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Turmoil is something the charity sector is learning to adapt to and even adopt as many charities seek to merge, grow, and develop new projects and new fundraising tools. It does, however, raise the pithy question of how do we present our services and the things we do in a coherent and clear way. This question, if left unanswered, will mean that as portfolios grow, there is a risk they either become barren or a tangled mess.
If we were to pick one sector within the charity mix where this holds particularly true, and we are spoiled for choice, this would be the mental health sector. Without doubt this is one of the most complex to manage. Competitors abound, both at scale and with niche specialisms, creating a complex web of identities all vying for attention.
It comes as no surprise therefore that mental health support charity Richmond Fellowship was one of the first to see this was an ideal context in which to flip the model on its head and turn it into an opportunity.
The charity's aim was visionary. It opted to bring together like-minded charities in a bid to change how the UK treats mental health. It believed that by joining forces it could build a national mental health and substance abuse services group large enough to make its vision happen.
One of the biggest challenges, however, was representing the members' collective ambition. Each partner charity had its own rich history of success, as well as its own unique look and message. They needed a brand that took each partner’s distinctive skills or regional and national reputations and combined them to break new ground in "making recovery a reality". That brand now is Recovery Focus.
We need only look at the commercial sector to see how well this can work. Take Virgin which, like Recovery Focus, centres its proposition around creating a link brand with each partner which still retains its own distinctive, but clearly linked, identity.
Key to remember is there is no one size fits all formula. Those who attempt to apply a blanket style identity end up with a bland, un-engaging brand that neither appeals nor differentiates, resulting in individual services under-selling themselves.
Conversely, those charities which have separate and unlinked brands that focus on each service or product will create silos that hide the collective breadth and depth of what the charity does. In so doing they will be squandering a valuable commercial asset that could help establish the credibility of new services and encourage cross usage and sales.
Yet the solution is relatively simple. Charities need to define what they have got that really appeals, both on an emotional and a rational level, to their audiences and make up any shortfall to each and every audience. In other words they need to ask "how can we make what we do relevant and appealing to all our audiences?".
Volunteering charity CSV asked itself this question when it felt its core brand was starving the charity of meaning and visibility. Now known as Volunteering Matters, the new focus resides in the charity's belief in the power of volunteering's ability to inspire and transform lives. The charity lives up to its brand promise of leading the UK in volunteering policy and practice. Its services are simply, and effectively, signposted and equally appealing across all platforms. The charity equivalent of Apple.
Guide Dogs too posed this question when they brought on board National Blind Children’s Society. It recognised that to flourish it needed a standalone brand, to focus on the increased portfolio of services it offered. When analysing how to increase its relevance to wider audiences, it found that National Blind Children’s Society would become perceptually obscured under the Guide Dogs brand, adding little to the brand and damaging its ability to reach out to key audiences and to fundraise.
In rebranding to Blind Children UK it appealed strongly to the target audiences, became more firmly linked as part of the Guide Dogs family, and helped expand Guide Dogs away from "dogs" into broader mobility.
HSBC and First Direct reflect a similar brand ethos in the commercial sector.
Building larger entities without losing the value of each partner in the ensuing chaos is a juggling act charities are increasing going to have to learn to manage if they are to survive and remain relevant.
Striking a balance between supporting goals both at an individual and organisation level to provide clarity and relevance to all audiences requires a clear brand hierarchy to capture the group’s key differentiator.
So what are the key branding elements charities need to look for as they expand and manage their portfolios?
- For a start the core brand and all its activities have to leverage each other. This means identifying each activity’s specific role and raison d’être.
- There need to be equal parts of give and take. The core brand must give and gain from the activities.
- Ensuring that the goals of each activity are reflected in the core brand and these are supported at both the individual level and the corporate level is key.
- The core brand must provide clarity and relevance to all audiences. It should also promote logic and synergy as well as a sense of order, purpose and direction to the charity.
The charity sector is certainly undergoing challenges, yet there are enormous opportunities too to rethink the purpose of charities and reshape their original offering.
Taking the time to carve out a balanced and powerful identity will have a transformational effect on the way new style charities are perceived both internally and externally. Key is to ensure their portfolio of brands does not exceed the sum of its parts, something that requires coherence to rule over chaos.
How could the charity sector as a whole benefit from rebranding as well as individual charities? It’s worth defining what we mean by “brand”. Branding, although it derives from the Swedish word meaning to mark cattle, is about much more than just logos and brand identities (vital signifiers though these might be).
“True branding” is about an organisation’s commercial and societal purpose; its unique history and provenance; its measurable impact; its daily products, services and behaviours and its measurable impact.
Good or great brands grow outwards from tightly defined and inspiring purposes and have vibrant, oral cultures that are far more specific and interesting than the bland platitudes of the “values and mission statements” so often paraded in their reception areas. Good brands also have sharp edges: they define what they don’t do, as well as what they do.
Branding is just a cosmetic paint job unless it’s directly linked to business strategy, which, in the case of charities, will usually be focused on the fundraising/income strategy.
Meaningful rebranding required
The charity sector as a whole is currently beleaguered and in need of meaningful rebranding. According to the NCVO, funding for the voluntary sector will be £1.7bn lower by 2017/18 than it was in 2010/11. According to The Guardian, charities have lost more than £3.8bn in government grants in the last decade.
According to Compact Voice, 50% of local authorities disproportionately cut voluntary sector funding in 2010/11. Charitable giving by the public dropped by 10% during the recession and has yet to recover.
On top of cuts, there is the assault on reputation created by the severe lack of governance at Kids Company; regular donors being overly pressurised by charities, in one case leading to the suicide of Olive Cooke, aged 92; and inappropriate relationships between corporates and charities such as between Age UK and energy supplier E.ON.
Whilst the public sense that these are the sensationalist and unrepresentative tips of a benign and virtuous iceberg of charitable activity, they have weighed heavy on the sector.
Charities are grossly under-recognised and wrongly stereotyped, especially by government and business. They are still seen in a rather lame and Victorian way, as “amateur do-gooders”, nurses who patch up the bodies wounded by raw capitalism. Perhaps this is why they have been pejoratively labelled “the third sector” as if it were a ranking beneath the public and private sectors. Nothing could be further from the truth and the voluntary sector needs to re-present (rebrand) itself.
Strong intellectual capital
Charities and social enterprises develop new and unique problem solving ideas often on modest resources. They are developers and owners of strong intellectual capital with a tangible value.
Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, has commented on this in his Pro Bono Economics lecture in 2014. He estimates that all UK volunteering might total 4.4 billion hours per year, with a value of £50bn or 3.5% of GDP. Of course, that is just the value of the volunteering time, without considering the value of the problem-solving services delivered by not-for-profits in saving government and society money.
Charities both need, and would benefit from, this more progressive reputation as “economically important problem solvers”. This is partly because of the rise of both social enterprises and social businesses, which are both rivals and potential partners. According to the State of Social Enterprise UK’s Survey in 2015, more than half of social enterprises have increased their turnover in the last year; 59% have developed new products and services, and 83% have attracted new customers or clients.
Social investment funds and social businesses are also thriving. B Corps, for example, is a movement of over 1500 companies worldwide. A B Corp will be a for-profit business which has social and/or environmental outcomes,as certified by the not-for-profit B Lab. B Corps launched in the UK last year with 62 founding member companies.
One such B Corps member is Unforgettable, a one-stop, online portal for easy-to-navigate products, advice and communities to help people, and their carers, cope better with dementia. It donates some of its profits to its own Unforgettable Foundation and has a strong partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society. This kind of inter-relationship between social businesses and charities could be a key aspect of the sector’s progressive future.
If those are some of the sector issues and opportunities for rebranding, when should individual charities rebrand, how and to what purpose?
Whilst true branding is about far more than name and logo, one fundamental reason to rebrand is to make your purpose clearer through your name. In 2010 research showed St Dunstan’s that few people under the age of 75 were aware of the charity or what it did. St Dunstan’s rebranded as Blind Veterans UK with a more striking logo. The rebranding cost £90,000 but was central to raising an extra £7m over five years.
Singularity and distinctiveness
This case demonstrates another important principle: that rebranding a charity should be about singularity and distinctiveness, not about awareness for its own sake. Both Third Sector’s Charity Brand Index and You Gov’s Charity Index show that awareness of charities is dominated by big causes with big budgets and moves slowly.
Better to have a carefully targeted and distinctive awareness than try to paint on too broad a canvas. The RNLI focuses only on awareness amongst local communities; and the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals concentrates on those donors who earn less than £25,000 a year most likely to empathise with the charity’s beneficiaries. Know thyself and know thy audience. Be brave enough to be singular.
You should rename and rebrand for succinctness and memorability. I am a trustee of a charity which used to be called “We Are What We Do”. We have recently shortened the name to “Shift” to embody its behaviour change purpose and to stop the business cards being the length of a baguette!
You should also rename to better represent your beneficiaries. Decades ago, the first charity rebranding I worked on was to change the “London Association for the Blind” to “Action for Blind People”, after visually impaired people pointed out that “the blind is something you pull up and down at the window, not a human being.”
Better expressing your purpose
Most rebranding should be about better expressing your purpose rather than simply refining your colour palette, typography or photographic style (although sometimes refreshed identities are needed in order to better use digital media).
Unicef, for example, when it rebranded in 2014, put the mission “For every child in danger” as a “lock-up’” with the logo and at the epicentre of all its communications, having discovered that many people did not understand its purpose.
When the branding for the British Heart Foundation was refreshed, a bold call to action was created: “Fight for Every Heartbeat.” The charity's lifesaving courses, events and campaigns were also relaunched. The results were a 7% increase in both retail income and fundraising plus a 30% increase in online donations.
If you want a rebrand to work, you need to activate it imaginatively and creatively, especially if you have limited funds. The Stroke Association with no budget for its brand relaunch, gave the staff 5 months to act as Brand Ambassadors, resulting in a tenfold increase in the supporters’ network.
Two final points about making your charity more impactful: think about the right kinds of partnerships with corporates and about creating your own branded social movements.
My suggested guidelines for working well with commercial businesses are as follows:
- Businesses are best at "doing good" when they leverage what they do well commercially. Persil’s "Dirt is Good" campaign would be brilliant at promoting outdoor play with the right charity partners thus enhancing the wellbeing of children but also promoting its dirt-cleaning credentials.
- Partnerships work best when both sides are equally committed, motivated and passionate about the cause. The partnership between Domestos and UNICEF on better sanitation is a good example.
- Be clear, creative and, above all, highly specific about your social goals. Toms' "One for One" scheme uses the profits from the pair of shoes you buy from it, to provide shoes to someone poor who would otherwise go barefoot.
- Actions must precede words. Too many companies do an ad campaign on a social purpose before acting tangibly on that purpose. Look for a corporate partner which does rather than just says.
Branding social movements
As someone who has co-founded The Big Lunch, Change the World for a Fiver and TimeBank, my guidelines for a successful, branded social movement are as follows:
- Make it fun and rewarding; simple and inclusive.
- Give it light and shade, shock and optimism.
- Make it simultaneously bottom-up and top-down.
- Allow for lobbying/ campaigning, fund-raising and volunteering as responses.
- Develop distinctive iconography and a unique and regular place in the calendar.
“Movember” is a perfect embodiment of all the above principles, raising awareness, funds and action for testicular and prostate cancer like nothing before.
Rebranding the charity sector and individual charities, in the true sense of the term, is not an expensive “paint job” but essential if the voluntary sector is to thrive in ever more difficult times.
The world of direct marketing is changing at a rapid pace. Ask people what they mean by direct marketing, and many people will answer: “It’s about driving a response.” But everything does that nowadays, right? At least everything in the digital space.
Fundamentally, direct marketing for charities is about making a valuable connection – with supporters and would be supporters. It’s about creating a valuable connection for the charity: starting and nurturing a relationship with a supporter who can help not only with shorter term donations, but with advocacy, legacies and other valuable support longer term.
But it should also be about supporters making a valuable connection for them, with a charity which is true to their own personal values, and which treats them with the value and respect that they deserve.
So, how do you go about creating valuable connections?
Be doormat delightful
Charity direct mail has had its reputation knocked somewhat recently. However, its role remains as relevant as ever. Not just for reaching older traditional supporters, but as a means to engage other supporters for whom receiving a letter is a welcome surprise that deserves attention. People who are used to email as the standard relish a well crafted piece of direct mail landing on their doormat.
Valuable long term relationships usually flourish the more you get to know someone. If you were meeting someone in a professional context, you’d usually check them out on LinkedIn and create an initial connection in that first conversation about the person you both used to work/drink/skydive with. It should be the same in direct marketing.
With cold acquisition communications, the more personal you can be upfront – proving that you have a common personal connection – the better.
Whether it’s recognising that they are mums, cat lovers, or that they live a geographical area connected to your cause, the more data you can use to create a deeper personal connection in your creative the more likely you are to elicit a response.
For example, a recent direct mail campaign for Women For Women International targeted successful professional women. Research showed that they like to nurture younger women to "give something back". So the creative spoke to them in a business context and they were sent a business card.
The front of the card bore the name ESTHER MUKUNDE and her "title": WIDOW, GENOCIDE SURVIVOR, ILLITERATE. And on turning the card around, recipients saw Esther’s "title" change to: BUSINESS OWNER, EMPLOYER, INSPIRATION. This highly targeted approach, using a genuine insight about the audience, created a personal connection.
Don’t just think: "When is the best time for us to run a campaign?" Instead think: "When is the best time for my (would be) supporter?"
Maybe it’s something that has happened in their lives that makes them ripe for a particular message – for example, they’ve moved house, and might be more willing to think about homelessness, in the context of how lucky they are. Or they’ve recently come back from a Mediterranean holiday…a good time to talk to them about the refugee crisis.
Buying external data from lists, or using socially derived data, is more expensive than relying on your own, but might give you a bigger return on investment.
Be culturally relevant
Another way of being timely, is to be in the moment, culturally.
For instance, commercial companies see real impact when they use weather triggered email campaigns. For example, when the sun comes out in summer (retail direct mailers benefit) and when weather does its worst in winter (insurance direct mailers benefit).
The trick is to create your own bank of triggered communications (you can be fairly sure it will be rainy at some point!) so you’re ready to hit the button on your "imagine being homeless in this weather" messaging.
Not everything has to be triggered. Simply thinking about a cultural context calendar can help create more connections. Think about what is happening in the wider world that can help you leverage your message. It’s school holiday time: "not every child wants to be at home during the holidays". It’s the weekend the clocks change: "another hour in bed isn’t a treat when you’re sleeping in a cardboard box".
This is where direct mail can play more of a role, as you’re able to plan further ahead and land impactful messaging just at the right time.
As well as planning to be culturally spontaneous, anything charities can do to be as nimble as possible in reacting to what’s in the news, the better. This isn’t just about aid charities reacting quickly to crisis (something they thrive on); it’s about being able to ride the news wave.
For example, a news item breaks about (please not yet another) a local council where child exploitation has been rife. What better time to contact supporters in that geographical area for help?
In today’s environment, where the charity industry is very much under scrutiny, it really is vital that we give supporters the respect they’re due. Gentle reminders are one thing, but can all too easily tip into regular bullying if appropriate limits aren’t set on the frequency of comms.
Using "air traffic control" to ensure that would-be donors aren’t over-emailed, creating prioritisation rules around who gets what, and when are good aims for individual charities. Wouldn’t it be something if charities could get together to air traffic control their collective communications?
Be mindful of your medium
Use your channels to their best effect. SMS can be precision timed. Email can be the first stepping stone on an immersive journey. Direct mail can be tactile, interactive, and dramatic. Thinking about how the individual channel works best, not simply replicating messaging and approach across a range of channels, will create more impactful communications and more response.
Direct mail can be used to deliver branded reminders to respond. Instead of the usual hackneyed pens, how about delivering useful items that help deliver the core message?
Delivering useful items
Refuge created a campaign called "Slap" where they sent cover-up make up to women, to dramatise the fact that 1 in 4 women will be subject to domestic violence in their lives, and that the recipient would probably know someone who may be covering it up, who would be living in fear of domestic violence right at that moment.
Another great example is National Trust which created a mailing designed to get kids away from the TV set (or tablet) and go out and do something less boring instead. They were encouraged to take a night-time safari, taking a walk into the countryside.
Parents were sent a magic poster for their kids’ walls that comes alive when it gets dark, just as nature does. Using phosphorescent ink (the very ink the Highways Agency uses to get things noticed) the daytime scene transforms, as the night falls and the moon appears.
Beyond signing up to donate
Direct mail can also play a role in encouraging a response beyond signing up to donate. A blank piece of paper can be a place for the recipient to send a personal message, to write down exactly why they want to make a legacy, or to draw how they would feel if they were in the victim’s situation.
World Vision, with their Grow Hope campaign, used direct mail to allow regular sponsors to write a letter of encouragement to their individual sponsored child, to encourage children that vegetables aren’t "poor man’s food".
Charity direct marketing can be mind-numbingly formulaic. Of course there are tried and trusted techniques, audience groups who always perform better, channels and channel mixes that have designed roles. But, as with all direct marketing, if you don’t try something new, you’ll never move forward. Yes, your money is precious, but you will never unlock growth if you don’t test new things.
Whether it’s creating a bit of doormat drama, or trying a dramatically more personal approach, you should always be thinking about your bank of best hypotheses that you want to test.
Be results focused
Last and not least, brimming with ideas about new things to try, make sure you know the effect of your forays into the new. Test and learn. Try and understand. Measure and identify. Track the ROI and understand attitudinal impact. Make sure you know exactly how your new activities are (and equally important, are not) working. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get even better.
Making valuable connections requires a spirit that embraces change. By investing in more engaging and personal direct marketing techniques, charities can get closer to their supporters and create more reciprocal relationships. This is ultimately a smarter and more valuable way to fundraise.
In 2014 when Macmillan redefined what it was in the world to do, it triggered a shift away from being an organisation which cares for people affected by cancer to a powerful movement which released control of its brand and allowed everyone involved to become, not only a brand ambassador, but a co-producer.
Key to Macmillan’s success was multiplying its limited budget by a highly engaged and motivated "fan base", a strategy that was deemed both bold and dangerous yet resulted in Macmillan becoming one of the UK's most recognised, trusted and respected brands, trumping many bigger spenders in the process.
Without doubt this took courage. Building a platform from which everyone can participate and then stepping back to allow them to do so meant relinquishing control over the brand. And let’s face it, brands are carefully crafted, well guarded portrayals of what an organisation is about. If we take a brand as being the very perception someone holds in their mind of a product, service or cause, then surely it needs protecting, particularly in a highly competitive and fickle market such as the third sector.
This type of co-creation, as shown in the case of Macmillan, taps into the most powerful form of drive, one that builds brands by aligning with a transformative idea.
Identifying the brand message
To make this happen requires sourcing and then magnifying the very essence of what the brand is about. The key is identifying this brand message which is achieved by understanding and accessing what the target audience truly believes.
The focus here is on sharing rather than selling, joining the conversation rather than taking over the microphone. It is no longer about the individual, it is about the group as a whole and it is as far away from good old fashioned persuasion as a brand manager can get. Which is why marketers need to distance themselves from the end result, in effect becoming the enabling tool to help people express and achieve their goals.
This shift to brands generously handing over the reins and allowing their target audiences - their beneficiaries, supporters, donors - to co-produce focuses on brands using digital to converse rather than broadcast. Co-creating therefore is about tapping into people’s core drivers and emotions, and getting to the very essence of what the brand means to them. This is really important in relation to charities' interface with their audiences.
Some brands are more tentative about it than others. If we think of brand building as the deliberate and skillful application of effort to create a desired perception in someone else’s mind (the beneficiary, supporter, donor), then it makes sense that the next step is to empower and encourage said consumer to roll up their sleeves and become a co-creator. What better way to ensure emotional engagement?
Those brands that seize the opportunity to redefine their roles and reshape their visions using their audiences as their co-creators are reaping the rewards. A good example of this occurred when the NUS asked its target audience, in this case students, what they wanted and centred its entire marketing proposition around their responses. In so doing they got to the hearts of the 7 million students it represents and showcased the realities of students’ lives and their belief in the power of students to drive change.
The resulting rebrand took the students’ voices and crafted a brand that aims to shape the future of education. Like Macmillan, NUS handed over its digital platforms for people to set up their own interest and sub groups, further strengthening the bond with the brand.
Genuine emotional stories
The charity sector, more than any other sector, has genuine emotional stories to tell. Whether charities are supporting those affected by cancer, working with homeless people or saving endangered species, theirs are true life stories that shape peoples lives, dreams and hopes. The very fact that they champion a cause could result in human co-creation turning into a powerful revolution However, it does require a shift in mindset if charities are to make the most of it.
The flip side of charities closely touching people’s lives is that, at times, these same participants can be critical, their experiences will not always be heart-warming and positive. That is part of the textured third sector landscape; it is not always filled with happy endings
A charity brand may find it is co-producing with less than happy beneficiaries, supporters, donors, but that is precisely what will make for a unique brand which is authentic, which genuinely mirrors what is needed, because it comes straight from the target audience’s heart. It will not always be glossy or rosy but it will be powerful and that in itself will make the brand messaging transformative.
By shifting the mindset away from "target" audience, which implies a more predatory attitude, to "participants", we break down the walls between the organisation and the people, turning the focus towards "us" rather than "them". The result will be transformational as those charities which base their marketing on the aggregation of all the conversations between themselves and their audiences will, in effect, be creating a bottom-up community which will gain in momentum as it develops.
Currently charities are losing support as well as vital donor engagement. The more they try to shore up and resist the negative messaging, the worse it becomes. The more they try to put a veneer over their brand, the wider the cracks become. As it turns out, the reason for this could become the solution to their woes. Throwing open the gates to their digital platforms, encouraging people to become active participants, giving them a voice and handing over the microphone as it were, will lay the foundations towards a fresh new perception of what charities are about.
Demand for authentication
This is all the more timely as the millennial generation gains traction. With their highly altruistic values, this generation above any other demands authenticity, something that charities should be poised to tap into. Key is for charities to establish from the outset what they stand for, and ensure their values are clearly showcased.
Building a solid platform with an overarching principle behind it rather than a jumble of content enables a charity to craft its own unique vision and footprint. The next step is to turn to its audiences and ask them to build on this vision, to create a brand that resonates with them and has true meaning for all those people it touches.
Otherwise, if digital is merely used as another means of broadcast then many charities risk slipping into oblivion.