A volunteer checks bedding at a PADS shelter night at St. John Church in Forest Park, File 2013.

The fact that you can’t tell a book by its cover has become a problem for West Suburban PADS. The problem is the organization’s cover, i.e. the name PADS, no longer communicates adequately everything the agency does in serving the homeless population in our area.

Christ Mickens, co-founder of EDUCO Web Design in Oak Park, a member of both the PADS board of directors and the rebranding committee, which has been charged with the task of coming up with a new name for the agency that first opened its doors in 1992, explained, “There’s a lot of awareness and good will toward the West Suburban PADS brand, but most people are unaware of the fact that the ‘PADS’ part stands for more than just a mattress pad on the floor of an emergency shelter. In fact, emergency shelter accounts for only 10% of our cash budget. Our agency is part of a comprehensive solution to homelessness that also includes housing, support, employment, outreach and prevention. The ‘West Suburban’ aspect of the brand is limiting as well. We serve more than 20 suburbs in west Cook County and the West Side of the city.”

Lynda Schueler, PADS’ executive director, said the PADS brand has been a problem for the organization in terms of raising funds.

“Over the summer months,” she explained, “we identified some donor prospects. In sitting down with those folks, every single person said, ‘I had no idea of all that you did. The ‘West Suburban’ part of our brand has been a problem as well because it’s a barrier to raising funds from donors located in Chicago.”

Schueler said the emergency shelter program is a “Band-Aid” approach to homelessness. It’s an important Band-Aid, though, and the gateway for most clients to the agency’s programming, but it’s not solution-oriented. To keep pace with how the agency has expanded its services, the board of directors last January adopted a new mission statement: “To transition people from housing crisis to housing stability.”

“We’ve invested a lot of time into this rebranding process,” said Schueler. The first step was to form a branding subcommittee composed of board members Mickens; Jason Smith, co-owner of the Book Table; and Gardi Wilks, a communications expert, along with PADS staff members Nancy Ford, director of development and communications, and Schueler.

The subcommittee judged the rebranding move to be significant enough for the agency to hire a consulting firm, the Richter Group, which began walking the committee through a lengthy, methodical process. The first step, said Ford, was for the committee members to articulate what she referred to as the organization’s “brand architecture,” i.e. “the fundamentals and foundation of who we are and have been for the past 23 years as they inform how we present ourselves going forward.”

The next step was to get feedback in focus groups from 30 people who live in the Oak Park-River Forest-Forest Park area.

“In building the brand architecture,” Ford said, “It was important for the committee to pause for a moment and talk to people who know us on lots of different levels, as volunteers or community partners or funders, and make sure we were on the right track. The participants in the focus groups pretty much consistently embraced the idea that PADS is more than a shelter and that having a new brand makes sense.”

Part of the focus-group process was to generate words that, in the participants’ opinions, accurately described what the agency is and does. Using that long list of descriptors, the Richter Group helped the committee create seven options for the organization’s new brand.

Michaelle Van Linden, a market researcher and former board member, took the seven names and created, pro bono, an online survey designed to garner feedback on which most accurately and effectively communicates the mission and nature of the organization.

More than 200 surveys were sent out in the hope of getting a minimum of 100 responses. Ford said that three of the names have separated themselves from the pack as the most favored.

In order to get feedback from a sample of people who had no knowledge of PADS, Van Linden went to the Oak Brook Mall and did what in her trade is called “a mall intercept.” She approached random shoppers, showed them the mission statement and asked them to rank the seven names.

When the results of the surveys are in and sorted, the subcommittee will meet sometime after the first of the year and pick the name, which will be revealed to the public in the spring of 2015.        

Ford pointed out that other agencies in the area have been rebranding as well. Walk-In Ministry, for example, rebranded itself as Prevail; Family Services and Mental Health Center changed its name to Thrive; and the Infant Welfare Society became the Children’s Clinic.