Creating Compelling Social Innovation Brands

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How We Help Tell Stories and Connect with Audiences on a Deep Level

When most people think of innovation, technological advances leap to mind first, whether it’s the latest electronic gadget, medical breakthrough or scientific discovery.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s certainly not the only kind of innovation going on these days.

There’s also an entire category of social innovation, where, as Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation puts it, organizations “find a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, sustainable or just better than present solutions – and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole than to private individuals.”

Consider the LifeStraw, a personal water filter the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped distribute in Africa to reduce water-borne illnesses. The foundation also has dispensed insecticide-treated mosquito netting to reduce incidents of malaria. Just the other day, it announced a $1.4 million donation to the Welsh Sure Chill Co. to develop a refrigerator for use in keeping vaccines cool in hot, remote climates

Many more organizations dedicated to social innovation have smaller profiles or are startups. Less than a year ago, Mashable wrote an article highlighting “20 Inspiring Startups Aiming to Improve the World.” Those include:

•  Freecycle, a global network of 9 million members that offers free goods instead of tossing them.

•  Code Club World, which aims to teach every child in the world how to code.

•  Blind Square, an augmented reality GPS app for the visually impaired.

•  Stop the Traffik, which works to prevent human trafficking worldwide.

Social innovation branding has similarities to the technology branding that’s been our hallmark over the years – both are introducing fresh new ideas and solving problems; in some cases, we use disruptive ways. We’ve been fortunate to work with several leaders in social innovation and launch new brands that engage their audiences and bring their stories to life in compelling new ways.

One example is Capital Impact Partners, a national non-profit, which finds innovative ways to apply capital to solve big social problems – from charter schools, to affordable housing, healthcare clinics and “food deserts” in low-income neighborhoods.

Known as NCB Capital Impact when we began our work, the organization faced brand challenges. Naming, brand architecture, strategy and messaging didn’t communicate the unique strengths of the organization – or connect people to the brand on a human, emotional level.

In response, we helped the organization transform its brand to represent an organization focused on social innovation and change, as well as the term “Impact Systems,” which acknowledges unique strengths in applying capital and expertise in how communities work to deliver solutions that scale.

A revamped website,, brings the brand story to life via beautiful imagery and detailed storytelling. Each area of focus includes a narrative page that reports “impact metrics” about the capital invested – and lives improved.

Another example is Opportunity Finance Network, a leading national network of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that invest in opportunities aimed at benefitting low-income and other disadvantaged U.S. communities.

OFN asked us to elevate its brand to reach a much broader consumer audience, while creating a bold online experience to drive engagement and action.

Our strategy was to organize the OFN story online around three provocative calls to action: Learn. Join. Lead.

This immersed users in the brand content, connected them to a higher purpose and made an emotional connection. We also brought their core mission of “aligning capital with social justice” to life with the new rallying cry of “Opportunity. For All.”

Meantime, OFN’s new website,, now expresses the CDFI industry with more emotion (why we do it) instead of the more common definition (what we do). The new site also provides a “full screen” optimized and responsive design experience across all devices and screen sizes.

The brand and website now demonstrate how CDFIs see the world differently.

Both launched to rave reviews at the 2013 OFN annual conference and spurred industry discussion about the importance of a strong, disruptive digital brand experience.

In summary, innovation comes in many forms, fashions and flavors. The application of communications stories related to solving social problems and transforming lives for the better is one of the most rewarding parts of our work.