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Charity brand leadership today…

15 May 2020

I started my career in charity branding as one of the sector’s first brand managers at Shelter in the early 2000s, where I was told I couldn’t even use the word brand as it was toxic. Much has changed since then. Most charities now have somebody responsible for brand and bigger charities have whole brand teams. But we still struggle with misunderstandings around what branding is and what it can achieve.

As CharityComms launch a new best practice guide to brand, it seems the perfect time to pause and reflect on the big shifts to emerge in charity branding over the last decade. Here are just four that have changed the brand landscape as we know it…

From brand management to leadership

To be truly successful, we must get over the notion that a brand is just a name, logo or visual identity. We must use brand strategy and positioning to direct the whole organisation, from products and services to culture and behaviour, marketing communications, campaigns and fundraising. This includes ‘brand-driven innovation’, where the brand is used to inspire new ideas, particularly useful when responding to or changing path in a crisis.

Writer David Aaker aptly makes the distinction between tactical brand management and the more strategic concept of brand leadership which has a longer-term strategic perspective, driven by a very clear statement of what the brand stands for. A point I totally agree with and something that we should all bear in mind.

As Kimberly Ferguson, brand manager at British Heart Foundation (BHF) puts it: “Managing a brand is a collaborative endeavour”. She explains: “I work with teams across the BHF to ensure that our brand remains a key part in strategic decision making. Our 2018 rebrand saw us promise to beat heartbreak forever from the world’s biggest killers. With everyone coming together behind this promise we’ve seen our brand metrics rise to their highest levels since records began, meaning that more people than ever feel our cause is urgent and would consider supporting us.”

Another good example is Parkinson’s UK. They rebranded in 2010 in one of the most successful brand projects of the last decade and have recently refreshed their breakthrough brand with a new 2020-2024 corporate strategy.

“We had changed a lot since our rebrand in 2010 – we had a tenacious and pioneering spirit that we used everyday but we never showed. Brand leadership meant showing the organisation the rewards of re-building our brand in an authentic and powerful way, and to use this to grow brand appeal with new audiences. It also meant being transparent that our brand health was in decline and to say bravely, we need to rebuild for our future, right now, says brand marketing lead Zohra Vermani.

“Brand leadership goes beyond creating visual and verbal consistency, and instead shows the wide ranging benefits of looking at a brand as a strategic tool. It gives everyone an understanding of your brand as a person – the purpose it has in the world, the values it holds true and the personality it uses. This basis is the golden thread that holds multiple business strategies together, creates company cultures and inspires future planning. It ensures you’re building a single compelling picture of who you are that ultimately drives support.”

From functional to emotional advertising

The use of human psychology and behavioural economics in brand development has exploded during the last decade, championed by Daniel Kaheman is his book Thinking Fast and Slow. The main premise is that there are two sides of the brain, system one and system two. System one thinking is activated by human emotions; it is low effort, quick and instinctive. System two thinking is based on rational reflection, it is higher effort and much slower.

Research by the IPA found brand campaigns based on system one are twice as effective, which is why we’ve seen the explosion of emotive video content and the emergence of the Brand Film Awards and Charity Film Awards. This coincides with a shift from negative emotions such as sadness and fear, traditionally used for direct response fundraising, to brand narratives built on hope and empowerment, as people want impact over guilt.

An example from my own experience is the travel brand AWAY. At the end of last year, I wanted to replace the tatty rucksack I’d used since my early 20s with some grown-up luggage. My rational brain turned to the John Lewis website in the first instance to search via price. But then I saw AWAY adverts at Paddington station. Visiting their website, I was drawn in by the evocative branding, messaging, identity and customer experience. Even better when I realized the brand had social purpose by partnering with Peace Direct, a peace building charity, with a percentage of my purchase contributing to their work.

From purpose articulation to activation

Of all the trends to impact charity branding over recent years, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: the rise of brand purpose. The trend for business brands to deliver a purpose beyond profit at the heart of their corporate and marketing communications strategy, not just on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) side-line.

This trend has been building since 2010, with 73% of people believing a brand should take action for both profit and society in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. Today people base their trust in brands by two attributes: their ethical behaviour (working to improve society) and their competence (delivering on their promises). However, no one type of brand has mastered the right ingredients – yet. Only businesses are seen as competent, whilst NGOs are seen as ethical. What’s more, only one third think the two sectors work together effectively.

In a Covid-19 dominated world, people want purposeful actions, not words. Good examples include Giffgaff’s ‘Goodbank’, where members can buy credit for vulnerable people with the network matching donations to a neighbourly community fund; BT teaching the nation vital digital skills; and the BBC with its biggest educational push in its history to help parents and children with schoolwork at home during the lockdown.

If charities haven’t yet defined their purpose they really should. Just look at National Trust’s, protecting special places, for everyone, forever, and RNLI’s saving lives at sea. These purpose statements are woven across their activities and inform their actions from the 100% compostable membership magazine wrapping, made of potatoes, to the fighting spirit used to deal with negative press coverage.

From sustainability to regeneration

Finally, more brands will prioritise green growth after lockdown, as the expectation builds that the coronavirus recovery should be good for the planet.

The National Trust’s Director-General Hilary McGrady said “The nation’s attention is rightly on dealing with the immediate and profound shock of Covid-19 to health, social fabric and livelihoods.  But governments around the world are turning their thoughts to recovery. We must learn from the last financial crisis and opt for renewal over mere recovery. We need a plan that invests in green growth and responds to what the lockdown has clearly shown: that people want and need access to nature-rich green space near where they live.”

We can also expect more brands to move towards regeneration to “Build Back Better”, as reducing our impact, even zeroing impact, will not be enough.

Just look at #VoiceForThePlanet, the growing movement that represents over 225 civil society NGOs in 115 countries, formed to unite people in influencing global leaders to act before it is too late.

So, looking forward to 2030, I hope we can all support each other as a community of purposeful brand leaders for our society, people and planet.

Dan was one of speakers at our Brand 360 online seminar, sponsored by Brand DuFour and Spencer du Bois, and is the co-author of CharityComms’ best practice guide to Brand

Read more:

Brand 360 guide

Image: Mario Gogh on Unsplash

Dan Dufour

creative brand strategist, BrandDufour

Dan is specialist in brand purpose and one of the sector’s leading brand strategists. He has worked on brand development across all sectors including Rightmove, London 2012 and Cancer Research UK. He's best known for his award-winning work across all corners of the charity sector, including Shelter, Parkinson’s UK, RSPB and Scope. Dan established CharityComms Brand Breakfast and is an author of our best practice guides to branding and integrated communications.