Brand Statement Re-Do: Alternatives for the Seattle Public Library

Seattle Public Library, brandingAfter writing this post on the Seattle Public Library’s rebranding fiasco, I asked my graduate students at the University of Washington to take a pass at revamping the Library’s Brand Statement…with one catch. They had to use the criteria I recommend nonprofits use for their Mission Statements:

  1. Pick your verb first.
  2. Don’t use the verb ‘provide’.
  3. 10 words or less (up to 15 if you have to).
  4. Reading Ease Score over 50% and Grade Level under 8, excluding the name.

For reference, here’s the Brand Statement that library patrons were asked to evaluate in the survey sent out at the tail-end of the Library’s rebranding effort:

The Library provides access to knowledge, experiences and learning for all. We preserve and create opportunities for the people of Seattle who make it such a dynamic and desirable place to live. When we’re empowered as individuals, we become STRONGER TOGETHER

They worked in groups and had 15 minutes to complete the task. Here’s what they came up with:

  • We welcome everyone with a space to gain knowledge and access to resources. [70/8.2]
  • We foster an inclusive space to learn, explore, and grow. [78.2/4.8]
  • We connect you to the ideas and information you need to engage in civic life. [73.2/7.1]
  • We open doors to knowledge and opportunities for the people of Seattle. [53/8.8]
  • Through access to knowledge and experience, we strengthen Seattle. [56/7.6]
  • We cultivate knowledge and learning experiences for all Seattle residents. [35.9/14.5]
  • Your library connects Seattle to knowledge, ideas, and opportunities. [41.3/10]

After each team put their submission up on the board, each student got to vote for which one most resonated with them. The first two on the list above were the winners.

I thought it was interesting that both used the word “space”. I asked them if that accurately reflected today’s Library, given how many people avail themselves of the Library’s offerings without ever setting foot in an actual library, i.e. online. One student pointed out that space doesn’t necessarily have to mean a physical space. It could be a broader definition of space. The space, wherever someone was, to learn and read and grow, whether that’s on-line or in-person. Interesting point.

The following week, I did a similar exercise with nonprofit leaders who came to a training I did called Mission Statements & More, sponsored by Washington Nonprofits. This group didn’t have to get the Reading Ease Scores because we were in a spot that had no access to the Internet and no bars on phones (gasp!).

Here’s what they came up with (transcribed verbatim):

  • The Library brings the world to your fingertips.
  • The Seattle Libraries engage our community through education and imagination.
  • The library connects us to the world. SPL. Your access to a world of knowledge, creativity, and experiences.
  • Seattle Libraries empowers us through access to knowledge in a dynamic community.
  • Transporting Seattle through film, computers, and story – your Seattle Public Library.
  • Inspiring people to explore the vast learning resources available.
  • Explore the world through history, learning, and making connections.
  • Seattle Libraries encourage community knowledge and experiences by learning together.
  • Seattle Libraries nurture community knowledge, experience, and learning.
  • Empower individuals to become stronger together. The Library.
  • The Seattle library empowers individuals to experience learning in a modern, dynamic environment.
  • Accessible (free) learning experiences for the community.
  • Gaining access to knowledge, experiences, and learning to empower individuals.

Some of these are more taglines than Mission Statements (in that taglines aren’t always full sentences). But still. Good work for 15 minutes!

Coming up with a 10 word statement that communicates the essence of what an organization wants to be known for isn’t easy. One of the most common traps nonprofits get caught up in is over-thinking it all. “If we say this and not that, people won’t understand what we’re about! We need to say it all!!!”

That’s why mapping your messaging to an Engagement Cycle is so handy–and effective. It releases you from feeling like you have to shove everything into one sentence. And liberates you to think about the bigger story you want to share, and how you can parse that out so it’s easily digestible.

I’m not saying any of the statements above are spot-on for the Library. Without being privy to their What (goals and objectives) and Who (their target audience), we’re not in a position to definitively comment on a How (in this case, messaging). But it’s interesting to see how some library lovers who weren’t part of process would communicate what they perceive the essence of the Library to be. Especially interesting when they’re only given 15 minutes to complete the task.

Post Readability Stats: Reading Ease 55, Grade Level 8.6

***Claxon University–where smart nonprofits learn to use better words to create a better world.***

The Seattle Public Library Rebrand: What went wrong? And what can we learn?

SPL_library cardThe Seattle Public Library  recently went through (or at least tried to go through) a rebranding extravaganza. Unfortunately, it didn’t go very well. They fell prey to some of the most common mistakes nonprofits make when rebranding. Fortunately, all the mistakes the Library made are avoidable, so there’s no need for history to repeat itself.

To be clear, I’m not questioning whether or not the Library should rebrand. Anytime a nonprofit rebrands, that’s a decision for the board to make. Have I helped nonprofit boards make that decision? Yes, many, many times. But even in my capacity as “expert consultant”, it isn’t my decision. It’s theirs. So let’s set that question aside.

There really were quite a few missteps in the Library’s rebranding efforts. I want to focus on two in particular as they are two of the most common and most harmful: 1) writing by committee and 2) soliciting input at the wrong point in the process.

#1 Writing by committee

This effort was about rebranding a library. As my graduate students learn, branding is about bringing the visual, narrative and experiential elements of your brand into alignment. So the visuals matter. But given the organization–a library–and the organization’s customers—library patrons—the words are going to matter. A LOT.

Given the importance of words to this particular rebranding effort, when you put out the following “brand statement” for input, you’re going to get flack.

The Library provides access to knowledge, experiences and learning for all. We preserve and create opportunities for the people of Seattle who make it such a dynamic and desirable place to live. When we’re empowered as individuals, we become STRONGER TOGETHER.

So many problems with this statement, where to start?

First, what is a “brand statement”? When people hear the word “statement” in relation to nonprofits, e.g. mission, vision, values statements, the default is that it’s for external stakeholders, e.g. donors, clients, patrons. Unless the Library says otherwise, this will be the filter through which people assess the statement. They will be looking for something that makes them say, “Yes, yes, yes, that’s why I love the library soooooooooooooooooooooo much!!!!” Needless to say, this statement doesn’t elicit that reaction. Quite the contrary.

Second, what are they even saying?! Running it through the Flesch Reading Ease index, we learn the reading is only 46.4. So you can understand some of it. Kind of. But if this statement is meant to succinctly, yet compellingly, sum up what the Library is all about, it needs to be super easy to understand.

Knowing the purpose of the “brand statement” would inform how big an issue the low readability really is. If it’s a guide for internal decision-making,  it’s less of an issue. But if that’s the case, then why ask external stakeholders to take a survey and give you input on it?

Third, there’s the writing itself. It’s not good. It’s the Library. The writing matters. Christopher Frizzelle over at The Stranger channeled his inner Steven Pinker and did a fantastic job dissecting the brand statement’s many fatal language flaws (including the lack of a serial comma—ack!). So rather than rehash those, I’m going to focus on two issues he didn’t mention: verbs and length.

Verbs: Based on Claxon’s research on nonprofits and language usage, we know that the top three content verbs used by nonprofits are:

  1. Support
  2. Make
  3. Provide

It is disappointing that an institution known for words didn’t avail itself of the many marvelous verbs in the English language. Instead, they positioned themselves with the preponderance of other nonprofits. As a library, it’s imperative you use words to differentiate yourself. A better verb is out there.

In order to find their verb, the question they need to answer is: What does the Library fundamentally want to be known for?

If it’s no longer just about the books, fair enough. But this statement doesn’t give an alternative. It give alternatives (plural). Is it educating? Preserving? Creating? Empowering? Becoming stronger? Being together?

And this is how we know that writing-by-committee happened. When I work with nonprofits and see things like this brand statement, it is a huge red flag for me. It screams, “As a committee, we had lots of discussion about all this and we winnowed it down a bit, but the truth is, we’re still grappling to really land on what we want to be known for, so we’re just going to list them all and hope for the best.” You can hope all you want, but the statement isn’t going to give you a happy ending.

Length: If you can’t sum up what your organization (or, in this case, brand), is fundamentally about in ten words or less, you’ve still got work to do. Not on the words, per se, but on the strategy that those words are tasked with communicating.

This statement is 41 words.

I can already hear the roar, “But Erica, ten words is preposterous. Our work is so much more complicated than that.” True…and so is the work of almost every nonprofit on the planet. Blaise Pascal famously said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Shorter is harder. It forces you to prioritize. It demands clarity and precision. The more words, the muddier.

Maybe the Library’s strategy is clear as Snow White’s skin, and the issue is in succinctly translating it. But this brand statement leaves one wondering where the books went and what has replaced them exactly.

How can you avoid these mistakes? By not allowing writing-by-committee. Things get hodge-podgy really quickly when everyone is adding their two cents to the mix. Be clear from the get-go about who is an inputter and who is a decision-maker. As the name implies, inputters give their input on what the statement (or whatever you’re writing) should convey. The decision-makers should then be left to decide which combination of verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc can do that most effectively. Ideally, you’d have no more than three decision-makers. More than that and, well, see the “brand statement” above for what that gets you.

Mistake #2: Asking for input at the end of the process

Don’t. Don’t ask people—smart, devoted people, e.g. library patrons—to give a thumbs up or down on logos, new names, and brand statements. Ask their opinion at the beginning of the process. Then show them see what you did with their input at the end.

Nonprofits are inclusive by nature. It’s tempting to ask for input at the end. You’ve worked hard. You want people to be excited, just like you are.

This is the same as sharing the name you’ve chosen for your baby before it’s born. If you tell someone that you’re thinking of naming your son Steve, you’ll get comments like, “I dated a guy named Steve once. He was a jerk.” Um, okay. Relevance? None. Or maybe you’re fond of the name Rachel. “All the Rachels I’ve ever known have been snotty.” Again, relevance? None. Absolutely, positive none. But you put it out there, so people gave you their (irrelevant to your decision about the name) opinion.

But what happens if you wait until after the baby is born? You get an entirely different reaction.  When you have the baby and then proudly say, “Meet my son, Steve.” Well, then people are happy for you. They comment on his adorable nose and teeny tiny fingers. They murmur things like, “Steve, such a calming name. It’s adorable. Just like he is.” Nary a jerk to be found.

It’s the same with names, taglines, and logos. If you say, “What do you think?” before making a final decision, people are going to try to be “helpful”. They’re going to think of all the ways in which that name or logo or tagline might come back to haunt you. Not because they’re being rude or mean. But because that’s what you’ve basically asked them to do. Poke holes. The responses you get will be riddled with personal opinion (how could they not be?), rather than giving you actionable feedback that will help you make a decision based on the strategic criteria you developed to objectively assess the efficacy of the name, logo, tagline, etc.

And that’s no good for anyone.

In the case of the Library, had they asked for input early on in the process, they could have let them know why they stuck with the singular “library” or changed it to “libraries”. They could have referenced what they learned and heard from folks, and how they factored that in. But do not ask which one “evokes the value of value of communities”, as the Library did in its survey. What does the “value of the community” mean? Likely something different to everyone. So how can that be useful information? It is personal opinion, which isn’t helpful when you’re making strategic decisions for an organization.

Asking for input on such a tiny name change was especially inadvisable when everyone knew the Library had spent $365,000 to make such a seemingly tiny, unremarkable change. It might be a fine idea to change to ‘Seattle Public Libraries’. I can see many, many reasons for doing so. If there are strategic reasons for the shift, then venture forth and do it. No one is going to be up-in-arms about going from singular to plural. They’re up-in-arms that you spent money on what now seems like a ho-hum, anyone-could-have-told-you-that change.

I’m not saying to not get input. Au contraire, get TONS of input. Oodles of input. The more input the merrier. So long as you get it at the beginning of the process. Then take that input, develop strategic criteria, come to decisions, thank people (genuinely thank them) for taking time to inform the process, and let them know the outcome.

Bottom Line

The Library is in a pickle. They clearly want to make a change. And probably should. The logo and website feel dated, and out-of-sync with all the Library offers. But now they will have to go back to the drawing board because if they use anything they’ve floated so far, patrons won’t just be up-in-arms, they’ll forge a full-on mutiny. They have a lot of clean-up to do. They’ll need to regroup.

Next time around (if there is a next time), I’d encourage the Library to do what I’d encourage any nonprofit to do that is embarking on a rebranding effort:

  1. Be crystal clear from the beginning about roles and responsibilities
  2. Don’t allow writing-by-committee
  3. Get tons of input…at the beginning of the process

I love the Library. I really, truly hope they find their rebranded happily ever after.

Post Readability Stats: Reading Ease: 67.9, Grade Level 6.6

Are you tough, stuffy or sweet?

brand, brand personality, adjectives

What three adjectives would you use to describe this guy?!

What three adjectives would you use to describe your organization’s personality? This is a really super good question to ask and answer. Why? Because once you have a clear sense of your brand personality, you have a consistent look and feel and voice. Consistency builds trust and it helps you stand out from the crowd.

For instance, you might be:

  • Friendly, knowledgeable, proactive OR
  • Faithful, focused, energetic OR
  • Savvy, ambitious, forward-thinking

As silly as it may sound, picking three adjectives that best describe your organization is worth the time and energy. Here are three tools to help you out:

  1. In his book, “Tough, Sweet and Stuffy”, Professor Walker Gibson talks about how you can align your writing with these three personality types. He even has a handy chart of how often to use different types of speech and whatnot to help. It’s an interesting way to think about your organization–if you had to chose, would you be tough, sweet or stuffy?
  2. The List of Adjectives–9,947 adjectives waiting to be sorted alphabetically or by category.
  3. Claxons’ 5 Steps to a Funective Brand.

Branding Basics for Nonprofits: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget

The following is an adapted excerpt from Maria Ross’ new book, Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (Norlights Press, April 2014).  Maria uses lots nonprofit examples in her book.  I thought this bit on branding and your reason for being would be particularly valuable to my mission-minded readers. If you like this, I’d encourage you to buy Maria’s book. It’s available online on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major book websites or at her website, Red Slice.


BrandingBasics-2ndEdition-Front-560x865What’s Your Reason for Being?

When it comes right down to it, your organization is either in business to make money, raise money or influence people to act in some way. But unless you know the true essence of what your business is all about and its personal impact on people’s lives, you’ll be stuck on the lowest rung of the ladder. In a competitive market where many unknown and new organizations fail, that’s a death sentence.

Marty Neumeier, director of transformation at Liquid Agency ( and author of The Brand Gap and Zag suggests giving yourself the Obituary Test to figure out your reason for being: write the obituary of your organization in twenty-five years and outline what it did that was great and why the world is a better place because it existed.

“When you do this, you see something bigger. You see how every symbol, message, and action you put out into the world creates a brand legacy in the minds of customers, which is really where brand lives in the first place,” Marty says. He advises this will not only attract the right employees to grow your business, but will impact everything you do. “When you open a business just to make money, you can lose heart.”

Please don’t overcomplicate how you express your reason for being. It doesn’t have to be big, momentous, or heavy. Alexandra Franzen, a communication specialist and author of 50 Ways to Say You’re Awesome (Sourcebooks), advises that the clearest way to express an idea is best. “Think about the last time you read a blog post, heard a TED Talk or listened to a story at a dinner party that really impacted you, that made you want to do something,” she asks. “Was it long, convoluted, unnecessarily detailed? Or was it simple, clear, direct and conversational?” Alexandra adds, “Writing about the work that you do—your ‘reason for being’—is a form of storytelling. And if you want to inspire people to take action, a simple story is best.”

In her work with entrepreneurs, she finds that many people—especially those with a purpose-driven, passion-driven business or organization—get overwhelmed when it comes to describing their work. Many business owners feel their “reason for being” ought to be “bigger” or “more complex” than it actually is, she says. But again: simplicity is best.

“Maybe you’re an illustrator and your ‘reason for being’ is to add more beauty to the world. How refreshingly simple is that?” suggests Alexandra. “Or maybe you’re a yoga teacher and your ‘reason for being’ is that you’d like to help one thousand people in your lifetime feel more comfortable in their own skin. Once you release the idea that your ‘reason for being’ has to be dense or complicated, it’s like a huge weight off your shoulders. Things start to make sense—for you, and your audience, too.”

When writing about our organizations, we tend to overcomplicate and seek something that sounds big and meaningful, when what is really meaningful is often expressed in the simplest way.

A clear Brand Strategy, based on your larger reason for being, makes it easier to focus your organization’s activities around one true cause. It helps you easily determine which products or services to offer, how to price them, what your logo should convey, what experience your website should evoke, and even which people to hire. Making such decisions without a strong brand foundation is akin to throwing darts at a moving target. You’ll waste time and money with designers, website programmers, and writers because either everything will look good, or nothing will. And more importantly, people will tune out your message because they don’t have the time to unravel what it is you really do or mean and how it applies to them. Without a guidepost, any road looks like the right one, even if it leads to a dead end!

More about Maria

MariaRoss_AuthorPhotoMaria Ross is a consultant, author and speaker who believes cash flow and creativity are not mutually exclusive. As chief brand strategist and creator of Red Slice, she advises start-ups, solopreneurs and small to midsize companies on how to craft irresistible brands. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business and her humorous and heartfelt memoir, Rebooting My Brain. A dynamic speaker, she delights audiences ranging from The New York Times to the Chamber of Commerce to BlogHer with her wit and wisdom and has appeared in numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, ABC News, The Huffington Post,, NPR and Entrepreneur Magazine. Maria lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their precocious Black Lab mix and a new son on the way Spark a convo with Maria @redslice or join her Facebook tribe at

Going Dark So You Can See the Light…and get some freebies

Going Dark In December, we went dark. We did not publish a single post. Nary a word was typed on this blog. And we did this (gasp!) on purpose.

Why? We wanted to see if the old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” was actually true. (Just kidding.)

December is frantic. Frenetic. Over the top. It’s a blur of Top Tips, eggnog, awesome advice, sparkles, and post after post on how to boost end-of-year fundraising.

This isn’t a bad thing. But your year-end planning should really start in January, not December. So instead of adding to the flurry of holiday craziness, we spent December creating a suite of new DIY resources to help you throughout the year.

We are super excited to share the three newest additions to Claxon’s suite of free resources–TOOLKITS! Each one focuses on a different area and includes the very best tools for you to use, along with helpful instructions.

Without further ado, here they are:

  1. Messaging Toolkit
  2. Marketing 101 Toolkit
  3. Branding Toolkit

In the coming days and weeks, we will be dark no  more! We will be taking a closer look at each of the aforementioned toolkits, sharing before and after posts featuring the winners of the #FixMyPitch contest, and looking at the very best words for you to use in 2014.

If there are other word-related resources that’d be handy to you, let us know in the comments. We want to do everything we can to make 2014 a truly fantastic year for you!