PATH's rebrand: A scalable focus on the future

PATH’s brand transformation envisioned in a poster mock-up. Photo by: Manual/courtesy PATH

WASHINGTON — In today’s digital landscape, a strong brand is critical to an organization’s scalability and even its survival. For many NGOs, however, the allocation of funds to articulate and evolve their identity, mission, and vision has often been minimal or nonexistent. Carla Sandine, chief marketing and communications officer at PATH, thinks it’s time for that to change. Devex spoke to Sandine about PATH’s brand transformation, which launched globally last month.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The last PATH rebrand was over a decade ago. Why was it time for a rebrand? 

One thing we did early on was understand where our brand was and was not working well for us. The places where it wasn’t working well were mainly with donors and our corporate partners. Our brand has served us really well in the development sector for a long time.

We’ve grown exponentially for a long time but we kept hearing from donors and corporate partners — who tend to be more digitally savvy — that our brand wasn’t doing what they needed it to do for them.

In your brand announcement, you wrote that NGOs do not traditionally excel at telling their stories in “clear, brand-savvy and non-paternalistic” manners. Why was it important for you to articulate that to the wider development community? 

As an NGO CMO, it’s my job to challenge us and to ask ourselves hard questions about how we think about brand, how we think about marketing, and how we invest in it. How are we using our donors’ dollars ethically and appropriately and as efficiently as possible? It’s also my job to push my entire organization to constantly look at itself and check if we are asking hard questions about how we position ourselves.

“I don’t think nonprofits have a monopoly on social good anymore.”

— Carla Sandine, chief marketing and communications officer at PATH

We’re mission driven and we have an understandable legacy of allocating as much of our budget as possible to programmatic work that has direct impact. Dan Pallotta has been talking about this forever. There is a tension in the industry where we actually hurt ourselves when we don’t invest in marketing and branding to be able to make a greater impact.

Why is it important for nonprofits to grapple with these tensions?

Brands have changed, consumers have changed and donors — both in and out of the United States and “global north” — have changed and continue to change. A lot of the places where we work and have teams around the world are now markets where we’re fundraising. In India, in Kenya. Our markets are some of the fastest growing in the world, like Ethiopia. We have to change how we think about all of our global markets where we work. The lines are blurring between nonprofits, businesses, and the public sector. I don’t think nonprofits have a monopoly on social good anymore.

PATH’s new logo illustrates connotations of networks, partnerships, and initiatives working together for a common goal. GIF by Manual/courtesy PATH.

You wrote about the financial realities for your rebrand. How did you prioritize what was “worth it?” 

Our brand rollout is going to be scaled back and it’s going to take longer than a for-profit organization. It was critical that we constantly considered what was the best use of our donors’ dollars. We invested in the most scalable and sustainable pieces of collateral and types of marketing we could roll out. We worked closely with our global team to understand what people absolutely needed the most. We tried our best to make decisions to create assets and brand materials that our team members everywhere in the world could use: Templates, governance, and guidance to make them even more effective.

We paid about one-third of the market rate for all this work. Our agencies (Instrument and Manual) were incredibly generous and gave us a lot of pro-bono time. We made a lot of smart decisions that will help the brand be more effective and more affordable moving forward in true PATH-innovation style.

An early iteration of PATH’s new visual identity. Photo by Manual/courtesy PATH.

Does our sector need a larger conversation around funding for communications?

In the corporate world, everything is driven by sales and marketing. You have a knowledge base that we haven’t had to build in the NGO sector. Funding models are changing and the sector in general is changing.

The rebrand and the launch of our site are just two parts of a much larger transformation that we’re leading in our marketing and communications for PATH globally. We have reorganized our team. We have reorganized our talent model. We have added marketing and communications talent that we’ve never invested in: Operations, analytics, digital marketing skills.

It’s my job to participate in a larger conversation in my sector. To discuss with my peers, both CMOs, chief communications officers, CEOs, and to help the entire sector understand where we have challenges, what we can do about them and if there are innovative models for how we can finance our marketing and communications activities.

Your new brand guidelines include an intentional shift from traditional nonprofit photography. What led to a locals-first approach to photography? 

We heard from our employees and donors that there was a gap in our photography, that we needed to do a better job at showing the people who work at PATH and our partners around the world: Our subcontractors and the local organizations we work with. That’s the type of photography that shows the diversity of who we are as a global team. It shows our global expertise. It shows our impact and the work we do around the world and it’s not othering anyone.

“We needed to do a better job at showing the people who work at PATH and our partners around the world: Our subcontractors and the local organizations we work with.”

Our stance on photography is a shift in who we are employing. It’s a shift in power. There’s a long history and legacy in the development sector where our products and our approaches and funding flowing from the “global north” to the “global south,” often without consideration of how appropriate, how sustainable, and how scalable the work is.

Twinned with that is how we position ourselves. What has come out is this communications style that — even with the best intentions — looks and sounds sometimes like superiority. There’s clearly a racial element to it as well that can’t be lost.

At PATH, we have been doing the work for years to shift away from the business models that have plagued the industry. We have been making an intentional shift to where the majority of our employees are from and working in countries which are not in the “global north.” 95 percent of our employees are from the countries where we work and about 60 percent of our employees are outside of the “global north,” in Africa and Asia.

It was simply time for our brand and communications to do the same thing.

With such an ever-changing digital landscape, how do you hope to continue evolving your brand? 

Moving forward, we’re working through a really long list of brand assets about what to prioritize and when. Intentionally, we have designed a brand system that we hope will be scalable and that will stand the test of time. It was designed not only for our supporters and stakeholders, with them in mind, but also importantly, for our global team of people to be able to use. The ideal is that it doesn’t need to be changed from the ground up anytime soon.

The new website is a place that has so much flexibility now. We have built a website that is a flexible, modern, modular system that meets our needs today but more importantly can flex and scale moving forward in a way that our past website just did not do.

What is your advice for NGOs who may be considering a rebrand?

Critical to our success was having alignment and support at the top of the organization from our board, CEO, and leadership team. Total rebrands like ours are marathons, not sprints, so while we launched last week, the full rollout of our brand — funding dependent — will likely take another couple of years and the continued support of our leadership will be essential to make it across the finish line.

“Total rebrands like ours are marathons, not sprints.”

A complete brand overhaul is not always what’s needed. Sometimes a simple refresh can be a lot cheaper and can still do the job. For us, we decided a complete overhaul was needed.

We dug deep and made an investment that was significant for us, though about one-third of the market rate. For PATH, our rebranding effort was a top, well-planned initiative alongside four other enterprise-wide change initiatives including a major overhaul of our financial system — all designed to strengthen enterprise-wide functions.

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About the author

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    Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is the Associate Director of Communications at Devex. She writes about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications to the global development community. Previously, Carine has led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.