Branding Br@nd!ng header

Branding: A dirty word for charities or a critical asset?


3rd November 2021

For a long time, branding seems to have been a dirty word in the charity sector. Real concerns surrounding use of money are often difficult to negotiate: “shouldn’t those hard-raised funds be going straight into the front-line services?”

We can see why that might seem like the case but the evidence for multiplying the impact of a charity’s work through the investment into their branding is clear when it’s done well. In this article we’ll look at how investing in and understanding their brand may have saved a charity when the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to derail everything they did.

But first, a much more famous charity explains the value of their brand.

“A strong brand inspires trust, and trust inspires donations,” says James Reekie, creative consultant at Macmillan Cancer Support. “Brand is involved at the highest level of decision, and if you look at that time period between 2006 and 2015 [following Macmillan’s well documented rebranding process] we doubled income. This isn’t like £10 million to £20 million, this is £100 million to £200-250 million fund raised income.”

A strong brand inspires trust, and trust inspires donations…

James Reekie, Macmillan

Of course, Macmillan is an extreme example and small charities may be tempted to roll their eyes at figures like these but the principle is true across the board.

What do we mean by branding?

This may be the first misunderstanding that needs addressing.

It’s not your logo. Although that’s an important part, it comes later in the branding process.

It’s not the colours or fonts you use. Macmillan may have built a successful brand on the back of their claiming of the colour green and the bubbly bespoke typeface, but these things only represent the brand and communicate it – the brand itself starts much deeper in the organisation.

When the brand is simply graphic design there’s no foundation. When the brand is a sense of directed purpose, an authentic personality, a connection with the right audience and clear benefits to the world, then you can start creating a distinctive visual and verbal identity to match.

It ties in so intrinsically with business strategy that it becomes measurable and impactful. It gives you a return on your investment and becomes a much more valuable asset.

When the brand is simply graphic design there’s no foundation.

Let’s remove the asterisk. Branding.

There, that feels better doesn’t it? More exciting. More laden with possibilities.

Does your charity know how and why it’s truly distinctive and beneficial? As a charity – your authentic purpose will probably be front and centre and just need crafting. Have you really delved into the core of your organisation’s strategy, defined central principles that will improve your engagement with target audiences and ended up with a fabulous, attention-grabbing and well-aligned new identity as well?

If not, it’s a really exciting opportunity and it’s worth making it a priority (see the bottom of this article for how to contact us at Upshot).

Making the case

Whilst pressure and concerns from stakeholders, fundraisers, trustees and general public will be genuine and worth taking seriously, there’s a clear need for high quality brand strategy and design in most organisations – charities included – and they must arm themselves with compelling evidence and a strong business case to feel confident that the investment is worthwhile.

So what’s the benefit, beyond a pretty new façade? First Give’s experience provides a fabulous example.

One step back, and how many steps forward?

A small but ambitious charity delivering a schools-based programme to secondary-aged pupils, First Give engages young people in the reality of social action and encourages partnership with local charities to make a difference in their communities. They engaged with Upshot to guide their rebrand in 2018 (see the work here), taking a step back to review their progress and realising they needed to define their proposition more clearly as their work had grown.

There was a growing realisation that our brand really didn’t speak to, or for, who we really were, and who we wanted to say that we were…

Louisa Searle, First Give
First Give school final celebration with students
Students celebrate winning £1000 for their charity

“[In 2014, when we were founded] we operated in one region and delivered a programme that got young people to connect with charities, make presentations about those charities, and hopefully win them a First Give charity grant. Now [In 2018] we deliver in hundreds of schools across England and Wales, delivering our programme to thousands of young people in the South East, Wales and the South West and Yorkshire,” explains Louisa, director of First Give.

She elaborates.

“There was a growing realisation that our brand really didn’t speak to, or for, who we really were, and who we wanted to say that we were as an organisation. It was ‘fine’. There was a logo and there were some colours! But it wasn’t very thought through, and I felt that it wasn’t quite what we needed for what we wanted to put out into the world.”

Brand strategy

That realisation led them to understand that their brand was far less about the logo, and far more about their purpose and personality. They knew their operational model and theory of change but the core parts of their vision and intrinsic values needed to be communicated consistently.

Their purpose was easy to understand but needed articulating – it was so important, it also doubled as a value proposition and even a strap-line. Their mission and vision revolved around their delivery methods, partnerships and an ambitious long-term aim.

Empowering young people; igniting a spark of social conscience - the First Give purpose statement and brand proposition
First Give’s purpose statement

The value of values

Further work enabled us to really delve into their personality. There is a huge amount of power in harnessing authentic brand values and digging down into why they’re important to your audiences. What difference do values make? For First Give they influence everything.

Knowing who they really are now affects decisions made across the organisation. From messaging, audience interaction and marketing materials, through to team recruitment, expansion plans and even pandemic response tactics!

When COVID hit, First Give’s whole delivery method was thrown into disarray. As a school-based programme, schools being closed for the first time in living memory was a major problem, as was the restriction surrounding social contact – social action is less practical from 2 metres away…

…all of those things resonated and drove the decision in many ways to design the programme that we did.

“When I think back to that I think we really thought that we needed to do that because of who we are” reflects Louisa. “And then went back to those brand values. We are empowering, we are altruistic, we are professional… and actually all of those things resonated and drove the decision in many ways to design the programme that we did.”

First Give helping from home branding and brand assets

The team developed a digital offer called First Give: Helping From Home, linked to an online competition where prizes were given for effective and creative social action by young people around the country. Knowing their purpose, vision and values gave a framework for First Give to make a bold, business-saving decision and keep achieving their mission despite unprecedented obstacles.

What’s this got to do with branding?

That’s what branding is! Understanding and articulating your uniqueness – why you exist, who you really are, what you do that nobody else does like you. That knowledge drives priorities, and of course, feeds directly into visual identity – those ‘above the waterline’ elements of the iceberg that is your brand.

The clear definitions we had helped create gave us everything we needed to transform First Give’s identity from “it’s fine” to something that “… looks, feels and acts in a way that entirely represents First Give’s purpose, mission and ethos”.

First Give F logo
The new First Give logo

With the foundations in place, the design of the visual side had meaning and made sense. How First Give look directly comes from who they are. The spark of the logo that resulted in the graphic devices we use across multiple touchpoints. The colours, the layout decisions, the typography. They all stem from clear, original thinking and distinctive, deliberate brand decisions.

First Give branding and designed materials
Suite of new branded materials for First Give

First Give now have the basis to continue growing their brand. To create unique and compelling messages. To know where and how to deliver them. To design bold, creative marketing materials. To build great relationships and collaborations with like-minded partners. To effectively attract funders who share their vision. To hire and retain a brilliant team of employees and brand ambassadors. To reach more schools and develop relationships with them based on trust and recognition.

To make their programme a rite of passage for all young people in schools across the UK?

It’s a bold vision and one they are already making great strides towards.

Want to know more?

If you are involved in charity, how do you see branding playing a role in your vision? Does your logo not really connect or represent what you’re trying to achieve?

We’d love to meet you. To hear your story, understand your pain points and goals, and ultimately help your charity to make an even bigger difference. Email or give us a call on 01752 560502.

Written by Owen