Rebuilding a Brand of Steel

The Christopher Reeve Foundation's Peter Wilderotter explains how his organization rebranded in the wake of twin tragedies.

How does an organization respond when the two most effective, and beloved, manifestations of its brand go away? In the case of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the answer is simple and resolute: We go forward.

The foundation's new tag line, "Go forward," was developed in a rebranding effort launched following Christopher Reeve's death in October 2004 and then enhanced following the unexpected death of Chris' wife and successor, Dana Reeve, 18 months later in March 2006.

The twin tragedies raised questions among donors about the foundation's future and created both a leadership and brand gap. Christopher and Dana's passion for curing spinal cord injuries, eliminating paralysis, and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis- three objectives that define the foundation's mission-embodied the foundation's brand. The challenge was to "move" much of the brand from two people to more traditional channels, such as a logo, tag line, and fundraising projects. The effort required deep research and marketing discipline, and dovetailed with the search for Dana's successor as the chair of the foundation.

Our initial research indicated that the experiences of other charitable organizations following the loss of their founders were promising. Will Rogers Institute, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and others continued to succeed, and in some case thrive, after the death of their founders.

We also understood that we needed to immediately address concerns among our 100,000-strong donor base. We conducted donor focus groups and collected anecdotal evidence from employees and even within the letters accompanying the memorial gifts the foundation received, which suggested that a fair amount of donors were concerned that the foundation's work might end with the deaths of the founders.

Addressing that concern, which was a misperception, represented a primary goal of the rebranding effort. We understood that we had lost two leaders who, by their very presence, commanded an audience and media coverage. Transforming personal qualities into a brand requires discipline. We scoured everything that Chris had written and said on the subject of the foundation's future without him. It turns out that Chris had addressed the subject directly in response to a question from Oprah Winfrey on her television show. He had said that the foundation and its work would "go forward."

The phrase made perfect sense in that it crystallized how Chris lived and dedicated himself to the elimination of paralysis. We placed the phrase on tags below the Superman logo through a unique agreement with Warner Brothers, which owns rights to the logo and rarely, if ever, allows its use by other organizations. Almost every speech that Dana gave after taking over leadership of the foundation concluded with our new tag line. We replaced our previous logo, a dove against a blue sky, with a flame design, which conveys warmth, triumph, and a rallying point-the same qualities that Chris and Dana displayed in their leadership.

We also developed and tested a whole series of words that were synonymous with Chris. Those efforts led to the creation of the Christopher Reeve Spirit and Courage Award, which we present at our Gala, the black-tie fund-raising event we hold annually. The award helped enable us to send the message that the foundation was going to be around for a long time.

Following Dana's death, we conducted the same process, which resulted in the creation of the Dana Reeve HOPE award. It was presented for the first time at our most recent annual Gala in November. Both awards honor individuals who have displayed grace, strength, and fortitude and who have been a source of support and guidance to the Christopher Reeve Foundation. The first HOPE award was presented to Cristina Carlino, the founder and CEO of philosophy, inc. Carlino developed inner grace, a bath and perfumed shower gel to honor Dana. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the sale of inner grace will be donated to the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

Our rebranding effort in many ways mirrored the objectives of the search for Dana's successor. Our new chairman of the board, Peter D. Kiernan III, was a close friend of both Chris and Dana. Yet, as a seasoned Wall Street veteran, he has brought his own impressive skills and network to the table, additions that have already resulted in significant gifts. The foundation also named Chris' children, Matthew and Alexandra (both are in their mid-20s), to the board. That addition ensures ongoing Reeve involvement and sends a signal to donors that the torch has been passed.

These moves have helped the foundation weather a difficult period. Donation levels have increased over the past two years. In 2005 the foundation's fundraising grew by 20 percent. This year we project that it will grow more modestly, in the 10 to 15 percent range. Finally, questions about our future no longer crop up now that everyone sees that the foundation is going forward.

Peter Wilderotter is the Vice President of Development for the Christopher Reeve Foundation. Contact him at