Insights
2 min Read
July 28, 2009

Who are you serving, anyway?

A few days ago, I wandered over to the Dumbo General Store for my afternoon coffee, and an outgoing fellow at the bar (yes, it’s also a bar and, even though I’m a writer, I drink coffee, not liquor) asked me if I was a regular. When I said that I was, he revealed that he was a reporter for The Brooklyn Paper and asked me what I thought of the new sign out front.

I had noticed the sign but hadn’t actually given it much thought. The old sign had said, “Café Bar” and looked very homemade. The new one actually said, “Dumbo General Store.” In my mind, this was an improvement since it actually let people know where they were. And I said as much.

Upon reading the ensuing article, I saw that my point of view was in the minority. Most regulars liked the homespun feel of the original and appreciated that it felt like a secret they were in on. One of the designers here much prefers the old sign. And it’s true that it was more aesthetically pleasing than the new one (but let’s face it—responses to aesthetics are subjective).

At Big Duck we see this kind of resistance with some regularity. Changes in color palette, logos, taglines, messaging—these things can represent major shifts for organizations. Board members and staff have gotten involved for reasons that existed before we came along. So when we recommend overhauling how the organization presents itself, there’s understandable resistance. “It was good enough for me; it should be good enough for anyone.”

I unwittingly walked into the middle of the same resistance at the Dumbo General Store. I understand that people enjoy feeling like a member of the club. Locals don’t want their regular haunts to be overrun by outsiders. There are plenty of places I’ve stopped going to over the years because they got too crowded.

But you know what? The General Store is a business. They want customers. Customers need to know where to go. No matter how the sign actually looks (I think it’s pretty decent, actually, if a bit too like a chain café), it’s doing its job. Which is exactly how I was quoted in the article.

Nonprofits too need to be constantly looking outside of themselves for survival. What you’ve got may be good enough for you, the staff, and even the board. But is your brand doing its job? Is it reaching new donors, new participants, and new advocates? Or does it spend too much time talking to the insiders?

The Dumbo General Store may have been doing a brisk business with its crew of regulars before the sign change. And if the regulars stop going there just because they don’t like the sign, they’re only punishing themselves. My guess is that the regulars will continue to patronize the General Store. The food is good. The coffee is good. The atmosphere is good, even if, when you leave (as our very own Katherine Sciolto seems to think), you smell like beef and cheese.

The new sign will, I suspect, expand the Dumbo General Store’s customer base. Proper communications has that effect on people.

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