I typically serve one of three kinds of clients: new nonprofits or good businesses just getting started; existing organizations whose mission has gotten rusty or slid off the rails; or those who are launching a new project and need a skilled wordsmith and a big-picture thinker to get others excited about it.

Whoever they are, whatever the scenario (and whether they’re aware of it or not), what I help them with is branding. “Brand” has been defined in many ways, but it boils down to the particular traits that set an enterprise apart. And while those traits are often visual, they’re not always. That’s important.

A Brand is More Than a Symbol

Your brand isn’t just your logo or tagline; it’s not the colors or fonts you use. Your brand is everything associated with your organization, from the first impression it makes on a potential customer or donor to the last. It’s all of it, whether you’re a for-profit, nonprofit, or something in between. And all of it has to be in sync.

We all take branding for granted, without realizing how much is required to keep it aligned. Apple understands this, of course: From their customer’s first exposure to the brand, to the swanky packaging the device comes in, to the experience of using it, Apple thinks through and carefully orchestrates exactly what will set Apple apart. They get that a brand is an experience.

Blinded by Passion

Many nonprofits and small businesses forget this. Run on a shoestring, they’re often so focused on their founding cause or cool new product that they tune out the fact that others might not be so enthralled. They don’t stop to think about the fact that they’re one company or one charity in a vast sea of companies and charities. And although their passion is admirable, forgetting or neglecting to consider the donor or customer’s entire experience with their brand — the sum total of traits that set them apart — can be a lethal mistake.

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, each one of which relies on charitable giving to stay afloat. Small businesses are even more competitive: In 2010, according to the US Census Bureau, there were 27.9 million of them. That’s daunting. It means your commitment to firming up your organization’s brand will be one of the most important investments you can make.

Good branding means good writing, good clarity and focus. It means a solid, long-term strategy for differentiating yourself. It means finding great stories and telling them in creative ways. It means proving, at every touch point, that your organization is the best-run, the most worthy, the highest return on others’ carefully spent donations or dollars.