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Successfully positioning a charity ie; branding is worth it… Part 2


You’ll need to quickly read the introduction to Part 1 of this blog series to see why I’m starting out here… This is also a bit longer than usual but I think it covers important ground.

I’m going to be bold and state that branding is necessary for charities for one just one massive reason:

If people don’t know you exist, they can’t support you!  Full stop.

Whether that support is in the form of donations, campaigning, volunteering or any and every other form of interaction, it’s simply not going to be forthcoming if people don’t have a target to direct their energies towards.

I’m not intending this blog to be a lesson on branding or re-branding theory as there are plenty of other resources you can check out for that.  What I do want to explore though, are some focused ways that charities can think about their branding (positioning) to ensure they can attract all of the audiences they need to engage with, and therefore, meet their objectives.

First up lets look at a few truisms of charity branding (in my experience):

  • The discipline and understanding of creating a powerful association between a charity and the actions of its supporters is branding in this context.  Not developing logos, changing colours or shop signs.  These are just the tactical manifestations of the process and sometimes aren’t even necessary.
  • How the process is executed probably causes more grief than the idea of brands itself (see Mark Phillips’ thoughtful article).  And I think that has a lot to do with how charities tend to make decisions ie; more by consensus and incorporating the opinions of a wide group of stakeholders.  It can also have a lot to do with internal power-bases and whose voice is loudest.
  • Brand or a re-brand is not a panacea for all a charity’s ills.  Therefore re-branding won’t make the existing issue go away!
  • As in the commercial world, brands must be both powerful enough to register with target audiences but also flexible enough to encompass ALL of the charity’s core needs.
  • Mark talks about brands only being of value if they support the bottom line.  Well in a charity that actually means fundraising, campaigning, lobbying, service provision, operational activities etc.  There is realistically more than one bottom line given the purpose of most charities.  Therefore, the minute one of these areas becomes the dominant focus of a brand, the less able the other areas are to use the brand to deliver their share of the charity’s objectives.  Sorry if this is somehow not what certain departments want to hear but a strong charity brand does not exist solely to support one area – it’s an asset to be leveraged for the entire organisation (which is why it’s tough to get it right).
  • Brands are like buildings; they are medium to long-term assets.  We don’t expect to recoup the cost of a new office in the first year and we’ll be accruing benefits from using the office for many years beyond that first 12 months.  So we need to be realistic and judge any specific brand ROI in the same way.  Jeff Brooks suggests that re-brands at best only ever break even and that most of the time they lose money for charities.  And I think he’s right IF the programme isn’t executed well and IF short-term revenue generation is your only measure.

To illustrate the point, let’s take a quick look at the experience of Cancer Research UK and its multiple bottom lines:

  • Formed by the merger of Cancer Research Campaign and Imperial Cancer Research Fund and rebranded in 2002
  • Now biggest single independent funder of cancer research in Europe and still generating practically all of its own income
  • Developed vital drugs in the fight against cancer in several areas
  • Their research has had a measurable positive impact on cancer survival rates
  • They have created and maintained one of the most successful fundraising brands in Race-for-Life
  • Their fundraising income has risen every year over the last five years and totals more than £1,710 million

From my outsider’s point of view (and that’s THE key perspective) their brand is evidently used effectively to both enable and promote their activities across all of these areas.  By the way, I’m not suggesting their success is solely due to their brand.  I am most definitely suggesting that it acts effectively as the glue which binds all of their activities together and enables them to successfully engage with different audiences for different reasons.

So what actions can charities take to ensure their brand and the supporting processes deliver tangible value across their organisations?

Well we can start with avoiding the pitfalls outlined above.  We can also consider the following (which is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Ignore expensive branding agencies that tell you your brand values or personality should fundamentally change (unless you are completely changing what you do in the future and need to make a definite break from your past).  This results in lots of workshops and noodling but also risks destroying any brand equity you have already built up with your audiences.
  • Ensure your brand encompasses and enables all of your charity’s core needs (see above point).  You’ll notice we say ‘core needs’, which means that you don’t have to include 100% of what you do explicitly.  Not all of your actions are equally important to achieving your medium and long-term goals.  Be honest with yourselves and be focused on what really helps you to make a difference.
  • To help do this, engage all those key areas in the branding process.  You need to know from the outset if a particular path will damage fundraising activity or alienate volunteers.
  • BUT choose these stakeholders from a limited group that represent only those core areas.  I think it’s vital not to let your brand focus be determined by vast committee… this only dilutes it’s power.  Your brand is an important asset, just like a building.  Think about it… when we need to take a decision about a new building, even though it’s expensive we only involve the people qualified to make decisions on buildings or who have a direct and tangible vested interest.  Why should brands be different?
  • Appoint a true leader within your charity to oversee the project, whether officially or as an influencer.  This helps to drive progress.
  • Stop focusing on reasons why you can’t do stuff… there are always plenty of reasons why we can and should make changes or indeed maintain the status quo.  It’s a mindset change that lots of charities need to recognise and make in whatever way is realistic for them.
  • Lastly, you have to walk the walk as an organisation.  Both Jeff and Mark have a valid point about brands not adding any value if they don’t reflect a charity’s values and needs in a way that consistently appeals to its various target audiences.  Cancer Research UK says it is committed to beating cancer and generally speaking, its actions and its people reflect that ambition.

So, if I have a conclusion it’s this; brands are assets that are only as powerful as the process behind building and leveraging them.  Do it well and all of your charity’s objectives can be supported.  But leave it just to one team or area and the end result will never be as effective as it should be.

What do you think?

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