Managing Brand Around Mission: Wisconsin Watch’s Experience

As it was entering its second decade, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism refreshed its branding in 2019 to reflect a renewed commitment to its mission.

The effort began when the nonprofit was chosen to participate in the Facebook Local News Membership Accelerator Program. Cofounders Andy Hall and Dee J. Hall decided to deal with an identity issue: People were confused about their name, since they were known variously as Wisconsin Watch, WCIJ and The Center.

Nearly a year later, Andy Hall, executive director of Wisconsin Watch, and Emily Neinfeldt, membership project manager, reflected on the rebranding in an interview with Sarah Vassello, INN engagement specialist, for INN’s Amplify News Project.

Hall said that while the name of the organization is still Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, “We will be emphasizing the name Wisconsin Watch to identify our news reports and overall investigative reporting that’s produced by our journalists.” The center has a broader mission including training current and future generations of journalists and helping the public understand the role of investigative reporting to inform the citizenry and strengthen democracy.

But for consumers of that investigative reporting, Hall said, “Wisconsin Watch is much easier to say, much easier to remember — and it also says what we do. We’re keeping a watch on our state to hold power to account and we’re investigating problems as well as solutions.”

Here’s how the rebranding happened:

Starting Point: Understanding its brand required thinking about how the organization was communicating to the public about its role in the community and its sense of purpose. “We started off with really some deep thinking about our organization’s mission statement and values, things that our staff and board had already put together over the past couple of years,” Hall said. “That became the basis for thinking about the visual approach in the logo that would support the center’s efforts to reach the public.

Logo Redesign: A firm hired with the Facebook grant money, Traction Factory, helped examine the organization’s values and role and proposed multiple pages of potential logos, some far different from the magnifying glass logo used since 2009. But after talking with staff and longtime supporters, the center decided on an updated logo that retains an image of a magnifying glass keeping watch over Wisconsin while adopting bolder colors to demonstrate dedication to bold investigative journalism.

“Part of our research process involved spending time on the INN membership page where everyone’s logos are displayed and we thought a lot about what we find appealing in a logo,” Hall said. “Some of our early versions included more complex visual elements and we finally decided in this case, simplicity is the most powerful.”

Market Research: The Center created a 10-minute online survey, which was emailed to newsletter subscribers and promoted on the website and social media, to find out how its audience perceived the organization. The survey was modified from one borrowed from The Texas Tribune, and the center is willing to pay that favor forward by sharing its version with other INN members.

Beyond the Logo: The rebranding extended beyond just rolling out a new logo, Neinfeldt said. “We’re making a lot of changes to our newsletter and having other conversations about our website. I think this process has given us a chance to really think critically about how we’re doing everything that we’re doing and improving it to be the best it can be.”

Why It Mattered: Although news nonprofits don’t have the kind of resources that major corporations put into branding, Hall said the effort was worthwhile. “Our journalism falls short of its potential if it doesn’t reach the public,” he said. “The journalism cannot continue if the public fails to support the news organization by first reading, watching, listening to the news but then engaging with that news coverage and at some level, financially supporting it. The branding is an essential element of financial sustainability.”