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Should Your Environmental Non-Profit Brand Go Green?

Got rebranding on your mind? If so, you’re probably casting a critical eye on every graphic element your organization uses — right down to the colors.

If the work you do is focused on helping the environment, then green just might already be one of your colors. In fact, it’s probably already one of your competitors’ colors, too.

(Note: it may sound odd to say that nonprofits are in competition with each other, but it’s true. The difference is that instead of competing for customers like businesses do, they’re jockeying for access to their local community’s limited pool of resources, time, and donations.)

Setting your organization apart from the rest will ultimately help you earn access to more resources. And setting your organization apart from the rest starts with good branding.

So how do you know when to go green and when to, well, not?

The meaning of green

What’s the deal with all this green, anyway? Why is green all over the nonprofit sector in general, and environmental organizations in particular? Well, the answer goes back to color psychology and how people in a culture connect colors and concepts.

We’ve learned to associate green with health, vitality, freshness, and growth, so it’s a no-brainer fit with brands that focus on the environment. The trouble is that that the market is a bit, er, oversaturated with green. Just doing a quick Google image search for the word “environment,” for example, yields you pages and pages of results filled with bright, crisp grassy hues:


I’d also argue that it’s not just visual oversaturation of green in the environmental sector, it’s verbal, too. The recent adoption of the word green as a verb serves to effectively underline, italicize, and bold the connection. Activists encourage you to “go green” and corporate and government agencies introduce “greening initiatives.” Green has now become a simple shorthand for everything under the environment umbrella: conservation, sustainability, protection, energy, recycling, and so on.

Message in a (green) bottle

Is that really so bad, though? After all, a brand is like a visual message, and the colors we choose gives the message a certain meaning. Using green in your branding is a way to quickly show someone at a glance what your nonprofit organization is all about. So if people see your green and immediately think of the environment, it means your branding has done its job, right?

Well, right. But using a common visual language can be a good communication tool or it can be just plain common. There’s a fine line between getting your message across and losing it in a sea of similar-sounding messages.

To green or not to green

In a vast world of greens, how can your green possibly stand out? Is it better to avoid green in order to set your nonprofit apart as unique? How do you know if green is right for your brand or if you’re just blindly following a script?

Spoiler alert: no single answer will work for every organization. But walking through the steps below can help you answer it for yours:

1. Know thyself.

Ask yourself: what’s your brand persona? Who’s your target market and what are you trying to communicate to them? Brainstorm a list of words that describe your brand and use it to help you narrow down palette ideas. For example, if you want to evoke clean, modern, and youthful, you’ll want to focus on light, bright, happy hues as opposed to dark, muted, and reserved ones.

2. Know thy competitors.

Just as you’ve looked inward, you must also look outward. Study your competitors’ branding. What works for them? What doesn’t? Eliminate any potential brand colors that look too much like theirs.

Most brands know enough to stay away from “Coca Cola red” or “Home Depot orange.” That doesn’t mean no one else can use red or orange — it just means their reds and oranges have to be different enough not to draw a link.

3. Look at the whole picture.

While it’s important, color isn’t everything. We rely on other cues such as logo shape and type to “read” brands. Take this opportunity to evaluate your other graphic elements to make sure your messaging lines up across the board — and again, that they’re not pale imitations of your competitors’ graphic elements.

4. Find the middle ground.

One way to read “environment” while also reading “you” is to choose a green or two to use alongside an otherwise unique palette. Get a feel for which colors work with each other by playing with Adobe’s color wheel tool. Stay cautious, though — there’s no need to go extreme. I don’t care how quirky your organization is, there’s never a good time for an enviro nonprofit to brand itself with bright green, hot pink, orange, and black.

I'm sorry, but this isn't going to work.
I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work.

Bring intention to the branding table

Let’s face it, anyone can throw a little green leaf icon next to their nonprofit name and call it a day. You’re not anyone, though. It’s difficult to communicate the concept of “environment” without the color green and little leaf icons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put your own spin on it.

Just as every parent knows his or her baby best, you know your brand best. Whether you go green or not, the important thing is to brand with intention. Let the brainstorming begin!

In the meantime, if you have branding questions and would like our help answering them, let us know.

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