When It Comes to Campaign Brands, Being Wildy Authentic Is Better Than Being Different

In the world of branding and strategy, there’s a sacred buzzword that pops up in countless creative briefs and gets thrown around in meetings more than the phrases “circle back” and “touch base”. Differentiation

This mouthful of a word refers to the process of distinguishing a brand or product from other orgs. How are you positioning your institution in your core messaging? The goal of differentiation is to make your brand more memorable to target audiences by highlighting unique qualities, characteristics, or features that set you apart from the pack. Done well, this approach can help you stand out and create a competitive advantage. But we’ve noticed the downside of focusing too much on trying to look and sound different.

“That Could Be Anyone”

This feedback is often used to critique creative work, and it’s generally well-intentioned. So is differentiation. The goal is to ensure you don’t sound like everyone else. That people can tell you apart from your peers. In turn, this has created a reductive way of critiquing creative output. We’ve been conditioned to have a gut reaction along the lines of “Well if I put my hand over the logo, this could be anyone.” Or “This could literally apply to any organization.” Our team often has to catch ourselves and resist the urge to analyze creative work through this lens.

But we’ve come to realize that this exercise is an exercise in futility. A common truism in the creative world is “A brand is more than a logo.” Well, the same is true in reverse. You can’t cover up the logo and expect a few words of copy to feel whole. It’s the sum of all of the parts that give your campaign a distinct identity: the logo, the name, tagline, supporting messaging, and visual elements. It’s the history you’re drawing on, the vision for the future you’re presenting, the people, the mission of your organization, the strategic and campaign priorities, and lastly how you may approach similar problems differently. Remove even one element from the rest and sure, it might feel like it could be anyone. But together, all the verbal and visual elements combine to create a harmonious experience that just feels right.

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Even the most iconic taglines for well-known brands feel pretty generic when you take them at face value. Isolated from the context of decades of commercials with prolific athletes, “Just Do It” doesn’t feel that remarkable does it? You can just imagine when Nike focus-grouped that phrase, they got feedback like “It doesn’t mention sports or athletics at all.” Or maybe an exec said, “Couldn’t any one of our competitors say this?” Yet, over the years they’ve owned those three words and woven them into the way they develop their products, their mission, and how they inspire athletes at every level to not sit on the sidelines.

Consider Apple’s famous ad campaign anchored by the two words “Think Different”. There’s nothing particularly magical about these two words. Nor is there any clear connection to high-powered computers or sleek smartphones. But it says everything about the way Apple views itself and its users. Since initially rolling out the “Think Different” campaign in 1997, it has continued building on this theme that they are for the movers & shakers, filmmakers, writers, and designers. Even if most of our iPhones are full of pics of our kids and pets, this different approach to creativity and innovation feels authentic to Apple. But they’re not the only tech company who thinks different.

To further illustrate our point that many of the most well-known slogans aren’t particularly profound on their own, we present to you:

  • Have It Your Way (Burger King)
  • Open Happiness (Coca-Cola)
  • I’m Lovin’ It (McDonald’s)
  • Let’s Go Places (Toyota)
  • Impossible Is Nothing (Adidas)

How Does Differentiation Play in the Realm of Fundraising Campaigns? 

Speaking of thinking different, we now arrive at a pivotal moment in this article. Should you try to differentiate your fundraising campaign? 

We spend hours upon hours upon hours thinking about what ingredients form a recipe for a successful campaign identity. And we help our partners develop and activate their campaigns. Comprehensive campaigns need a distinctive visual and verbal identity that conveys the special nature, urgency, and significant impact of the work. But we have a different idea about what makes a campaign distinctive.

Over the past few years, we’ve developed our own Parisleaf philosophy on how we think about branding, and more importantly, how we approach this essential work. In the sports world, you might call this a “hot take.”

So, here’s our hot take: We think differentiation is overblown, overused, and often misunderstood. We see too many institutions chase after differentiation and lose sight of their core identity — what makes them them.

We think differentiation is overblown, overused, and often misunderstood. We see too many institutions chase after differentiation and lose sight of their core identity — what makes them them.

Our Alternative to Differentiation: Wildly Authentic

The one ingredient your campaign and organization must have is authenticity. Instead of trying so hard to be different just to be different, embrace what makes you wildly authentic. Look inward, not outward. What makes you your own special snowflake? Your campaign should be built on, not differentiated from, your peers, (and definitely not from the institution), just for the sake of it. We must create brands, and specifically campaign brands, that have a distinct look and feel, yet are infused with, informed by, and elevate the spirit, history, and vision of your organization.

Think about it this way: Have you ever gotten a haircut or started trying a totally new way of dressing? Maybe you woke up one day and thought, today’s the day I’m going to pull off that bow tie. But ultimately, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like you. A similar thing happens when we try too hard to differentiate a brand. It’s unnatural and it makes it really hard for your people to get behind. And people-adoption is everything. 

You have rich traditions, a rich history, an outstanding track record, or a groundbreaking legacy in your field. When it comes time to craft your campaign identity, don’t throw all of that out the window. Let it inform the pillars of your campaign like name, colors, messaging, and more. Your visual identity should pull in elements of the parent organization’s seal or logo, use the silhouette of an iconic building, or reflect an iconic figure or monument. Your messaging may draw on a memorable quote, a line from your alma mater, a patient, donor, or a founder’s mantra. Embrace what makes you wildly authentic and let that inspire and inform how your campaign will solve specific challenges. Don’t lose sight of who you are and what your institution stands for.

A Few Closing Caveats 

Being authentic and true doesn’t mean your campaign brand should feel like a retread. You should still strive to make this new campaign feel original and distinct. That’s where the wild part of wildy authentic comes into play.

Don’t shy away from ambitious goals and taking bold leaps. You can be authentic while also making great strides in your messaging and the impact you envision. Let authenticity be your differentiator and the driving force behind your campaign. 

Authenticity is the quality people are searching for more than ever — from Brené Brown and Oprah to Simon Sinek, to your newest hires and donors. The world is demanding authenticity from leaders, institutions, social media platforms, and the labels on the grocery store aisles. In fact, authentic was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023. So as you think about how your campaign can make a splash and leave a legacy, perhaps the most groundbreaking thing you can do is to boldly be yourself. Maybe you can stand out by simply being wildly authentic. 

Here’s the kicker. It’s not that there isn’t a place for differentiation. There absolutely is! We just don’t need to be so obsessed with it as an industry when it comes to our institution’s brand, campaign name, tagline, theme, or headlines. Let the spirit of how we do things differently infuse the body and spirit of the core messaging. We’re just suggesting throwing out the differentiation-obsession in your most forward-facing copy. As the great Dr. Seuss said, “You are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.”

With gratitude, thanks to Gray Gill and Tom Osborne for this collaboration. Photo use courtesy of Mykyta Martynenko, Unsplash.

Chad Paris

Chad Paris

Principal, CEO
The perfect marriage of strategist, consultant, & rainmaker. Chad loves connecting good people with other good people. He has dedicated his career to brands that are changing the world by helping nonprofits fund progress while also advancing Purpose in the workplace.