Brand strategy; what the non-profit sector and the corporate sector can learn from each other

The brand challenges – and opportunities – faced by charities increasingly resemble those faced by corporates.  

Brand visibility 

In a competitive market for individual and major donor giving, brand visibility, understanding and preference is critical in creating opportunities for charities.  At Skating Panda, the conversations we have with charities often come back to the same dilemma of how to convert one-off, short term donations linked to a specific event into long-term supporters. Those that we’ve spoken to recognise the power of building a strong brand and are increasingly adopting an approach more traditionally associated with the corporate world to stand out from the ‘competition’ and stay in the minds of the audience.  

According to Professor Byron Sharp, brands largely compete not in terms of differentiation or even product offering, but in terms of mental and physical availability. Arguably the easier of the two is the latter – getting your brand physically in front of your customers – ensuring that people can find your brand as easily as possible when they want it. For charities this can be in the form of shops, digital marketing and partnerships with bigger brands to name a few techniques.  

The harder task is mental availability – defined as making your brand ‘easier to access in someone’s memory in more buying situations and for more people’. To be at the forefront of a consumer’s memory the brand needs to trigger an emotional response, or as Sharp refers to it ‘create memory structures,’ so that even when faced with multiple options, the consumer goes for the one they know and trust.  

Consumers and donors alike are more likely to settle for good enough rather than the perfect fit, which is why brand loyalty is so important. If a consumer and donor can remember and access your brand, they are more likely to become repeat customers. For brand loyalty, your brand needs to be recognisable (Skating Panda will be posting how-to tips on what makes a strong brand in future posts), it should evoke an emotional response from your audience and it needs to be physically available to the consumers and donors e.g. through digital marketing, advertising and more.  

Mental availability is about more than just impactful visuals and consistent marketing messaging  

The corporate world has for some time understood that how customers perceive you goes way beyond what you say to what you do; all the time, everywhere. The most successful brands are often those that focus on the inside too – finding ways to organise their systems and people around the organisation’s values – that their customers can also identify with and value. 

The Charity Commission’s 2018 ‘Trust in Charities’ report lists one of the key benchmarks of the public’s trust in charity as being when ‘their organisational cultures and behaviours support their charitable purposes’. Charitable organisations have purpose at the heart of what they do, they are essentially built around an issue and so should have a head start on the corporate world if they can align this intrinsic strength with mental and physical availability. 

On the other hand, it is not just charities who are being judged on their organisation’s purpose, behaviours and values. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust showed that a major consideration for brand purchase is “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right,” at 81 percent. This is in line with Larry Fink’s 2019 letter to CEO’s which stated 

‘Purpose guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of your company.’ 

Bridging two worlds 

Charities have a natural advantage of being built around a purpose. It is therefore important that charities can align activities and campaigns to this, whilst taking on lessons from the corporate world to ensure the optimum physical and mental availability of their brand.  

Corporates, on the other hand, are well versed in brand strategy and practice – including physical and mental availability. However, they increasingly need to recognise and understand the changing public sentiment and expectations to ensure their purposes are clearly defined and evident.  

Put simply, a clear purpose and a set of values that people on the outside and inside can identify with, and that are distinctive and memorable, can be a source of competitive – and brand – advantage – whether you’re a commercial brand, or a non-profit charity. 

By Charlotte Highmore, Strategist, Skating Panda