Listen to The Small Nonprofit podcast on your favourite platform:

the brain science of branding with Chloé Nwangwu

Also listen at: iTunesGoogle MusicStitcher

If you’re a regular listener, you will know that we love exploring brain science. And I am so excited to be exploring that in the context of branding. While I’ve been diving deeper into my own study of neuroscience, I haven't seen it applied to branding ever before.

In today’s episode, Chloé Nwangwu, Brand Scientist, Digital Diplomacy Consultant, and Conflict Mediator, shares with us the brain science behind brands and how you can leverage that to connect more with your audience and create more impact with your small nonprofit.

Myths that Chloe wants us to walk away from:

  • You can’t fundraise without rebranding. Before rebranding, think about how it contributes to the memorability of your brand and how it impacts your mission or the work that you do because if it doesn't, it's best not to do it.

  • Branding is about your personal preference. Knowing the preferences of your organization's most important stakeholders is essential when developing a brand for your nonprofit. If you're familiar with these patterns and trends in your industry, you'll have a better idea of how to stand out from the crowd.

Chloe’s thoughts around brain science branding

  • Brand vs Branding: A brand is simply a system of ideas that influences the behaviour of others. Branding is brand assets that are memorable. So the job that your branding is meant to do is meant to capture attention because that's how the memory process starts. And then it's meant to be stored within the right part of your memories, your memory network.

  • Brain Science of Branding: The definition of brand building from a scientific perspective is creating memories for people to recall or remember. If you want your brand and your branding to be effective to do the job that you need them to do, if you are looking to have the kind of impact in the world that shapes the future, repetition is required.

  • Behavioural Design: We figure out the steps that our stakeholders usually take between where they are now and the kind of behaviour that we would like to see from them. We can create an effective branding strategy once we know what the uncomfortably specific behaviour is and once we understand where they currently are.

Favourite Quotes from Today’s Episode

Post your favorite quote on social media to share with us!

“A brand's branding is really anything that can serve as a memory anchor for that brand. That just brings us back to the idea of memorability and attentional capture. If it captures attention, it stands a chance of getting past the brain's filters, which means it stands a chance of getting sorted into the right part of the memory network. Once it does that, it can serve as a memory anchor so that when people are making decisions about who to vote for, who to donate to, who to support, who to buy from, you stand a chance of being on that short list of people that they're considering are their considerations.”

“So we figure out, what are the steps that this kind of stakeholder usually takes between where they are now and the kind of behavior that we would like to see from them? And then we look at all of those steps and we say, okay, what are the cognitive biases that are in the way, what's the friction? ”

Resources from this Episode

Nobiworks Instagram

Chloe Ngwangwu LinkedIn

The Good Partnership


Cindy W.: So for those of you listening, if you're not new here, that we love leaning into some of the brain science behind how things work and why they work that way, and why we do things. And I'm so excited to be talking about that today. In the context of branding. I am so excited about this conversation because it is new to me. I love the brain science stuff, but I haven't seen it applied to branding in this, ever before. So we're going to dive right in.

I'm your host, Cindy Wagman. And you're listening to The Small Nonprofit podcast where we bring you practical down-to-earth advice on how to get more done for your small nonprofit. You are going to change the world and we're here to help.

So today's guest is Nmadinobi Chloé Nwangwu who is a brand scientist and like in the true meaning of brand scientists with her company, nobody works. She helps organizations understand the brain science behind their brands so that they can build powerful brands and connect with their audiences. It's her personal mission to get you better seen, heard, and respected, on your terms. So Chloe, welcome to the podcast.

Chloe N.: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so flattered to be here, by the way, folks, if you don't know what a genius Cindy is like actually a genius when we first talked and you were like I'm into the brain stuff too. And just listening to you, I was like, oh my goodness. Oh, brilliant. I'm honestly, so flattered that you're having me on

Cindy W.: It is truly my pleasure. And like I said, I think you're doing things in the space that no one else is and that our sector needs. I love actually before we dive into the nitty-gritty, I'd love to know a little bit about how you came to blend the science and the branding, which most people don't think of as a scientific process. How did you end up here?

Chloe N.: Yeah, so that's a really good question. So I will say that, for one, my, my background is not in brands, right? That's not what I went to school for. In fact, my master's is in international conflict resolution and mediation. Okay, and so that is translated, that's

Cindy W.: that's called the organizational redesign.

Chloe N.: And so basically I was trained to use social psychology and, the art of negotiation and strategic communication and like really high stakes situations. And when I, when I, and I won't say that I got to the height of my field, cause that's not true by any stretch of the imagination, but I'll have to say that one when I finally got into some of these rooms where it happens, and I say that with air quotes, because I'm also quoting Hamilton when I finally got into some of these rooms, I realized that, some of the folks in there, not the folks I was advising, of course not. But some of the folks in there were actually disappointing.

And if you think about it instead of a global sense, of course, that makes sense, right? Because those folks are responsible for the current status quo, their decision-making has led us there, and when I realized that I had this like crisis of faith, I was like, oh God and I realized that, okay, I guess what that means is that I need to somehow start equipping more folks like you and me to be in those rooms so that when decisions are made, the status quo stands a chance of being shifted.

And so that was like the beginning of that particular journey for me and folks nonprofit, but you all know this, if you're the young, like even remotely technologically inclined person working at a nonprofit, which I was basically my entire career you're always asked to do the stuff that has to do with social media, with visuals, with tech, with marketing, like that stuff has always just because you're the young one, you can figure it out, and so really from the time that I was in undergrad, all the way through my international work and career I was doing that stuff. I was in this like a weird pseudo world where we had to communicate things visually and with, and verbally and all of this stuff, and so eventually when I started looking for my avenue like what tool am I going to use to equip more and more folks like us to get into these rooms? I realized, oh like you've already got this skillset, right? Like you've got this skillset just, how people pay you for it and so that begins my journey.

And so the science comes in because I didn't go to school for it, so I didn't know how people were making these design choices. And so I started digging deeper into, what would make a design choice, smart in a specific situation. And that's how like this whole thing was born. And so like now I do less execution, right?

Like I don't necessarily do the design work necessarily myself anymore, but because I have this framework in my head about what makes certain choices smart when it comes to communicating because of like the science stuff Now I can advise on that, like really convincingly. So that is like the very long tail of how this came to be

Cindy W.: I love that and love to, all of it. But tell us a little bit about I want to start with what it's not or what mistakes happen. When it comes to branding when we ignore the science. So what's yeah. I will tell you as a fundraiser, I've heard a lot of people say we can't fundraise yet because we need to rebrand. I'm like, do we though, what does that even mean to you? So let's talk about it let's start there.

Chloe N.: Yeah. Okay. So this is, I can be on this particular soapbox for a thousand years. So when folks, okay. First to even address like the very specific thing, cause I know that this is something that. Wrong around the world and non-profits everywhere, right?

The, oh, we kept fundraising because we need to rebrand. Here's the thing, right? Sometimes the wiser choice is to not rebrand and this is why I'm going to go and define some terms first, and then I'm going to come back to this. Okay. So when we are talking about what a brand is from a scientific perspective, A brand is simply a system of ideas that influences the behavior of others.

And I'll say that again, it's a system of ideas, that influences the behavior of others. And I found in a lot of brand and branding and brand strategy cannon folks have we have as many different definitions for a brand as there are people to give them, the reason I like this particular definition is that it's measurable. And it's something that we can observe and test for in a way that a lot of these other definitions are not. Now what does that mean for what your branding is, so, from a scientific perspective, I simply define branding as brand assets that are memorable. Now, how do we get there from the definition of a brand?

If something signs just with the way that the brain works, right? If something is going to affect the behavior of others, at the very least, at the very minimum, it has to be memorable. It has to be stored in long-term memory so that it can be retrieved, at some point when someone is making a decision.

So the job that your branding is meant to do it's meant to capture attention because that's how the memory process starts. And then it's meant to be stored within the right part of your memories, your memory network. That's it, that's its job and when we start adding other things into it or asking it to do other jobs, that's when stuff gets messy.

So when I hear folks saying, hey, we can't fundraise because we need to rebrand in my head. I'm like, okay, is that contributing to the memorability of your brand and the work that you do? Because if it's not, then the wise decision is not to do that. Yeah. And so that's like the science, right? That's what science is telling me. And that's how I would respond. If somebody said that I'm like

Cindy W.: no, I know. It's I don't know. I think they just want to spend time on other things other than fundraising on that one. Huh?

Chloe N.: Yeah. Yeah.

Cindy W.: So we want to be memorable. And we want to develop those assets that are memorable. Like how do we get started? W E Even when I'm asked what are the assets? Because very often we think, or I think of, I think most people there you say brand and you think, okay, brand guidelines, so font and color and graphics and things like that. But yeah. Tell me more. Is that right?

Chloe N.: Absolutely. So that's, I would say that is partially right. That's included, right? A brand's branding is really anything that can serve as a memory anchor, for that brand, and that just brings us back to the idea of memorability and attentional capture, if it captures attention, it stands a chance of getting past the brain's filters, which means it stands a chance of getting sorted into the right part of the memory network.

And once it does that it can serve, like I said, as a memory anchor so that when people are making decisions about who to vote for, who to donate to, who to support, who to buy from, you stand a chance of being on that shortlist of people that they're considering or their considerations, so yeah, your graphics, your colors, your type, your typography, all of those things definitely count as part of your branding. So does the structure of your website, so does your messaging, so does your, the jingle that is connected to, there's so many things

Cindy W.: I need a jingle

Chloe N.: and can I just say this is like one of my favorite nerdy things, but when it comes to brand assets that are really underutilized and like icy folks are moving more and more into jingles are one of them.

Okay. Tell us why? I feel like I read a book at some point talking about audio cues or audio memory, and that it is, and honestly, okay, so I'm in Toronto and I, there are like jingles that we all remember and talk to us about, what did we never think about that? But I love it.

So like real talk we might, I don't know, but I say that with like I say, that tongue in cheek, just because the reason that the audio modality is so effective is large because it's so underutilized, right? So like the moment that it starts being quite late, it starts being super crowded, its effectiveness might, and I say this like with a might cause you I haven't read many experience experiments on this but might start to wane. But right now it's not a super crowded economy, maybe I'll say so.

I'll say, and this is another thing folks should keep in mind the attention economy, right? This is what ultimately your. This is like the job that your branding is doing, right? Sure we can talk about all of this abstract stuff in the science stuff when it comes to memory and all of this, and these are good, heuristics and things to understand. But when, when we come down to it and we bring it down to like more mundane stuff what I'm saying is that your branding is a, is an asset for your brand that can buy attention, right? That's what it does. It buys attention. And so attention is something, everyone needs.

Cindy W.: And we have less and less of

Chloe N.: That's exactly it like the attention economy is folks in, our field calls it is growing more and more crowded and it's never been as crowded ever in the history of a world it's never been as crowded as it is now. And that's just growing exponentially day by day. So for folks who are unfamiliar with this term, when I say the attention economy, I literally mean all of the things that are being thrown at you, be it content.

Gosh, be it, sights smells, sounds the news, like all of the things that you perceive with your human senses, those are things that are within the attention economy and they're vying for your attention. They are trying to buy attention from you and your resources when it comes to attention are increasingly limited. And this is really what your branding is doing, but if it's effective and it's doing its job, the reason it's so important for it to be stored in long-term memory is that what that means is that it is succeeded in its bid for attention from this particular intended audience. Yeah.

Cindy W.: Yeah, okay. So there are a few things I want to talk about. I want to talk about heuristics cause you brought it up and I just loved that. But also repetition. And maybe that is because I feel like my understanding of the brain and memory is repetition is a big piece of it.

Chloe N.: Yes.

Cindy W.: But I also want to start with a little bit of some of those assets that we think of very often people just think, okay, I've like that, and when it comes to the science behind those decisions, I feel like that's the thing that we're missing in the conversations around the brand. So let's start with that because I do think that maybe even give us some examples of, some insights that we can apply to our brands or a brand experience or trying to capture people's attention that might go against our instincts or preference.

Chloe N.: And so it's probably heard me grown because that's one of the things that I've definitely heard this before. I like these colors, let's say so let's go with that. No, please. Oh my goodness. Please don't do that, please. I beg of you. So here's what you want to do, right? And I'm not saying that preference isn't important, what is important is looking at the right mix of preference, right?

So the first thing that you want to do is look at the field of stakeholders that are important to the success of your endeavor, right? This can mean the folks that you want to donate to you. This can mean the folks who are on your board, this can mean the folks who serve in some sort of gatekeeping capacity, right? This can mean the folks who work at your organization, the folks who are at the top of, like. All of this, right?

You want to look at those folks and you want to understand what makes them tick, what motivates them, and while you're doing that, you're going to naturally get an understanding of what they're own particular, how do I put this? Their own particular worldview looks like maybe. And that. I do mean that metaphorically, but I also mean that literally, right? Like you're going to get a pretty good idea of what they're seeing every day, and that's the piece of information that's really key when it comes to making these design choices.

You want to understand what it is that they're seeing every day, not just in your field, but just like generally what they're seeing every day, because that then allows you to figure out how to distinguish yourself from that field of stuff, and this analysis does get pretty deep, right?

Because you want to look at, for example, so what's a good example that I can give that can help make this sort of concrete. Okay. I was working with a client who had the collection of stakeholders that they are working with. So generally they would be looking at like the Atlantic and the New York times and like these very particular podcasts and Friedman, I think, was someone that came up and stuff like that, right?

This was the stuff that was in their worldview. And what you get to do then is say, okay, great. What are they using these different sources for? Like how did they see the Atlantic? How did they see the New York times? How do they see Ann Friedman? What are the associations that they have with each of these things?

And when you do that, you can start to pick up on patterns of, if we're going to, if we're going to just choose color as like a simple modality, what associations they have with this color, what associations they have with this tone, right? That you start to see patterns in that, and that's why collecting a bunch of information, a bunch of data is super helpful because you can see false patterns if you don't have enough of the information.

So what I'm talking about is. The lowest form perhaps of semiotic analysis. And my mentor, Rachel laws will be like, Hey, don't let them think that this is all the semiotics is but yes, this is like the lowest form of semiotic analysis.

So what you do is you find out what their personal associations are with this. You start to pick up on the patterns. And then what that does is that gives you a field of options. I know folks can't see my hands, but as a field of options within which like, if you pick stuff from here, stuff will be right, and then the next step is then to find out, okay. So from this field of options, now we can look at our industry, right now. Now we can say, okay, how do we be industry aware, but distinct. What choices are going to make us look like we generally belong, but also be distinct enough that when someone is like rushing through the field, they'll like, we'll just pick up on, so that's very generally what that process might look like for one specific modality, like color, I don't know. Yeah.

Cindy W.: That's really helpful, cause it's the process again, it's not that Ooh this is cool. It makes me feel a certain way, it's about how does. our community feels and what, yeah. I really think that's super powerful. So let's talk a little bit about the heuristics and the cognitive biases, I think is a term that people might know a little bit more than heuristics, but these are basically like patterns to the shortcuts our brains make, so with, yeah, let's talk about that. And then we'll come to repetition, which I think is somewhat linked, but there are like, there are, a couple of hundred types of short patterns be shortcuts, our brains make where it's oh, who's the writer, Malcolm Gladwell with blink or things like that, like that, it's not that process where we have a gut response how does that play into the branding process?

Chloe N.: So glad you've asked, this is one of my favorite parts of the work that I do. So part of the work that I do is to not only advise on, look and feel, and internal coherence of a brand and a branding system, but it's also to ensure that whoever works with me is as positioned as possible to impact thousands, millions to shape the future because we come back to like my initial crisis of faith. That's why I got into this mess in the first place because I'm trying to get as many folks as possible who are like you and me into these rooms where it happens with the status quo will get pushed

and so the way that I have addressed that is by, adding behavioral design to the work that I do. And for those who aren't familiar with behavioral design, essentially, it's just, it's encouraging behaviors right by putting structures in place. And so the way very concretely what this looks like with some of my clients, for example, is.

Especially the folks who were underestimated right is we will look at, let's say a gatekeeper, somebody who they might need to get around or through to get to the next phase of the plan that we have for them, and we'll say, okay, great. What uncomfortably specific behavior would this person or this particular kind of stakeholder need to do or make in order for us to get closer to where you're trying to go.

And I use that term uncomfortably specific because I'm quoting my behavioral design and behavioral science mentor Kristen Berman, who is a genius and once we have what that uncomfortably specific behavior is, and once we understand like where they currently are, then all that's left to do is something that in my field, we call it behavioral diagnostic.

So we just figure out, okay, what are the steps that this kind of stakeholder usually takes between where they are now and the kind of behavior that we would like to see from them. And then we look at all of those steps and we say, okay, what are the cognitive biases that are in the way, what's the friction?

What is the cognitive friction that standard between this person and behaving in this way? Like you said there are over 200 of these, as one example of maybe give us some recent examples. Just so it's very specific. One of the things, one of the phrases I've heard to describe this is choice architecture. Love. I just think this is perfect like you are creating the environment. Or the arc you're the architect and getting someone to make the choice that you want them to make. That's exactly right.

Cindy W.: Give us an example of how this fits the branding processor. I imagine it comes up a lot in we're fundraising and branding intersect or websites or things like that.

Chloe N.: So absolutely all of these things I could talk for days about the ways in which this is super helpful for structuring your websites like I could talk about that for days. But I will give, so I'll give a recent example that I've had I have the client, this client is their work is more in the sort of the climate space, and one of the gatekeepers that they need to maneuver with or around or together with our journalists, and journalists at certain publications okay. So the uncomfortably specific behavior that we said, this would be great if we could get them to this place, is that this particular journalist would be writing about this organization four times a year.

So I'm talking uncomfortably specifically four times a year in sections of this publication that people actually read, that was like the uncomfortably specific key behavior that we determined. And of the, one of the cognitive biases that we needed to keep an eye out for. And this actually allows me to talk about a point that I was thinking about mentioning, but one of them, one of the cognitive biases was risk aversion and for the uninitiated risk aversion is simply, if this move seems risky, like I might lose something or might need standing or, might lose something, yeah. Then if it seems risky, then I'm less likely to take it. I'm squeamish. I'm like, Ooh, I don't know.

Like I will avoid it if I can, and we found that lots, one of the key blocks for this particular gatekeeper, this particular stakeholder were a real sense of risk aversion, right? That for all that they might internally, and this was not always the case, but for all the fact for all that, they might internally be very on board with the mission of this organization.

That doesn't mean that the rest of the folks around them in their organization are, it doesn't mean that their editor who they're pitching this piece to is, right. And so we had to figure out a way to address their risk aversion, to make it safe for them to partner with us, to get these stories into some of these publications.

And so that's just like one very hyper-specific example and the way that, that contributes, like the way that, that is part of the branding process is that these stories right, are part of this organization's branding. Because they are something that can serve as a memory anchor. They are memorable, if they're done correctly, they're a memorable brand asset, and so we would not have been able to develop those particular brand assets in a way that would be effective if we had not if we had not been aware of risk aversion.

Cindy W.: So interesting in my very limited experience with the media It's there's risk aversion. There's also a lot of social proof. I dunno if you've found that if someone picks up a story, then five more people are going to pick up that story. It's like someone takes the first step and then they all follow, which is tied to the risk aversion as a colleague. Yeah,

Chloe N.: exactly. Exactly. Yes, that's exactly right. And evidently if you, this is, I might be getting a little far-field here, but one of my new loves is network science. And evidently, when you look at, the average tipping point when it comes to behavior change at scale, there's actually a numerical value for that. According to network science, I think Daymond, Antola, who's one of the leading minds in this field scoped it out at 25%, but what you're talking about is true, right?

Like one person has to overcome, or we have to help that one person overcome that risk aversion, and then, the more and more people in like similar focuses network that are making that decision or doing that thing, the more that they feel safe to do. And then all of a sudden you reach that tipping point and there are Nat lands, right?

Cindy W.: Yeah. And like even using featured in this publication, lets other people know. It's that social proof. That's again like a shortcut oh, okay. They're legit. Okay. We can talk forever wrap up soon, but I want to talk about repetition because I actually do think that is such an important understanding of how our brains work to memorability. So tell us about that, cause. We're afraid to get to bother people a lot.

Chloe N.: And I'm like, yeah, I know. I know.

Cindy W.: How does that affect our brand?

Chloe N.: So look, this is the third definition that I will bring to you. And it is the definition of brand building from a scientific perspective. The definition of brand building from a scientific perspective is creating memories for people to recall okay. You're just creating memories for people to remember right. Now that necessitates, that requires repetition because if you're going to keep building your brand, you need to keep making those memories. Now here's the other thing, the funny thing about memories is that they can decay over time, and when I say decay, I don't there's, the jury is still out on what actually happens to the memory itself, but likeability to retrieve the memory gets slipperier and slipperier or like it gets harder and harder to retrieve that particular memory unless you refresh that memory. Yeah.

Okay. And so refreshing, people's memory of your brand through your branding consistently to the point that you're sick of it. That is required base work. If you want your brand and your branding to be effective to do the job that you need them to do if you are looking to have the kind of impact in the world that shapes the future, repetition is required. It's necessary. So my job.

Cindy W.: End of conversation if you take anything away from this, get in their face, like repeat, don't be afraid to connect with people over and over again they that is, if we go back to the definition of the brand for the app, like the assets that are memorable, right. Memorable is not just like how they look, but how often we see them. Yes. Okay. Oh my God, Chloe. We can totally talk forever about this, but we can't. So if our listeners want to reach out and connect with you, where can they find you?

Chloe N.: Yes, absolutely. You can find me at And you can also find me on LinkedIn and on Instagram. Also at Nobiworks. If you would like to connect with me personally, also feel free to it. Find me on LinkedIn. I'm there. I like new friends. And if any of this was interesting to you and you want to know more about what this sort of like behavioral approach to brands and to branding might look like in your organization, or if you're curious about like how well you're doing when it comes to some of these things, I actually have a free diagnostic tool. So please feel free to take advantage of that. That is there for it's free because I want as many people as possible who have social impact and purpose as their goal to be able to be as effective as possible. So yeah,

Cindy W.: Going back to Hamilton, get in the room where it happens. Thank you so much for joining us. And that was so much fun and enlightening. And of course, to our listeners, thank you so much for joining us this week. Keep up the great work. Folks, that's it for today's episode of The Small Non-profit I'm your host, Cindy Wagman. And this show is brought to you by the good partnership. As a reminder, i