Why brand purpose is key during the season of goodwill

The season of giving is upon us, and with recent events, the spotlight is very much on organisations that exist to alleviate human suffering. In the light of Syria, Paris and Bamako it may seem rather flip to turn to the utility of brand. But that is what I’d like to do (you can stop reading here if you like).

My motivation isn’t just because I’m professionally engaged in the business of developing brands, but because I think we increasingly understand the sheer efficiency and effectiveness the thing known as ‘brand’ can bring to any organisation. And charities and other non-profits are no exception: exploiting the power of brand is key to success in this category. This is natural, as brand is more and more a way for any organisation to connect what it does to a broader consideration for people and the planet, with benefits all around.

The non-profit category is growing at pace. In the US alone it has grown by more than 50 per cent over the last 12 years. Charitable giving has also recovered to reach a new high since the 2008/09 dip. I suspect that this is a reflection of an increased awareness of need (fuelled partly by social media), an increasing requirement for aid as many developed world governments cut back, and a depressing increase in human conflict around the globe that has such tragic and visible consequences.

Therefore, in a category as overheated as this one, brand becomes much more than a luxury, much more than ‘marketing’ or ‘communications’. It becomes an essential weapon in the armoury, in its own way, as valuable to the beneficiary of aid as operations in the field.

Famously, one of the tensions of the charitable giving category is that it’s precisely when there’s a crisis that donations increase. Paradoxically however, when there is a crisis everyone’s “got their hand out” so crisis really becomes the category generic.

So while the focus is on them during times of crisis, non-profit fundraisers have to be crystal clear about what they do, what they don’t do and why in order to stand a chance of increasing their share of the available funds. This is this first function of brand in this context: to focus the organisation’s external message so that it is clear, consistent and relevant in order to raise awareness of the cause and attract as much funding as possible.

The role of brand in this case is to act as a way of not only differentiating an organisation and providing a platform for advocacy, but also to act as a symbol of pride. Evidence suggests that a majority of individuals are motivated to give because they feel it’s the best way they can do something (it often is). But, if a charity brand has the right caché, it can act as a serious source of self-expression. It has all the prestige of consumption, with none of the guilt.

Now, that traditionally has been where it’s stopped for non-profits: brand as fundraising tool. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But increasingly, there’s an understanding that brand can have a much bigger and more powerful role - that of galvanising the organisation as a whole around a coherent set of attributes and behaviours, even extending as far as shaping program strategy itself.

This modern view of the internal power of brand has arisen partly in parallel with the for-profit sector, but has also come about organically as non-profit leadership has understood that there are dangers when brand is imposed on an organisation. Its power as a concept is only fully realised when it is deeply felt and acted upon by people within the organisation.

As an example, WWF carried out an exercise where they asked their staff to submit their own “elevator speech” summary of the organisation’s mission. While what people said differed in detail, the theme was remarkably consistent, which proved how clear and cohesive that organisation’s brand is. I’d contend that this would be the test of any well branded organisation; that a successful brand is one which can be interpreted and made personal, but is still clearly understood and authentically adhered to by real people.

This modern, deeper approach to brand has one other advantage. If everyone in the organisation is aligned around the core thematic that a brand provides, then it’s much easier to be transparent about where all the money goes. Another foundational principle of brands and businesses today, essential in our modern connected world and vital for fund-raising organisations.

Finally, a lot has been written over the past decade about brands’ search for a higher purpose in order to connect more meaningfully with audiences. Well, charities and non-profits are the complete reverse. There’s no need to search. They already by definition have a higher purpose, a calling to positively impact the world. And it’s in this context that a challenge arises. Because in a competitive category, it’s really a straightforward duel in the end between whose ‘purpose’ is more defined, motivating, relevant and emotionally resonant. This always means making some quite tough choices: many egalitarian non-profits want to talk about all of their activities externally. But this leads to an indistinct and muddy brand. Which means strong leadership is needed in choosing the one thing that the organisation should stand for above all else.

There are sometimes complex cultural and moral arguments here, but put simply, if your fundraising organisation doesn’t have a simple, clear and compelling articulation of its core purpose that everyone can understand and apply, then the season of giving may not be quite as generous to your cause as undoubtedly it deserves.

This article was originally published in The Drum