A new report, “Child’s Play”, launched this month by nfpSynergy, paints a bleak picture for children’s charities. Here I lift the lid on the big four children’s charity brands to explore why.
Over the last 5-10 years, children’s charities have faded significantly in terms of public and political awareness and voluntary donations. Whilst the popularity of other causes such as cancer and animal charities has been fairly even, the popularity of children’s charities has been in rapid decline.
In 2012, the average spontaneous awareness of the big four children’s charities was 40-45%, whilst it is now 25-30%. There has also been a decrease in voluntary income, although a significant increase in contracts and consultancy fees for Barnardo’s and NSPCC, showing how important it is for some charity brands to now work in a competitive business-to-business context.
I was lucky enough to start my career in charity branding at NSPCC in the heydays of the Full Stop campaign. It was a very brand-led organisation at the time. Everybody had a strong sense of why the charity existed, and we were reminded why we got up to go to work every morning with the case studies surrounding us in the offices.
But its success was down to years of well planned, executed, and sustained, integrated marketing communications campaigns. The whole charity would come together around two communications milestones a year. The campaign would launch with a new policy PR hook, followed by evocative brand advertising and direct response marketing to capitalise on the ‘halo’ effect of heightened awareness. I naively thought this was how all charities build their brands, until I left and quickly realised that was certainly not the case. It is these basic fundamentals of integrated marketing communications that I think many charity brands now struggle with but could learn from.
When the successful Full Stop appeal ended it took a long time for NSPCC to unravel the campaign brand from the corporate Masterbrand. They had become one and the same. Today I feel it has a confused brand personality, whilst the strapline talks about “fighting” for every child, the visual identity is soft in comparison, and the logotype very vanilla.
Once famous for its controversial adverts of babies with syringes, Barnardo’s won a Third Sector Excellence Award in 2017 for the best new, evolved or changed brand. The brand refresh transformed children from victims to heroes, proud and optimistic for their future, telling their stories in their own words, with the direct ask delivered by the child to “Believe in me”. This certainly follows charity brand trends for authentic storytelling and is one of the more memorable campaigns from this sector.
Action for Children
Action for Children has had a chequered brand history, to say the least. In 2008 it rebranded from NCH to Action for Children, with an updated version of its logo and a brand positioning around “as long as it takes”. This was followed by a high-profile fundraising appeal, fronted by celebrities such as Davina McCall, which quickly faded away.
In 2017 the charity was given a controversial new identity system by Johnson Banks, based on flow charts developed to explain the full range of work the charity is involved in. Rather than “pulling on peoples’ heart strings” the brand favoured a more direct and honest approach, setting out different scenarios which always ended with the phrase: How Action for Children Works.
The problem is that branding is, and always has been, a transfer of emotion. It’s about changing how people feel. Especially when you take human psychology and neuroscience into account. One of the best ways to build a charity brand is to connect with people through shared beliefs and values with a clear articulation of ‘why’ you exist. So, for me, this brand was just too rational.
Then in July this year, just two years later, the charity has rebranded again. This time with a much, much “friendlier’” approach. It is certainly “extremely characterful”, but I worry about authenticity and whether the creative platform of “we are family” could be divisive. What it does have is a clear articulation for what the brand stands for: “safe and happy childhoods”. With a clear boilerplate across all brand communications: “Action for Children protects and supports children and young people, providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard, and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives”. I hope this time there is a sustained effort to market the brand before throwing the new baby out with the bathwater.
The Children’s Society was rebranded in 2014 by SomeOne, who have a strong reputation for positively disrupting sectors such as funeral care (Beyond) and student housing (Roost), with a black and white look based on revealing “hard truths”.
I think this potentially suffers with some of the same problems as Action for Children in terms of provoking empathy and could be enhanced by adopting the attributes of a challenger brand. However I have been impressed by its most recent brand engagement with its unsettling twist on a pop-up shop, selling children’s stab vests. It’s this kind of attention-grabbing brand engagement that’s required to stand-out.
One of the biggest challenges facing children’s charities is that they often do many things so struggle to be famous for ‘one thing’.
As Joe Saxton from nfpSynergy says: “I for one, couldn’t tell you the difference between the expertise, or specialisms, or USPs of the main children’s charities. The differentiation between children’s charities is much harder to discern; so, when the other aspects of the external climate have got harder, the weak brand foundations have begun to tell”.
I agree and think children’s charities could learn from the current sector leaders – Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support. They have a clear, long-term, brand strategy platform in place that articulates ‘why’ they exist, ‘what’ they do and ‘how’ they behave and communicate, whether vision, mission and values or purpose, proposition, personality and principles. Their unique personalities are then brought to life via distinctive, and well managed, visual identities and tone of voice and taken to market through regular marketing communications investment. Whilst I acknowledge not all brands have their budgets, the foundations of strong brand would still make a difference to children’s charity brands. To find out more about how to differentiate your brand click here.
As Joe concludes: “15 years ago, the Full Stop campaign was high in public consciousness and Barnardo’s and NSPCC were each putting out advertising to grab public consciousness. I could make a strong case that the Full Stop campaign pulled the children’s sector up by its bootstraps and made it raise its game”.