the content you’re writing more active, powerful, and relevant. Change the messaging to say “This is what we do,” to “this is how you can help.”

And be very clear about what you do. You know what it feels like to go to a website and want to learn more about who they are, to be turned away when it’s hard to understand what they do when copy feels like it’s in the weeds. Less jargon, more clarity and directness.

Take it slowly.
Even though digital is an immediate thing, there is no rush to redesign a legacy organization’s brand. Let’s say an organization has been around for 100 years. It wants to be around for another 100 plus. This business is in no rush. Take the time needed to strategize what’s going to work best for audience, board, and staff deeply invested in the org’s mission. And test new materials with invested audience and prospects.

Keep stakeholders informed at all times. The people who work and support legacy organizations are extremely invested in the mission of the business. Something like their logo feels deeply personal to them, especially if it’s the only logo they’ve ever had. Some may not even want to change the logo. If the logo is going through a change, keep those important stakeholders informed throughout the design process. Explain what is happening and why.

Find people that are your advocates.
Often in older organizations, it’s the younger staff who are ready to make design changes, while the older Board or President might not want to budge on the new design. Also, some may have strong opinions on what things should be based on something they heard or saw (“I saw this website that did this animation. We should do that.” “The logo should be orange because it’s a better color.”)

Here’s where you need advocates to stand by your side. There usually are two or three people that are in leadership or tenured roles that is ready and excited for change. These people understand the power of the design process, and accept the change of a logo or website readily, even if it feels a bit confusing and new. Find these advocates and ask them to speak up and say why the changes are important.

Do a soft rollout.
Ripping the band-aid off launching newly branded materials is thrilling. For an aging board, that might feel too harsh. Opt to rollout things slowly. Sneak the new logo onto social media. Create a fun campaign teasing the new work.

Most important, be willing to change.
Successful businesses focus on constant improvement. They think creatively and are innovative problem solvers on how to consistently engage with their audience. Not every improvement will hit the mark, or build the next “wow” digital experience. But, being willing to take the journey, and getting your internal culture invested in change, is what’s important. By doing this, you’re saying that it’s okay to be creative, rather than stagnant. That will truly help you to connect to your audience.

If you are a legacy organization, and are wondering how to redesign your brand for the digital age, let’s brainstorm on how to do it.