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Charity Marketing

Just Don’t Do It: Stop pitching Nike ads to charities


By Rob Trono, Group creative director

February 23, 2024 | 6 min read

Blue State’s Rob Trono has noticed a most unsettling trend among his charity sector clients; agencies pitch ‘Nike-style’ ads that will appease egos but leave good causes high and dry.


I always sit forward and listen when three clients tell me the same thing unprompted, something strange is going on. In the past couple of months, I’ve been told by charity heads: “We want to build our brand, but we can’t have a Nike ad.”

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A Nike ad? What do they mean? It turns out that agencies keep bringing them big ideas that totally miss the point. Things that would work brilliantly for a brand but land badly for charities.

These brands make a big splash but are unworkable and impossible to implement more broadly.

How are they all getting it so wrong?

The thing about charities is that they aren’t trying to sell you a product that you can’t live without. Instead, they’re convincing you that they have something that other people can’t live without. Which, first of all, is harder. Secondly, they’re not saying, ‘Buy our stuff.’ They’re saying - ‘give your stuff - your time, attention, money etc. - to these people who really need them’.

They aren’t selling to you - they’re connecting you with that need. Charity branding needs to reach you, make a big impression, then get out of the way.

What the agencies kept pitching to the beleaguered charity heads were big, noisy brand campaigns, things that might do brief numbers online or get clicks, likes, or shares. But no action at the end. And so while the agency might love the trade press adoration, this sort of thing is worse than useless for the charity.

Why worse than useless? Well. They’ve still spent their precious cash on this brand, but two months in, will have nothing to show for it.

We’ve all heard people complain about charities that look like they’re ‘wasting money on advertising,’ direct mail, or glossy billboards. Most aren’t - you won’t find people more attuned to ROI than charity marketers.

Bad branding does this. This perception rushes in, where branding becomes noisier than the connection.

Brand authenticity and transparency is much more important to an NGO than talkability and awareness. These are the cues that will get someone to donate.

Yes, they need to care about the issue, but increasingly, people want to know that their money will be spent correctly.

Charities start with a mission. Then, they get a brand, and the brand has an identity. But the mission is still the most important thing.

The brand exists solely to get attention, communicate values and facilitate trust with that mission.

We’re seeing this in politics too. Big, slick ads are increasingly less effective. What works is connection, even if the creative is rough and ready. It’s the issues that sell, not the brand.

Brands can get in the way of allowing people to care. When the brand becomes the point, people feel like they’re being marketed to instead of connected with.

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We talk most about ads when they annoy us, or eat at us in some way, or when we think they’re getting it wrong. But in charity, ads can’t get ‘in the way’ like that. They can’t become the story. There has to be a connection to the mission and follow-up. Without that journey, everything else falls down.

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