Why healthcare charities must rebrand or die

Many of our earliest charities were founded by the aristocracy or religious groups to help the members of society most in need. But this year, David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, criticised big charities such as Comic Relief for being “colonial white saviours”. By that he meant that they are guilty of showing the – often famous and wealthy – white middle class pitying the poor or sick. Yet market research tells us that people actually want to see evidence of charities making an impact and the sustainable results in the own words and life-changing stories of those they have helped.

The charity sector is investing more in branding than ever before. But the competition is also steeper, from the market leaders with bigger budgets, like Cancer Research UK, to B Corporations (a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit) and commercial brands with social purpose. Which is why it is essential to keep up with current trends to stay competitive. Here are three you should consider.

1. Empowerment

Helping people help themselves

There is no doubt that “charity” as a brand category has suffered from a decline in trust over recent years, following a series of scandals and negative news, from fundraising techniques to safeguarding. But the attributes of charity brands are now changing from caring (even paternal) to empowering.

Charity brand giant Macmillan Cancer Relief rebranded to “We are Macmillan Cancer Support” in 2006, adding togetherness as a key attribute, in what has been one of the most successful rebrands in the charity sector.

This year, the charity has done another brand refresh – curiously dropping the “We” – but introducing a new brand strategy: purpose, proposition and principles – arguably the foundations of every strong brand.

For Macmillan, its purpose (why we exist) is “to help everyone with cancer live life as fully as they can”. Its proposition (the benefit we bring): is to find “your best way through” and its principles (the experience we create) is “empathy, proximity, resolution, inspiration and empowerment.

Kate Barker, director of brand at Macmillan, says: “We are very excited to launch our new brand platform and we’re confident that ‘Whatever cancer throws your way, we’re right there with you’ will successfully further develop the strong Macmillan brand. We will be bolder about expressing our dissatisfaction at the havoc that cancer can wreak in people’s lives, and clearer about all the ways we can help.

“While the charity is well known and has a recognisable brand, we know that not enough people with cancer are aware of all the ways we can support them. Our focus throughout this work has been on increasing Macmillan’s relevance and ensuring that everyone who needs us can access our support. In turn we hope that more people will be inspired to offer support to Macmillan. Strengthening our brand is an important way for us to make an even bigger difference to everyone living with cancer in the UK.”

Other charities which have shifted their brand to using the term empowerment include the RNIB and National Autistic Society in 2018. Versus Arthritis – the new brand formed by the merger of Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care – followed suit. As chief executive, Liam O’Toole, says: “What’s different is that we will be much braver – we want to push back and have a louder voice for people with arthritis and empower them to demand more for themselves.”

2. Human authenticity

Using real-life storytelling to connect

Using human psychology has become increasingly popular in brand and advertising. More brands are asking what emotions they want to provoke to inspire action, drawing on the work of Paul Ekman, the foremost psychologist in emotional theory. Ekman proved Darwin’s hypothesis that facial expressions of the basic emotions are universal. His work is now used by brands across sectors worldwide, from the US Military and CIA, to Apple and Google.

Charities have traditionally drawn on the core emotion of sadness when fundraising via direct marketing. Just think of those sad, abandoned animals looking at you with their big, wet eyes, or those tragic children, starving swollen-bellied in war-torn countries. But in recent years, we’ve seen a shift towards charities using anger at the heart of their fundraising outreach instead. No longer: “be sad at their plight”. Now: “be angry this is still happening”. This has led to lots – and lots – of charity brands adopting a fighting tone. Cancer Research UK has led the charge, making cancer the enemy and the charity’s supporter base the collective army fighting back.

Brands are now wisely choosing to swim against that collective tide, in the need for greater market differentiation, changing their tone from combative to emotive. The British Heart Foundation has replaced its “Fight for every heart beat” strapline with the more heart string-tugging “Beat heartbreak forever”, emphasising the beating heart at the core of its brand.

While Cancer Research UK’s brand has sometimes been criticised for being cold and corporate, its most recent (Right Now) advertising – based on authentic human stories – has the highest results for the key brand metrics of feeling and attribution. Which clearly shows that adding a more human face to the brand has helped people to connect with it better.

3. Hope

How optimism is saving the charity sector

What leading healthcare brands like Cancer Research UK, Macmillan and British Heart Foundation all have in common is “hope” and a clear vision or purpose for people to rally behind.

We can also learn from international development and human rights brands which have evolved their brands to protect and grow their market share. Drawing on audience insights, they increasingly present the solution as well as the problem they are striving to address.

“For a human rights movement dedicated to exposing abuses, positive communication does not come naturally”, admits Thomas Coombes, head of brand and assistant communications director at Amnesty International. “But to make the case for human rights, we need to promise a brighter future. What people need from us is not information about what is going wrong, but hope, and means of making it better.”

“We want to expose terrible suffering so that people are shocked into action. But when we show the abuses, people start to believe that we live in a world with no alternative. We need to give people a chance to unite behind a cause, to live by their values and build support for our way of seeing the world.”

Bowel Cancer UK and the Samaritans are examples of charities embracing more positive messaging in the healthcare space.

Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer merged in 2018, creating a new brand, which was carefully crafted to thwart all the fighting talk of old. Bowel Cancer UK’s new personality is “Heroes of Hope”, underpinned by the values of community, action, hope and authenticity, which guide how the charity behaves and communicates.

Samaritans have also launched a new brand this year to help grow relevance with the positioning “Hope for Life”.

People don’t often like to think of charities investing in marketing. They also often associate branding with visual identity design and logos, rather than a clear articulation of why a charity exists and what it stands for. But with the competition for support stiffer than ever, charities need to invest in branding to inspire ongoing support, protect and grow their market share. From looking at the current trends it is clear that charity brands must evolve to meet supporters expectations and to connect with them in an ever changing world.

If you’d like help advancing your own healthcare branding and communications, get in touch. We’d love to help you make a Difference.

About the Author

Dan Dufour is a leading brand strategist, having worked on brand development across all sectors, including Rightmove, London 2012 and Cancer Research UK. He’s best known for his award-winning work across all corners of the charity sector, including Shelter (Design Week Award), Parkinson’s UK (Design Effectiveness Award), RSPB (Third Sector Excellence Award) and Scope. 

Healthcare clients include Stroke Association, Bowel Cancer UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and Mind.

Dan is one of our Collective Members.

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