Charities shouldn't follow the rules, they should subvert them

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Charities must remember that participation exceeds perception

Contrary to popular belief, actions don’t speak louder than words. Unfortunately, making the world a better place is not enough for a charity to carve out a space in people’s hearts. This is particularly true in a world where the cult of brand purpose dictates that every brand – commercial or charitable – must be built around an era-defining statement of how it intends to build a brighter future for all.

So how can a charity build a brand capable of competing for our attention against the likes of Unilever and P&G?

It’s tempting to suggest that charities should start behaving more like commercial brands. But if you manage a charity brand, please resist the temptation to become the Apple or Nike of the not-for-profit world. Charity brands and corporate brands are fundamentally different beasts. A corporate brand’s primary purpose is to compete: for attention, for market share, for profit. A charity brand’s primary purpose is to cooperate – to form mutually rewarding relationships between benefactors and beneficiaries. Don’t emulate how corporate brands are managed – subvert!

Encourage counterfeiting of your brand

For understandable reasons, commercial brands are almost obsessively protective of their trademarks. Generations of brand managers have played the role of ‘bad cop’ to make sure that their brand is carefully and consistently applied across every part of their business. Charity brands don’t need to play this game. Rather than limiting the use of its mark, Breast Cancer Now created a logo that could be owned and used by anybody who wanted to get involved in supporting the cause. The heart-shape mark is simple enough to be iced onto cupcakes, printed on to T-shirts and painted on to runners’ cheeks. This open-source approach to branding means everybody gets to own the brand. It’s the antithesis to a corporate approach to identity management, but it helps a cause with a limited budget to influence the broadest possible audience at the lowest possible cost.

Don’t try to ‘own’ the customer

The ultimate mark of success for a commercial brand is to reach a point where your customers define themselves by their choice of (your) brand. BMW wants people to think of themselves as BMW owners. Pepsi wants each new generation to define itself as a Pepsi generation. Charity brands don’t need to be quite so possessive over their audiences – participation matters more than perception. In this sense, charity is a little like exercise. If it’s easy to fit into our daily routine, it’s far more likely we’ll keep it up.

Rather than investing in awareness building to raise funds, food charity One Feeds Two partners with popular food brands like burger chain Byron. Every time someone buys food carrying the One Feeds Two logo, they fund a school meal for children living in poverty. It’s a similar approach to the model pioneered by Toms shoes, but with the added twist that a charity with almost zero awareness can piggyback on the relationship between a well-established commercial brand and its customer base to generate funds and drive participation.

Ditch your brand values

Brand values are a great tool for businesses to bring their brand to life internally. Or at least they can be. The problem is that in practice organisations tend to gravitate to the same set of values. For example, 31 companies in the FTSE100 have ‘integrity’ as a value, while 22 emphasise ‘respect’ and ‘customer-centricity’. This might be acceptable to a bank or an oil giant, but these values are unlikely to inspire people to get involved in working with a charity. There would be something faintly absurd about a teenage cancer charity sharing the same values as an accountancy firm.

Charities tend to mirror the issue they seek to address, so it seems appropriate to reflect this in how people in a charity are encouraged to behave. A children’s charity can give its people permission to be youthful, idealistic and rebellious. A charity for the arts can urge staff to imagine, experiment and provoke. The result is far more charming, far more motivating for volunteers and colleagues, and far more useful in helping a charity to grow without losing what makes it special.

Most of the not-for-profit organisations we’ve worked with lack the financial clout to beat for-profit brands at their own game. But experience has taught us that they don’t need to. A compelling for-profit brand is meticulously planned, closely managed and executed with ruthless consistency. A compelling charity brand is spontaneous, collaborative and delivered with charm and a warm imperfection that reminds us what it means to be human.

If you’re in charge of a not-for-profit brand, don’t try to follow a standard set of rules. It’s soul destroying, counter-productive and futile. Subvert the rules instead; it will be more fun, more rewarding and it will help you build a brand more people want to be a part of.

Nick Liddell is director of consulting at brand consultancy The Clearing

This article was originally published in the charity issue of The Drum Network magazine series. You can purchase your copy here.

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