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The changing face of charity branding

17 September 2021

It pains me to say it, as it makes me feel old, but I will have been working in charity branding for twenty years next year, working with some amazing brands and causes from Shelter and Parkinson’s UK to Scope, RNID and Mind.

But over recent years there have been winds of change afoot and now seems like a good time to think about how charity branding has been changing. Especially as I’m stepping down from the Brand Breakfasts that I co-founded, to pass the baton onto the next generation of brand leaders. Although I’ll be proud to support CharityComms in other ways and am sure to pop up in a break out room from time to time to keep my finger on the pulse.

The rise of Purpose

Charities have traditionally used vision, mission, and values in their brand strategies, but future brand leaders are now taught purpose, proposition, and personality. One word stands out above all others though: Purpose.

The era of brand purpose has been accelerating since 2010. It sees brands put their social purpose (why they exist and the value they create for society) at the heart of their corporate and marketing communications strategy.

Clearly it’s a trend that is here to stay. In 2020 KPMG reported 54% of CEOs saw the primary objective of their organization shift from profit to their purpose in society. 76% said they had a personal responsibility to be a leader on societal issues, and 79% were re-evaluating their purpose as a result of Covid-19. Hardly surprising given the business case for purpose is strong as it has been proven to boost growth and staff and customer satisfaction.

The trend for purpose has undoubtedly been led by responsible businesses, but an increasing number of charities are also adopting purpose from Macmillan Cancer Support to RNID and Mind.

Changing personalities  

We have certainly seen a shift in the personality of charity brands over the last decade, led by changing audience expectations and a rise in the use of behavioural economics. 

Strong brands have clear personalities. It helps us to understand who they are and their role in the world.

Brand strategists, often use archetypes to help craft unique brand personalities.

There are around 80 common archetypes (common narratives and characters that transcend time and cultures) which can be split into 12 families. The attributes of some of them are built into the DNA of charity brands, such as Caregiver and Expert as charities are caring by their very nature and are expected to be an expert in their cause.

What is interesting is how there has been a shift in the use of these archetypes, for example from Caregivers to Warriors and Revolutionaries. Whilst charities once harnessed the negative emotions of sadness and fear to provoke a direct response, many have started to experiment with anger, leading to a fighting mentality sweeping through the sector.

For me ‘fighting’ is reminiscent of 1970s rights-based movements, so whilst fitting for campaigning organisations like Shelter and Mind, I don’t use without good reason.

We have also seen the rise of ‘empowerment’ as a common charity brand attribute. But be careful, I recently found audiences rejected it in one brand project for not being everyday language, and it can suggest power indifferences.

Values guide us

It is not uncommon to find a long list of attributes when commencing a brand project. However, it is always best to craft one set that can guide both the brand on the inside and outside, for culture and behaviour and brand expression (visual identity and tone of voice). Less is more.

As charities have needed to modernise, their values have evolved. To alleviate a silo mentality United, Focussed and Together are commonplace, or the recent trend for Collaborative is in the same vein.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) are also very much on trend, demonstrated by Scope’s purpose to end disability inequality and RNID’s to make life more inclusive.

Authenticity and Transparency are also critical, as trust in charities has been dented from negative press coverage around everything from fundraising practices to safeguarding.

One thing that can be super useful for charities is to take inspiration from outside the sector and this blog on the values of the fastest growing companies by Cliff Ettridge, employee engagement director at the Team, is a great resource for that.

Digital-first identity systems

Charity brand identities used to focus heavily on logo design and how good it looked on a pin badge. Whereas these days we appreciate we may need different logo compositions for different channels and shortcuts for social media.

Today good visual identity design focusses on creating an ‘identity system’ or ‘brand world’. This is where you clearly define the graphic elements (colours, typography, photography, illustration and iconography) that make up the identity and the links between them and allow flexibility and creativity within set parameters. At the heart of this approach is often a graphic device like Mind’s super-squiggle or Shelter’s painted roof arrow.

Mind’s identity is a good example, where the logo symbol, graphic device, illustration and typographic punctuation all complement each other together as one system.

More recently charity brands are also taking a more experimental approach to colour with contrasting shades. RNID’s 2020 rebrand bucked the trend for bright colours in favour of pastel shades. Whilst Mind’s 2021 brand refresh was designed around high and low energy.

Often under harnessed, illustration has also had a renaissance, highlighted by Versus Arthritis UK winning the 2020 Design Week award for best brand illustration.

Another trend is a big focus on digital-first accessible design, with a focus on the accessibility of typography and the contrast between graphic elements and colours. This was championed by Scope’s 2018 award-winning rebrand, which set out to prove that accessible design doesn’t have to be boring.

Don’t forget the words

 “Oi cancer, we’re coming to get you, let’s take this outside” said Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life.

“Whatever cancer throws your way, we’re right there with you” said Macmillan Cancer Support.

Their choice of words expresses their brand personalities from a collective army to a supportive companion.  

Tone of voice should be an integral part of any brand, as it helps audience to recognise, locate and understand the brand. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, where we’re constantly bombarded with visual, auditory and text information, it is vital that every element of the brand is working as hard as possible to attract and sustain attention. To overlook language is to miss an important trick.

Scouts 2018 rebrand is a good example, featured in Design Week and shared at CharityComms Brand Breakfast on how to survive a rebrand, change and grow. Whilst the visual identity led it is clear to see how much brand communications were elevated by the addition of a clearer tone of voice.

People too often underestimate the importance of language within branding and how words and images need to work together for maximum impact. But visual identity and tone of voice are increasingly created together for maximum impact.

I hope you’ve found something of interest in here, but if you have a brand conundrum just reach out.


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Banner Image: Toa Heftiba 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.