Published: 19 July 2016

Why charities need to reinvent their brands in the digital age

A wise man once told me digital communications is like a spotlight being shone into every corner of your organisation. What you offer your stakeholders, how you stand out among all the noise online, your tone of voice and identity will receive attention as never before.

Because digital enables organisations to scale up and reach more people, it also raises questions about whether your current brand really works for you. Of course, this is really an opportunity to evaluate and refresh your brand based on your users' needs. 

This may seem unnerving. You’re probably thinking, ‘but I spent days on those brand guidelines’ yet if you are asking yourselves those questions, it’s a sign you’re doing digital well. Here are the lessons from three organisations whose brands are flying on digital. 

Hand over your brand to your audience 

With its crowdsourced messaging, you could argue that GivingTuesday represents the future of brands. Martin Carter, social media manager at Charities Aid Foundation says: 

What’s unique about #GivingTuesday is we how we devolve responsibility for our brand wholly to our partners. This ‘crowd ownership’ of the brand really works for us because we’re cause agnostic and non-prescriptive – we need to be flexible so as many charities, causes and businesses as possible can take part in the campaign and make it work for them. And it seems to work – last year we had over 1,400 partners (almost double the year before) and helped break a world record for most amount of money donated in 24 hours.

If this approach is too much, too soon for your charity, why not experiment on a smaller scale with more user generated content? Invite one of your most influential supporters to guest post on your Instagram feed for the day for example.  

Make it strategic

Ultimately your brand should be a catalyst to help your charity achieve its overall aims. Duncan Ogle-Skan, head of marketing planning at the National Trust, explained how the charity’s brand has modernised: 

The early work for our brand redevelopment was initiated around 2008, based around our desire to broaden the Trust’s appeal and relevance, in line with our cause, "Looking after special places, for ever, for everyone". During that time we have worked hard in all areas of our comms to provide more engaging, conversational style, supported by raising the quality of the content we create for all channels. 

Where this will have been most notable is in digital and social channels. We have large and growing traffic through our app, our website and our social platforms, and our recent investment in our direct marketing capability means that our ability to deliver personal, relevant, timely communications has grown several fold. So, while digital has not strictly been the catalyst for redeveloping our brand, it has certainly provided us with the most visible and effective opportunity to deliver against our original brand objectives.

Get buy-in

Having worked with many organisations who are trying to go ‘digital first,’ getting buy-in is essential. Alex Holden, communications director at Target Ovarian Cancer, realised that investing in digital communications would enable the charity to use its limited resources to reach and influence a much wider community than they could face-to-face. 

Alex and her team used their network to engage with external digital experts (companies like Marks & Spencer) who could give additional credence to their recommendations that an investment was essential. Her chair of trustees was even involved in some of these meetings. Alex says:

I asked the board to invest in a specific project, with very clear objectives and outcomes in the short term, but also with an aspirational vision of what else we could achieve with this new foundation. By giving an overview of the issues we were facing and how that was impacting on our core strategy as a charity, we were able to create a burning platform for the board too, together with a clear vision of what the new world would look like.

Let your audience be your guide

The National Trust’s head of digital, Tom Barker, explained how its evolving use of digital channels was prompted by how the audience was using digital. He said: 

We’re not reinventing the National Trust brand through digital. Instead, we’re reflecting the fact that the way people use digital has changed enormously over the last five to 10 years and adjusting our approach accordingly. For example, three years ago only 40% of visits to our website came from a mobile or tablet device. Last year it was 52% and last month it was 64% – we needed the site to be responsive (ie optimised for all types of devices) in order to prevent our users being disappointed.

There are massive opportunities for charities if you put digital front and centre of your charity’s brand and communications. If you’re wondering where to begin, look at how your audience is using these channels, be prepared to co-create your brand with them, and make a good business case for your approach. 

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Zoe Amar, director, Zoe Amar Digital

Zoe Amar is founder and director of Zoe Amar Digital, a charity marketing and digital communications consultancy who've worked with Action Aid, CAF, Crimestoppers and many other great charities. She also blogs for The Guardian. Zoe shares charity marketing resources over at www.zoeamar.com and @zoeamar