Giving charity the edge

Origin, Oxfam’s bold new brand, reflects the massive growth in the charity retail sector. With others likely to follow their lead, Tom Bawden finds that charity begins on the high street.

Last week’s launch of Origin, Oxfam’s trendy new retail brand aimed at the 18-35-year-old market, is the latest branding development in a sustained marketing drive in the charity sector. This drive has seen many charities revamping their identities and literature portfolios in recent years. The signs are that the sector is now turning its attention to its retail operations.

As well as introducing the carefully branded Origin chain, Oxfam is shortly to appoint a consultancy to oversee a revamp of its entire retail brand. This will place particular emphasis on the shop interiors of its 830-strong chain (DW 8 May). Marketing consultancy What If worked with Oxfam’s in-house team to create Origin’s name, facia, identity and interiors.

The move ties in with a recent Mintel International report released last year, charting the growing importance of retail in the sector. The report showed that the charity sector has more than doubled its retail revenue from 130m in 1990 to 270m in 1996. Mintel predicts the sector will be worth more than 302m by the year 2001.

Retail is an important and growing part of Oxfam’s revenue-generating machine. Last year it made 17m profit, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the charity’s 91.8m revenue for the year.

“We set up Origin to maximise retail income by appealing to a group of people we don’t currently cater for. We hope that they will not only buy our clothes but that the high street presence will give them a greater awareness of our organisation,” says an Oxfam spokeswoman.

The Mintel report warns that the charity sector will have to take a more commercial approach still, if it is to survive against increased competition from alternative “charities” such as the National Lottery.

This is a point even recognised by marketing-naive consumers, with 26 per cent of the report’s survey respondents saying the shops should “improve their standard of display and presentation”.

Retail is also becoming increasingly important to The British Heart Foundation, which now operates 360 shops and has plans to open more.

“We are not actively planning to revamp our interiors at present, but it [the charity retail sector] is growing all the time and it would certainly be a possibility in the future,” says a British Heart Foundation spokesman.

But the issue of branding is a delicate one in a sector set up to generate money for people in need. If a charity spends a fortune lavishly decorating a shop, will it appear to be taking money away from a good cause?

Oxfam acknowledges the tension and has made a point of emphasising that its four new stand-alone Origin stores (and 26 concessions), cost the same to fit out as its existing stores.

Meanwhile, The Media Trust director of media, resources and information Paul Sternberg says it is no longer possible to separate old-fashioned notions of the good charity and the evils of commercialism. The Media Trust is a body set up to foster alliances between designers, advertisers and the voluntary sector.

“The notion of charity has changed greatly in recent years. In the past it has adopted a kind of begging bowl approach, based upon altruism and a sense of obligation,” says Sternberg.

“Now charities are trying to encourage charitable involvement by best representing its ethical values. Retail outlets fit well into the concept, showing the sector to be a dynamic and creative force in industry at large.”

Sternberg says the charity retail sector provides great potential for design consultancies because it is an effective means by which charities can diversify and so maximise their brands.

He says charities can use their high street stores to build customer loyalty. Design should be used to communicate the core values of the charity and to persuade people to invest time and money into the brand. He argues that, in this sense, the branding process is no different from any other retailer.

Sternberg acknowledges that lavish shop interiors would not achieve that because they would not successfully tie in with the charity sector brand. But that is not to say charities would be perceived to be wrong for increasing their retail design spend, he says.

The Media Trust is currently working on a pilot scheme in Kent and Chelsea to introduce effective and high standards of design into charities. It is working to match design consultancies and advertising agencies up with charities.

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