Shout to make yourself heard

Critics argue the money could be better spent, but an appropriate identity is critical for a charity to stand out in a crowded market, says Sarah Woods

Branding is often seen as an unsavoury word within the charitable sector, largely because marketing budgets are donated and could arguably be put to better, more direct use.

At the same time, charities are criticised for their unpopular fundraising schemes, such as the relentless street fundraisers or ‘chuggers’ and direct mail marketing.

These frictions mean that the third sector is under enormous pressure to justify the unpopular – the way it fundraises and exactly where the money goes – while working towards raising cash for those who need it most.

Specifically, medical charities have a difficult balancing job to do. It is essential that they enhance their reputation through branding, while mitigating spending money in this area and communicating very sensitive issues.

‘People are watching how charities are spending their money,’ says Fiona Blakemore, head of publishing and internal communications at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. ‘We have to have robust reasons behind spend – but it is not just about a logo and strapline, it is about the essence of the organisation. We got hardly any complaints at all when we rebranded. It is just as competitive in the charity market and you have to look relevant. People expect you to have a dynamic, professional approach.’

Both charities and designers stress that branding is not just about a logo, but about the complete brand language. This issue was raised amid the furore of the London 2012 branding launch, with the focus on how much money was spent on a ‘doodle’. It is a common misconception, despised in the design industry, that money is spent on ‘just a logo’ when months, even years of branding work has been built into the cost.

‘One of the biggest problems is that brand is a dirty word within the charity sector, it is best to use the word reputation,’ says Dan Dufour, brand consultant at The Team, which worked on the RNIB rebrand. Dufour has a wide knowledge of how branding works in the third sector, having also been brand manager at Shelter and held roles at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. ‘It is about enhancing an organisation’s reputation. But it’s a mistake for charities to launch a new visual identity without a campaign, for people will focus only on the logo and that is only one part of it.’

Sensitivity adds another complicated dimension, particularly when working with those with disabilities. It is important to be clear about what the charity stands for, while not alienating or patronising any group with the identity or strapline.

This could relate to the RNIB’s previous logo, featuring a person with a white stick, which was construed as old- fashioned, as well as appearing to appeal just for blind people rather than those who are partially sighted also. Even a recent refreshed identity for the Alzheimer’s Society by Conran Design Group has invited criticism from designer Michael Woolf for its use of the word ‘dementia’ (see Letters, page 11).

The Multiple Sclerosis Society previously had a logo where the ‘M’ was broken, and members complained that it looked as if it referred to them being broken. It was reworked a number of years ago by Spencer du Bois, which is also about to launch new brand guidelines for the charity, with an interrupted ‘M’ instead. This aims to reflect how the illness is unpredictable.

‘The charity sector is more sensitive than the commercial sector and this is particularly true for the medical charities. You have to be careful when designing the logos. Charities are dealing with nebulous things,’ says John Spencer of Spencer du Bois.

Meanwhile, stiff competition exists in the charity sector. Therefore not-for-profit organisations have just as much need to present themselves professionally as a corporate organisation. It is easy to ask why the money was not spent on a worthy cause, rather than considering the positive aspects of spending money on branding and promotion. This is a view presented by Matthew Trainer, head of communications at MS Society. ‘We can’t just use a photocopier in somebody’s back garden. We need to reach out to people who we know will be inclined to support us. We try to bring out the principles that will reflect our core audience. We don’t want to bring in something too dramatic, but it needs to be contemporary and capture the values of the organisation.’

‘Charities need to communicate with a wide range of audiences, so it is actually difficult to justify that they don’t spend money on branding,’ adds Spencer. ‘Charities are businesses and people imagine them to be exempt from spending money on branding and promotion and that is complete tosh.’

Fundamentally, there is a complete process to be carried out. All of the charity’s qualities should not be crammed into a logo and strapline; research and a full brand language need to be integrated, while staff, members and donors must understand the necessity of branding. ‘Many organisations have to show that it is not just about style and design, but about improving clarity around the brand,’ says Richard Stayte, design director at Conran Design Group.

Recent charity rebrands

• MS Society refreshed brand guidelines, by Spencer du Bois

• Alzheimer’s Society new identity and visual language, by Conran Design Group

• Great Ormond Street Hospital new identity and brand guidelines, by Conran Design Group

• RNIB new visual identity and strapline by The Team

• Sense new brand and identity by Spencer du Bois

Latest articles