06/30/2010 11:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Power of ZERO in Business: Branding

Not-for-profits know a lot about managing with zilch. That's right. A bit counter-intuitive, eh?

Cherished, valuable brands like Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity and Make a Wish could teach a lot to start-ups, government, even ginormous businesses about how to build brand equity... without taking a Superbowl ad or spending gazillions of dollars on a fancy Madison Avenue firm, focus groups, and pretty PowerPoints.

Here are five simple lessons from terrific not-for-profits that will help you build a brand, without breaking the bank:

1. Open source your tagline. Ask your customer to describe your product or service in a sentence.

2. Rub up against your vendors/partners. Do some of these collaborators have shiny brands that appeal to your target market? Ask them to Tweet about you, publicly post you on their website, or have your CEO's co-author an Op-Ed (or HuffPo piece). When partners with Pepsi, we're saying we're a fighter brand. Another great example is the American Heart Association's stamp of approval on Cheerios.

3. Write it down. Does everyone in your company know your key words? Your banned words? Even the tech guys and finance team at Nothing But Nets have a one-page version of their brand overview brief. It's not just an email that was sent out by the head of marketing, it's something everyone lives and breathes.

4. Be your target market. You should be your focus group. Your office should be full of people who actually use your product or service. Instead of constantly hiring focus groups and agencies, live it! Dress for Success often hires former clients and the CEO of Livestrong is a cancer survivor himself. Does your CEO -- but also your receptionist, your legal counsel, and your mailroom clerk -- love your product or service?

5. Look in the mirror. Do you only evaluate your brand position when there is a crisis? That's like waiting to wash your face until you have a pimple. Great brand management requires daily use of Clean and Clear.

Nancy Lublin is the CEO of, the founder of Dress for Success, a columnist for Fast Company, and the author of Zilch: The Power of Zero In Business.