Published: 11 June 2015

Postcards from the past look to the future

The story in 1974

More than four decades ago, Shirley Nolan's son, Anthony, needed a stem cell transplant in order to have any chance of surviving a rare blood disorder. So she decided to do something incredible.

She pushed the doctors to help her do it. She lobbied the government to give her support. Then, in 1974, she successfully established the world’s first ever register of potential stem cell donors; ordinary men and women across the UK volunteering to donate their stem cells or bone marrow to a patient with blood cancer or a blood disorder.

From that first step, the charity set up in Anthony Nolan’s name grew, and grew. In the beginning it supported transplant patients and conducted research into better methods of transplantation. Now, its lifesaving register has more than 500,000 people on it.

We think it’s a pretty astonishing story and, from a comms point of view, it’s an extremely valuable resource. It explains who we are as an organisation, and what we’re doing from a powerful, straightforward, and above all, human perspective.

The story in 2014

But the trouble with origin stories, of course, is that if you rely on them heavily as a part of your brand identity, your organisation can come across as old-fashioned, or even nostalgic. Not much of an issue if you’re selling Tennessee Whiskey, but a serious miscommunication if you happen to be at the forefront of stem cell transplantation and genetic HLA-matching techniques.

When we came to create our annual review in 2014, we wanted to celebrate our 40-year anniversary by telling Shirley’s story, but we also wanted to explicitly demonstrate how far we’ve come in the years since, without relying on past glories.

And the finished product needed to be lightweight, eye-catching, and exuberant in tone – it couldn’t feel like a sombre documentary or a worthy history lesson.

Stem cell donors and the patients they’ve helped often communicate via anonymous letters and postcards in the years after a transplant. It’s a way of staying in touch, a report on progress, and an expression of gratitude. We soon decided that we wanted to use that idea as a springboard for a unique and memorable reading experience.

A suite of postcards arriving from out of time itself; a journey through history, comprising lifesaving messages from important moments in our charity’s existence and culminating in the present day – a report of our progress from the past 12 months. An annual review that could be broken up, shuffled around, and laid out across the mantelpiece – or passed on to friends, card by card.

That playful sense of historical progress played heavily into the design. The ‘earlier’ entries are stained, scuffed, and weathered-looking (a choice which played in our favour, given the lower quality of some of the 1970s and 1980s photographs), while the most recent cards are crisper and brighter.

Even the postage stamps change over time – with a little artistic licence – from a 6 ½ penny stamp in 1974 to a modern first-class stamp in 2014.

Our design team also added a sense of distinctiveness and weight to each individual card, using a series of bespoke ink-style stamps. Every one contains a clue about what makes the year so remarkable: the 1986 card incorporates the insignia of the Round Table in celebration of their recruiting 100,000 donors in just six weeks, while the 1998 card contains the logo of the University of Nottingham, honouring the establishing of our student network Marrow.

Shirley’s story is a genuinely fantastic one – so if you’re going to use it as an opener, you need to be able to balance it out with something just as memorable at the finish. We knew we’d have to put in a serious amount of effort to leave our readers thinking about Anthony Nolan’s work today and tomorrow, not our past.

To that end, we created three separate ‘climactic’ cards to lend the present day extra heft.

The first celebrates our introduction of third generation sequencing in 2014, giving us the most comprehensive data available to help patients in the years to come.

The second is a record of our growth, income and expenditure over the past 12 months. And the third card honours our fundraisers and supporters, who help to ensure that we’ll still be around in the years to come.

The story of what happens next

The review was completed in early 2015, and it was sent out to stakeholders and key supporters over the past couple of months.

We’ve received a lot of praise, and we’re pretty chuffed with it as well. I have two versions on my desk. One is neatly packaged, the other version is spread out so that I can shuffle the cards, play with them, refer to them, drop them, lose and find them, and admire them at my leisure.

I’m particularly fond of the closing line, which we kept simple, fusing "where we’ve been" with "where we’re going".

Here's to the next 40 years of lifesaving.

The entire review is now available online and can be viewed here.


Jon Ware, digital manager, National Centre for Social Research

Jon Ware has worked in social media and digital communications for charities such as Anthony Nolan and the National Centre for Social Research. He’ll shortly be joining Alzheimer’s Society as digital engagement manager.