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How to build awareness for a charity

I have spent the last 20 years trying to help charities measure their brands, their awareness, and the impact of the work that they do. So it seemed like a good idea to pull together what all that measuring has taught me, about how to get a charity to be better known and have a clearer brand.

I’ve identified five ingredients necessary to create a brand that people will remember: getting the brand right, great targeting, singing in harmony, being noticeable and planning for the long haul.

Ingredient 1. Get the brand and brand measures right

Have a memorable name

The first thing that a charity needs to build awareness is the right name. In the commercial world, people spent a lot of time on getting this right; Lexus, Accenture, EE, and Facebook are some good examples of memorable and recognisable names. In the charity world, people tend to spend about 10 minutes coming up with a name when a charity is started, and then spend the next 20 years wondering why their awareness is so low. From what I’ve seen, names with one word are good, names that are unique are good, and names that can’t be shortened to initials are good: WaterAid, Oxfam, Greenpeace, and Barnardo’s are good examples of distinctive, unshortenable[1], memorable names. Names that include words like Society, Committee, International, and Trust are usually bad. For example, it must be really hard raising the awareness of Care International or Concern International UK. If in doubt, choose a memorable name!

Use distinctive visuals

A key part of being memorable is also the visual side of things. Its no surprise that some of our best brands have distinctive visuals and colour schemes. If you see a bright orange carrier bag, you’ll probably guess it’s from Sainsbury’s. Green diagonal stripes on a white background - it’s John Lewis. Charities tend to overuse colours like red, white, and blue, and multi-coloured logos are pretty rare. A distinctive visual identity should reinforce the name and logo. Visual identities are a way of reinforcing the small snippets of interaction that people have with charities. They make the work of brand building and awareness raising easier, and literally more memorable. My favourite visuals are those of Age UK which demonstrates a distinctive and multi-coloured simplicity.

[1] I realise that Oxfam is already a shortened name

Have a clear strategic positioning

The human brain loves to pigeon hole. We create shorthands which allow us to prioritise and make decisions. We use brands to avoid making decisions from scratch: a book by a certain author should be good. A James Bond film will be entertaining. The same is true of charity brands – they are more memorable when what they stand for is clearer. So WaterAid is about clean water, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is about medical care – but what is Red Cross about? Similarly, Macmillan is about cancer care, Cancer Research UK is about cancer research, but what is Marie Curie about? Terminal illnesses or cancer? Does anybody know the difference between what NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children and Children’s Society do is?

The strategic positioning, the work that a charity does and how you should think of it is critical to building awareness. If a positioning is unclear, if it’s hard to pigeon-hole, then awareness can be wasted. Lots of people have heard of NSPCC, but are they clear why they should support it?

Pump out on-brand messages

Awareness of a charity is a means to an end: the cause that the charity stands for. Having a clear set of messages about your charity’s cause is really important. Sometimes these messages can be incorporated in a strapline. Sometimes they can be in the messages that are put out on social media. The simple issue is this; once people know about your charity, what do you want them to know about your cause or your work? Every charity should have 3-5 key messages that it wants to get across – and then pump them out of every communications orifice to build awareness of charity and cause. These messages should be based on whatever your strategic positioning is.

Work out what awareness matters to you

Awareness is a many headed beast. For some charities, prompted awareness (people being able to say they have heard of a name when prompted with it) is the best way to measure the awareness of a charity. If your prompted awareness is below 70% you stand a good chance of seeing a decent change over a period of 3-5 years. Above 70% its much harder to see increases as the vast majority of the easy to reach people are already aware – those who remain are harder to reach by definition.

For those who already have high prompted awareness, spontaneous awareness (the names first mentioned when people are asked to name a charity) maybe a better measure. Equally, it may be awareness of a cause, or among a particular demographic, or in a particular geographic area, or of a campaign, or a charity’s core messages. There are lots of ways of gauging the success of a brand, and any charity needs to decide which awareness measures are most appropriate for them (The CAM awareness tracker from nfpResearch is of course a brilliant too for this, biased as I am)

Ingredient 2: Target the messages

The second ingredient after the basics of the brand as given above is the targeting. Few charities really want every member of the public to know and understand their brand equally. Targeting is vital not just because it allows resources to be used more effectively, but also because it allows messages to be tailored more precisely.

Target using demographics or geography

The first and most obvious way to target is through demographics: age, gender, social class, and the like. Equally obvious is geography. For example - a youth charity will target young people to deliver services to. A charity based in, and working, in Dorset will probably target people who live in Dorset. Of course, each charity needs to work out for itself who their ideal target audience is. My warning is that the larger the audience, the more resource and the harder work it will be to reach them. Many charities tend to bite off more than they can chew when it comes to targeting, trying to get their message to reach huge audiences on limited resources.

Target using attitudes and behaviours

A more sophisticated approach to targeting involves using attitudes or behaviours. Behaviours are often the more overt or lived version of attitudes. Targeting people who enjoy the outdoors or nature can happen through finding out whether their ‘attitude’ is to care for nature (in response to a survey, for example) or if their ‘behaviour’ is to walk outdoors regularly for pleasure, visit natural parks, or go birdwatching and the like. Each organisation will need to figure out their own way of deciding what attitudes or behaviours are important, and then how to reach those people.

Target using social media

Social media is a very effective way for organisations, charities included, to reach their supporters and those interested in their work. Its also a very effective way of targeting people. Its possible to spend small amounts of money (£10 a day and upwards) ‘fishing’ for potential followers in your target audience. Twitter allows advertisers to put a tweet in front of the followers of another twitter handle. This is a brilliant way of putting a message in front of those who might be interested in a charity’s cause – particularly for medical conditions, or where audiences are hard to identify or reach.

Ingredient 3: Sing in harmony

Create integrated bursts of activity

It never ceases to amaze me how charities can have a multitude of ways of communicating to the outside world, but end up using that multitude to create a cacophony – rather than a harmony - of different voices and messages. I saw one organisational communications plan recently which had over 70 different messages going out to different stakeholders in the course of 6 months. I have no doubt that some of these will have been absolutely necessary – but charities tend to think that supporters, stakeholders, and followers will be hanging on their every word. My advice is to plan for bursts of activity, say four a year, when every bit of the organisation is talking about the same thing, with clear and agreed messages.

Co-ordinate all teams and departments

Co-ordination isn’t just for the sake of strategic neatness; if you want things to cut through the huge number of messages that barrage people every day, they need to hear it again and again, and from different sources. My rule of thumb would be this: when people internally are thoroughly bored, indeed sick of, saying the same thing for weeks on end, the outside world might finally be beginning to take notice. Make sure the CEO puts it on their twitter feed, and make sure the regional and local teams are included in the push. Put it in shops and at events. It may take planning and a degree of coercion from on high, but it means the same amount of resources will work much harder.

Rise all tides – cause and charity

One of the issues that I have so far avoided discussing is whether your charity’s brand is promoting the charity or the cause. This is an important decision. If you just talk about, and build awareness, of your charity brand, you have to assume that people care about the issue. There is no point in building awareness of a charity that works on an issue that nobody cares about. In the field of cancer research, awareness can be about the organisation, because we know that people care about the cause of cancer research. The more specific, or unknown the cause, and if there are few (or only one) organisations active in that field, then promoting the cause makes sense. If you are the Motor Neurone Disease Association, you can promote the cause because there are no other major motor neurone disease charities. The same is true for the Stroke Association and strokes, or Butterfly Conservation and butterflies (and moths of course). However, in a relatively crowded charity field, like veterans, cancer, or child welfare, it is vital that the brand and the marketing promotes the charity as much, if not more than, the cause.

Ingredient 4: Be noticeable in the crowd

Humanise the messages

Modern media is very different from that of 20 years ago. For many many people, especially younger audiences, social media is the dominant way that they get their messages about the world. Those with the biggest voices on social media by far are individuals, be they celebrities or self-made social media stars - NOT companies, NOT governments, and NOT charities.

For any message to cut-through the noise it needs to be human, it needs to come from (or be about) an individual, and it needs to talk in people’s language. Its needs to be personal and colloquial, in video or picture format. Not in the dull third person-speak that charities find so easy! If you can find and be fronted by a person, an internal celebrity, who exemplifies all that you want to say, so much the better.

Make simple, clear, and bold statements

Alongside the need to humanise the messenger is the need to simplify the message. Minimal acronyms, minimal jargon, and no equivocation. If you want people to remember what your message is, then look at how politicians get their messages across. I would argue that the single most effective political message of recent times was ‘take back control’ for the Brexit campaign. Its meaning was clear, whether you were for, or against, Brexit. Too many charities have ads and campaigns in which neither the message, nor is the identity of the organisation saying it, is clear.

Prioritise speed of response over internal hierarchy

Speed of response is critical when dealing with both traditional and social media. Most larger charities know this, and have media teams who are on constant standby ready to respond or promote a charities’ message. Usually this may be in response to external events – something that has been posted on social media or that comes up in the news. On social media, within minutes is typically the best response time. With traditional media, I’d say within hours – but even that could be too slow a response time.

Ingredient 5: Plan for the long haul

Plan for 3-5 years of work, not 3 months

The last of my ingredients is about timescales. In my experience, it takes 3 to 5 years to build a brand and boost awareness amongst the public. It might be quicker among smaller audiences such as MPs, GPs, or the like. There is no point in doing any of the previous steps to then stop after a year, or (more likely) change message, change brand, or change positioning.

Make sure that your organisation is prepared for the long haul when it comes to raising awareness. Make sure that trustees and senior management support the strategic parts of the agenda. Make sure that the groundwork has been laid for the delivery of a brand that really resonates and stays in the memory of whoever you want to hear your messages. Changing your mind half-way through is a very bad idea.

Joe Saxton

March 2022



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