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Battle of the brands: charity or movement?

The brand-savvy among us will have noticed that more and more charities are positioning themselves as movements, including the award-winning Parkinson’s UK brand, which now describes itself as a “people-powered movement”. In this blog, I look at why, and what you should consider when shifting brand categories from charity to movement.

To understand the current shift in brand categories from charities to movements, we need to look at five factors: culture, leadership, personality, design and product.

  1. Culture

Sadly I don’t have time to tackle the whole history of Brand Purpose here, but the power balance between brands and audiences began to shift in the 1990s.

The rise of corporate branding in the days of booming business wasn’t going to last forever. In the recession, people started to question the role of brands and whose side they were on: customers or shareholders? The financial crisis of 2008 led to a big mistrust of corporate brands, and calls for greater transparency and authenticity.

The way we engage with brands changed forever with the arrival of the internet at the end of the 20th century, and the advent of social media in the early 2000s.

Today, brands are open, peer-driven and participatory. People can connect, share, buy and create from their fingertips, which has seen sectors disrupted by the emergence of a new generation of brands built around a virtual community – like Airbnb.

With growing brand mistrust and using the internet as a platform, brands increasingly became social movements.

The 2008 presidential campaign Yes, We Can and the Occupy movement against economic inequality in 2011 demonstrated the ability of brands to unite and mobilise like-minded people. More recently, we have seen Extinction Rebellion capture public attention by using non-violent resistance to protest against climate change and ecological collapse.

  1. Leadership

What many of these campaigns have in common is charismatic leaders, from Obama and his message of hope to headline-grabbing teenage activist Greta Thunberg. So, how charismatic is your CEO?

  1. Personality

While charities and movements both unite people with shared beliefs and values behind a common vision or purpose, they increasingly share brand attributes.

Many of our earliest charities were founded by religious groups, the aristocracy, or wealthy individuals who wanted to help those in need. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, has criticised charities like Comic Relief for being  “colonial white saviours”, and market research tells us that people increasingly want proof of sustainable results, not to pity the poor. So, the brand category itself definitely needs rebranding to keep up with the times.

There is no doubt that “charity” as a brand category has suffered from a decline in trust over recent years, following a series of scandals and negative news – from fundraising techniques to safeguarding. But the attributes of charity brands are also changing, from caring (even paternal) to empowering and hopeful, as outlined in my article charity brand trends for the year.

Charity brand giant Macmillan Cancer Relief rebranded to We are Macmillan Cancer Support in 2006, adding togetherness as a key attribute, in one of the most successful transformations in the charity sector. Although it has curiously dropped the “We” in its latest 2019 brand refresh.

Surfers Against Sewage CEO, Hugo Tagholm, recently defended the concept of “charity” at Goodfest 2019. Hugo said: “Despite the scandals, it’s worth investing in the charity model. I think the public are supportive of them at the right level.”

He continued: “We’re run as a positive pyramid. With a small team of 21 staff, 120 regional co-ordinators and 100,000 volunteer beach cleaners. All pointed towards influencing business and ministers via Westminster. Our supporters are people that like to live and breathe the sea; sick of walking along beachfronts riddled with plastic; building a collective voice for the ocean.”

  1. Design

Many movements use symbolism to rally people, and the charity sector has a plethora of symbolic logos.

Extinction Rebellion’s visual identity is framed around the group’s sand-timer logo, which stresses that time is running out, as we hurtle towards extinction.

Extinction Rebellion have a dedicated ‘Art Group’ to help them look fantastically rebellious and all pre-made materials are available to download for free on their website, provided they are used strictly for non-corporate purposes.

Creative Lead Cliff Russell says: “It was important to have a consistent look, so we could be an umbrella movement that everyone could come underneath. We’ve told people to use the three core elements of our graphics – the logo, font and colour palette. Between these, the aesthetic holds together. The commodification of protest symbols happens so quickly. So that’s why our stuff is free to use, as long as it’s non-commercial.”

Design Week says: “As global dissidence and anger becomes increasingly more visible, there has been a creative outpouring from protesters. Protest art has reached new heights, with marchers not only picking up pre-made banners and placards, but using artistic skills, humour and wit to create their own.”

While it is easy to position your brand as a movement by using the right personality, attitude and tone of voice, it must also run through what you do at a product level and inform the brand experience.

  1. Product

While it is easy to position your brand as a movement by using the right personality, attitude and tone of voice, it must also run through what you do at a product level and inform the brand experience. This, for me, is where too many charities fail, especially when it comes to product innovation.

If I sign-up to a movement, I want to be clear on what it strives to achieve in terms of its Purpose. I also want to know what is expected of me and what I get in return. Is a pin-badge, a welcome pack and quarterly newsletter (that I won’t find the time to read), the best we can do? Really?

For me, this is where the sector could learn from commercial brands and how they develop Value Propositions – a business or marketing statement that describes why a customer should buy a product or use a service and importantly what they get in return (we will make our customers lives better by doing what?). They could also learn from political movements, which often spell out the benefits of becoming a member.

If you’d like to ignite a movement by uniting people behind your Brand Purpose and values, get in touch.

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