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Embracing brand-led innovation

25 March 2022

Charity innovation has traditionally happened in fundraising teams to explore new ways to raise money. But more brands are now using their purpose as a springboard for innovation – everyone from Lego to Mars is doing it. So it seemed timely to explore brand-led innovation in more detail. What it is, what we can learn from it, and which brands are doing it well?

What is brand-led innovation?

Brand-led innovation is when you use your brand positioning strategy (why you exist, what you do, and how you do it) as a springboard for innovating new products and services, experiences and partnerships.

It is increasingly popular with purposeful brands, who put why they exist and the value they create for people and the planet at the heart of their corporate and marketing strategy.

Professor of brand leadership and author of A very short introduction to branding, Robert Jones, says: “Brand-led innovation is about being very clear what you want to stand for as an organisation, and using that idea to inspire something that fills a need in the world”.

Jones says examples such as M&S’ successful Plant Kitchen range – which makes their vegan offering appeal to the mainstream – shows how brand positioning strategies can inspire new and innovative ideas that in turn added value back into the brand.

Which charity brands are doing it well?

RNID  

RNID’s purpose is to make life fully inclusive for the 12 million people in the UK who are deaf, have hearing loss or tinnitus. Their Digital and Innovation team have been using that purpose as a springboard to create new digital-first products like their free 3-minute online hearing test. Designed with audiology experts, it was created to help people start taking action on early signs of hearing loss sooner, and reduce the time between first noticing, and getting support.

The test launched with an award-winning campaign centred around common and often humorous misunderstandings people have when struggling to hear clearly and has already had great success. More than 40,000 have taken the hearing check as of March. 22,582 may have hearing loss; 1 in 4 downloaded a certificate to take to their GP to help them take further action; 74% found the service useful.

Michael Wilkinson, Digital Director at RNID said: “During the pandemic, many people started to recognise they may have hearing loss. With the introduction of face coverings and social distancing, it has made many people realise just how much they have relied on visual cues to understand conversations. Our research has shown that during lockdown 58% of people have faced challenges communicating in retail settings and for 61% of people, workplace changes have made it harder to do their job. This is a huge amount of people; therefore we have created this tool as the first step in helping people to live a fuller life. We hope that people find this tool really useful, and it helps them get the support they need at an earlier stage.”

Versus Arthritis

Arthr is a social venture powered by Versus Arthritis. It designs and develops innovative products to improve everyday living for people with arthritis and other musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions.

The idea was inspired by innovation consultancy Good Innovation spending time with people with arthritis to understand their challenges. One woman in her mid-30s struggled to get out of the bath and had been found unconscious by her daughter after falling. She went to A&E and wasn’t allowed home until her bathroom had been fitted with a bunch of adaptations. But she threw them all out. Because she’d rather her daughter find her unconscious than think of her as disabled. Stories like this were powerful in demonstrating how Versus Arthritis could fix a gap in the market, deliver on its mission and make money and directly led to the creation of a set of products that helped people with what they said were their biggest unmet needs – getting on and off the toilet, in and out of the bath and in and out of the car.

Arthr was intentionally set up as a business with a start-up mentality separate from the main charity. Andrew Bathgate from Good Innovation says: “My reflection is how new this is for the charity sector, but how relatively common it is outside. Every large corporate seems to have some form of programme to create and work with start-ups. Why can’t charities just do what corporates do? Well, as obvious as this sounds, you can’t just translate one sector into another. The legal requirements of governance are different. The cultural risk appetite is different. How you can pay and incentivise a start-up team is different. Arthr has proved there is a path through this complexity and, although it’s not easy, hopefully examples like Arthr can inspire other charities to follow a similar path”.

Scope

Scope believe disabled people should always be treated equally. Yet disabled people face inequality in all walks of life. Many events are not inclusive or accessible, and there are often barriers stopping disabled people from taking part. That’s why the charity developed two new virtual fundraising events in 2021 using a co-production approach – to champion disabled people’s right to participate, and to demonstrate that accessibility and inclusion are achievable.

Disabled people were front and centre as a key audience, considering inclusivity and accessibility at every turn, adding a whole new dimension to putting the fundraiser first.

Power Up and Play is a videogaming event, where gamers can set themselves a target and livestream their gameplay while asking friends, family and followers for donations to support Scope. Gaming was a totally new area for Scope, so the charity spoke to over 800 disabled gamers to understand their experiences. Two-thirds of disabled gamers said they face barriers to gaming, with inaccessible games and equipment being the most common issues. So Scope released the findings of their survey in a report, focussing messaging on the importance of accessibility and inclusion in gaming, leaning into their mission to achieve equality for disabled people and adding valuable insight to the gaming sector.

Alison Cowan, Executive Director of Fundraising and Engagement at Scope, says; “I made a personal commitment to champion diversity and inclusion in how we fundraise from and engage the public. If you work for a pan-disability equality charity you need to practice what you preach. One key change I have made is that that all new fundraising product development must be fully grounded in our cause, co-produced and fully accessible”.

Samaritans

Charity brand expert, Max Du Bois’ favourite example of brand-led innovation is The Feel-Good Book Club from Samaritans. Beautiful books, with a box of theme related treats, to boost your wellbeing delivered to your door every month, as a subscription, a one-off treat or gift.

“It’s consumer insight first, product experience first” says Max. “Backed up by a clear but subtle, upfront link to the Samaritans, underpinning that this ‘treat’ fundamentally helps others. An absolute win, win! The product and Samaritans’ purpose nicely link, dovetailing and reinforcing each other”.

As Max says: “We must always be searching for new ideas, all of the time. One of the great, game changing designers, Raymond Loewy had a philosophy of ‘never leave well enough alone’. Move fast and break things’ worked well in Facebook’s early days (I think they’ve dropped the ‘break things’ now!)”.

Sense and RNIB

Pete Grant, Planning Director at Good Agency, picks out examples from Sense and RNIB.

The complex disability charity, Sense, leaned on their central idea of “connection” to produce the Sense Sign School, an introductory course in British sign language.

RNIB extended their purpose “see differently” beyond public fundraising into a business-to-business consultancy service, helping brands like Amazon and Kellogg’s ensure products were accessible to people with visual impairment. They also innovatively used brand advertising itself to create a more inclusive world with the first ever newspaper wrap in Braille, in partnership with the Metro.

Pete says: “Brand-led innovation creates opportunities for charities to generate revenue from more commercial income streams. For charities, tying innovation to their central mission ensures new products are meaningful rather than transactional. It prevents mission creep and inspires innovation that is unique to your brand”.

So what now?

The charity sector is a very sharing space and we can all learn from each other but it can also be exciting to look to other sectors like the world of social tech and draw inspiration from there too. One of the main things though is to be open, embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and be willing to test and learn, embrace failure and keep learning as we go.

Banner Image: Sen 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.