Paying for a ‘purpose’. Why charities have a big advantage over commercial brands.

In the business of brands, it pays to have a purpose or a cause above and beyond simple product benefits or profit margins.

It’s not good enough to sell something because it tastes great, or looks good, or helps perform a particular job well. Think Coke and the idea of ‘sharing’, John Lewis and being a ‘thoughtful gift giver’, or IKEA and ‘The wonderful everyday’. Commercial brands like these have to spend huge amounts of money to manufacture a secondary ‘purpose’ for themselves (I say ‘secondary’ because their first ‘purpose’ is, of course, to make a profit). And some do it very well, with great returns — a certain heart-tugging, very profitable penguin called Monty springs to mind.

But I’m not saying purposeful brands are a bad thing. In fact I think any trend toward more conscious, profound social responsibility is a good thing, I’m just labouring the point that commercial companies often have to invest in creating a purpose secondary to pursuing profit.

But charities come into existence precisely because their founders believed in a particular purpose or cause. They are caused into existence by the presence of a particular issue and a very human reaction to that issue. A charity, from day one, either stands for something or against something. It is its raison d’etre. Whether that be fighting cancer, upholding civil or human rights, stopping child cruelty, or protecting the environment — to name but a few ‘causes’. They were all started for a very clear reason — and this is where the advantage for charities over commercial brands lies.

But I think charities can forget how to express their original purpose through their brand sometimes. The power of a brand is to present a human mind with a (without sounding too semiotic) symbol, a moniker that immediately triggers the appropriate memory structures and associations in the brain of what is involved in that brand. What am I looking at? What do I expect from this brand? What do they do? What do they stand for? What do they offer? What do I think of them? What do I like about them? What do I dislike about them? Stephen King called it the ‘total impression’ of the brand.

But it takes work to get there. Look at the effort commercial brands put in (and the return they get from spending time on it). The clear advantage charities have is that they already have their brand purpose ready and waiting — they don’t need to invent it. It just needs some thinking around how that original cause or reason-for-being is expressed, what its place in the contemporary context is, how it is conveyed, and how you want it to be understood.

Budgets are, of course, a big factor too. But a lot of good work can be done for not much investment. Producing a clear brand that provides distinctiveness in the market is an important responsibility of charities to get right and a huge opportunity too. A report earlier this year has shown that charities which have the most engaged and generous supporters are those with the strongest, clearest brands. And that those engaged supporters are 50% more valuable to the charity.

This is why using content in the right way is so important, particularly digital video. Charities and their beneficiaries have many stories to tell and often charismatic, fascinating people driving them who represent the very essence of the brand. Supporters want to see them, and hear from them. They want to know that the charity is achieving its purpose and progression. And digital video provides a trustworthy, transparent channel through which to illustrate this, at little cost.

So content has an important role in brand building. And any content that is produced to this effect should be tied to brand KPIs, and therefore business objectives. Content is an opportunity to establish emotional connections with your supporters to bolster other channels. Where a TV ad might broadcast a charity’s brand ‘purpose’, content can be where the experience of that brand ‘purpose’ happens for supporters. So linking a really strong identity, with a relevant and compelling experience.

Dipping into the commercial world (something I believe charities should do more often), there is plenty of evidence — and the fact of a thriving advertising industry — to support the idea of a positive relationship between spending a bit of time thinking about your brand and how to build on it and getting something back for it.

Agencies The Partners and Lambie-Nairn have noted that ‘investing in brand positioning and identity produces markedly greater returns in brand value when compared to, or used in conjunction with strong advertising.’ And Peter Field and Les Binet, in their recent Warc webinar, present a very compelling case of the long-term sales impact and growth in brand value of investing in particularly creative campaigns that build brand SOV and salience.

So, it may sometimes be fashionable to complain about charities spending money on branding and communication but, if a strong brand means greater, quality support and therefore more money donated to achieve their purpose then I’d say it is a wise investment. And take a moment to think about the competitive market for attention they exist in, too. Charities are like the small kid at the back of the group shouting and jumping to be heard over the bigger, cooler kids with their shiny Nikes, sipping Coca Cola and chowing down on the latest hamburger innovation from Maccy D’s.

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