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Anatomy of an External Brand Audit

Reprinted from Branding Bytes

Question: What is an external brand audit?

Answer: There's an old saying in the communications business that states: It's not how a message is delivered but rather how it is received that makes all the difference. Put another way, it doesn't matter what you may want to say about your organization through brand messaging. If those messages don't resonate with the audiences you are trying to reach, they're mostly a waste of time, energy, and valuable resources.

An external brand audit, therefore, is an effort to determine what impact your organization's messages are having on clients, funders, partners, and policy makers. (Click here for an explanation of an internal brand audit.)

Depending upon how you approach them, external brand audits can be expensive (large corporations spend millions on testing their brand messages) or relatively inexpensive.

Understanding that most nonprofits allocate little, if any, budget for such functions, what follows are some cost-effective ways to learn whether or not you are reaching your audiences with clear, appropriate messages.


Simple surveys distributed by mail or conducted at your place of business, over the phone, or over the Internet, can be very effective. When surveying your audiences, ask questions that would give you a better understanding of:

  • How they currently perceive your organization.
  • What more they would like to know about who you are and what you do.
  • What key words come to them when they think about your organization, its work, its relationship to clients, customers, partners, funders, and the community, in general.
  • What kinds of messages they think your brand needs to convey.
For best results, keep surveys short, simple, and to the point.

Informal Focus Groups

Conduct small, informal focus groups that consist of representatives from each of your key audiences. These sessions can be held in your meeting room during business hours or in the evening.

If you don't have a meeting room, secure an appropriate space to conduct the event. Often churches, libraries, or local government service centers will provide such space for free. The point is to bring these folks together in a comfortable, relaxed setting where they can freely and confidentially discuss your organization and its relationship to them, their respective organizations, and the community at large. Hint: Free food or snacks is usually a good draw.

Be Creative

An executive director of a large, well-known national nonprofit wanted to learn how her organization's name resonated with external audiences. In lieu of focus groups, she conducted, on her own and over the course of about a year, an informal survey of every nonprofit and corporate leader she ran into at meetings, conferences, business lunches, and so forth.

She was told by the majority of those she asked that "We like what you do, but your organization's name just doesn't work for us." This feedback eventually led to her organization successfully rebranding itself under a new name.

Be Careful

After you've created your brand messages based on information gained from your external brand audit, retest them with the same audiences. Why? Because words are a tricky business.

Take partnership, for example. It's a good, simple word often used to describe relationships. It implies affiliation, collaboration, and alliance, all of which should lead one to think of positive brand images. Yet when one organization wanted to include the word in its brand messaging to describe its relationship with local financial institutions, the financial institutions balked. When asked why, one bank representative said that the word partnership is loaded with legal implications. "We'd rather be known for 'working together' with the organization, rather than 'partnering' with it."

The lesson? Language is a powerful tool that forms our images, thoughts, opinions, and actions. Therefore, when creating your brand messages, choose your words wisely. And periodically audit your external audiences to ensure that you are sending them the right messages using the right language.

Larry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2007, Larry Checco. Reprinted from Branding Bytes, vol. 1, no. 7 (summer 2007). Reprinted with permission.

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications,, and author of Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization. In more than 25 years of nonprofit communications experience, he has helped raise the brand visibility, fundraising capabilities, membership levels, and impact of some of the nation's most respected nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
Topics: Communications