Published: 20 September 2019

Simplify or die: Tips for cementing your brand

I ran a workshop recently and as well as having a lot of fun, it confirmed to me there are two types of charities: the haves and the have nots.

And what is it that they have or don’t have? A single point of focus for their brand.

We were looking at service packages through a quick website review of four comparable charities. Same kind of support offerings, same kind of proposition, same kind of cases for support. They all offer advice, support, campaigning, face-to-face and online services, perhaps a helpline or a research programme. Plus they all had more advice pdfs to download than your data limit would ever allow.

Beware of too much, too soon

But the difference was clear from the homepage onwards. Some of the charities were clear about the who, what and why. Others tried to give equal weight to everything they did before the first scroll. And it’s hard to make a connection when you’re overloaded with information.

So why do some charities have brand clarity and others don’t? What’s stopping every organisation being as clear as Cancer Research UK or Macmillan or RNLI or BHF?

  • Prevalence of their cause? Far more people are affected by kidney cancer than die at sea (or could be saved) every year, but that doesn’t stop RNLI bringing in over £200m a year.
  • Impact? Who’s to judge a life lost versus a life lived in pain because of a lack of support? Or a world without polar bears versus child cruelty? The impact of the cause you’re set up to take on is no arbitrator of worthiness of support. There’s no golden cause, it depends on your audience’s experiences, beliefs and preferences.
  • Being a single cause charity? Even these guys will probably offer several different touchpoints and offers to several different audiences. Even Coca-Cola has a product range.

So, if it’s not about how big, bad or unique it is, what is it that makes the difference?

Quite simply it’s how clear it is.

You need to be clear

You need a clear, focused, understandable and, above all, single proposition. There should be one point from which everything flows. You may well have a cohesive vision and mission but try to remember that’s different from your proposition, and how clearly and proudly you’re articulating it through your brand.

This isn’t a critique of homepages, but in all honesty they do serve as the best expression of a brand. So take a look at 10 charity websites of differing sizes: three small, four medium, three large. Spend a minute absorbing their homepages, which is their front door, their elevator pitch, their first chance to make a good impression.

How many things are they trying to tell you at the same time?

  • We do this
  • We also do this
  • And we do this
  • You could join this
  • We need this
  • Do this for us
  • Find this here

What do you see? Which are generally easiest to understand, to find what you need and get to where you’re going the fastest?

Who’s using the most consumer-focused language? Who’s talking in terms and concepts that sound like other, big, non-charity brands? Who’s using imagery that not only looks professional, but that tells a story?

Say one thing and only one thing

And it’s not just the homepage of websites. When a brand knows what it wants to say and plans how to say it clearly, without saying anything else, that’s when it connects.

It’s knowing what not to say as much as what to say and how to say it. And it’s having clarity and consistency through every touchpoint, from press releases to Facebook comment replies to the helpline. 

This isn’t about size. Multi-million pound media budgets and huge potential markets don’t bring clarity. What gives them a clear proposition and a single point of focus is that they’ve realised they need a clear proposition and a single point of focus to bring in more money and save more lives and change society.

Plurality is a strength

Charities do have multiple audiences and deliver multiple services while offering multiple ways to get involved. This isn’t a problem. The problem is a lack of strategic and agreed prioritisation.

One simple question: which audience do you spend the most money on, overall, in terms of service provision, media, governance, everything? That’s your priority audience. That’s who your proposition needs to appeal to. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have other audiences, but your relationship with them has to be through the filter of your priority audience. They will come closer to you if you show you care about what they care most about.

So what are the key takeaways?

  1. Know your proposition. You have one, you just need to articulate it clearly and simply.
  2. Have a single focus based on your proposition. Don’t talk about more than one thing at a time because we’re not equipped to deal with multiple ideas. It hurts.
  3. Steal the architecture and page layout from a big charity’s website. Rest assured, their agency will have stolen it from someone else. For “user-centred design principles” read “what are Macmillan doing?”
  4. Track the results – see how people respond to you and interact with you, once they know what you’re really about.
  5. Say it again and again and again. And again. And again.

Image: Liana Mikah on Unsplash


Alexander Scott, brand and content consultant, freelance

Alex Scott is a strategic communications and content specialist with 18 years hands on experience with charities including Macmillan Cancer Support, Breast Cancer Care, Samaritans, NSPCC and Anthony Nolan.