5 steps for building a blockbuster charity brand

how to build a blockbuster charity brand

2016 was the year in which the British public’s trust in the third sector fell to an all-time low. Scandals in the media about dodgy fundraising were just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface was a growing feeling that charities have lost touch with their missions in favour of operating like profit-seeking corporations or, worse, mini empires of self-serving metropolitan privilege. In the vast majority of cases this isn’t true, so the task of restoring trust, rebuilding reputation and regaining the confidence of the public is largely a challenge of branding and communications.

They have all the key ingredients for building a blockbuster brand at their disposal, but charities still need to put them together in the right way to ignite the passions of their audiences and inspire them to take action. The following five steps provide an outline of how to do it.

1. Define your mission

A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world; a corner of someone’s mind – John Hegarty

Unfortunately this is a truth to which the third sector has so far paid far too little attention. While corporations have become obsessed with building brands that convey authenticity and value to their audiences, charities have been content to sit back and let their causes do the work for them. But now that many commercial brands are building in an element of philanthropy or altruism (think Starbucks’ red cup initiative or Sainsbury’s local charity of the year), charities are being forced to fight for that valuable real estate in the minds of existing and potential supporters.

In True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business, Ty Montague stresses the importance of stories to driving action, and introduces the concept of StoryDoing companies. These companies have stories which define an ambition, have a clear enemy, and drive action both within and without the company. He’s since shown that not only do StoryDoing brands grow revenue faster, they do it from lower rates of investment in paid media.

Luckily, charities are ideally positioned to build brands which are centred around a powerful core story. By following Simon Sinek’s edict to start with ‘why’, and putting the organisation’s reason for existing at the heart of its communications strategy, a charity can speak with the kind of authenticity that most commercial brands would kill for.

Simon Sinek, Golden Circle

Look at how Unicef approached their recent branding and communications strategy rethink. As Christian Humphries explained at a Manifesto charity digital event in November, the organisation built their new comms strategy around a simple but powerful core story:

‘Children are in danger. Together we can make a safer word for every child.’

The enemy (danger) is clear. The ambition (make a safer world for every child), compelling.

2. Set the stage

Once you have a powerful core story you then need to translate it into an effective communications strategy – who you’re talking to and what you’re saying to them. This requires getting to know your audiences in great detail, undertaking research and building personas to identify those key areas where the audience’s interests overlap with your mission.

There’s no need for lots of different spin-off stories – in fact, concentrating on just a few key narratives, and designing communications which speak to several audiences at once, helps reinforce the core story without muddying the waters.

This is the approach we took when asked to help Unicef devise a content strategy around their new core brand story, identifying a manageable number of content topics (seven) to focus on in digital communications.

Unicef Content Strategy

Using this framework the organisation’s content producers know exactly what’s required to populate a content calendar.

3. Be heroic

The story shouldn’t end with a donation. If your charity exists to change the world, and is successful in doing so, then work your successes into the brand’s ongoing narrative. Showing the impact of your supporters’ actions delivers the payoff they were promised when first introduced to the core story and, since altruism is addictive, keeps them hungry for more.

Unicef have worked heroism into their comms strategy by telling stories from the viewpoint of children they’ve helped. Immersive content shows Unicef supporters how their actions have helped make the world safer not just for children in general, but for these children in particular.

Unicef immersive content

4. Create positive action

At Manifesto we’ve come up with our own maxim to describe what happens when you manage to successfully tap into the drives and motivations of your audiences: sharing a passion creates positive action.

I’ve talked a lot about stories so far but, to be one of Ty Montague’s StoryDoing brands, you also have to provide your audiences with something to DO. Charities are pretty good at coming up with new fundraising activities for their supporters to undertake but it’s important that what you’re asking people to do is clear and that the action springs from, and furthers, the core brand story.

AVON 39, The Walk To End Breast Cancer is an example of a charity brand providing very clear actions for their audiences (including very specific fundraising totals) and tying these successfully to the core story (via survivor and walker stories) to create a tribe of engaged supporters.


5. Take the future by storm

Technology is continually changing the nature of communications. In a world where the iPhone, iPad, Uber, Android, Snapchat and Spotify didn’t exist ten years ago, predicting how new platforms and devices will change the way that people consume content is a growth industry. But while it may be impossible to predict what the next major development in communications technology will be (virtual reality, anyone?), it’s certainly not unrealistic to develop a capacity for reacting quickly to new technologies when they land.

We’ve recently helped one of our large charity clients develop a prototype app for Echo, Amazon’s home assistant. The increasing popularity of these kinds of devices means that they will soon account for a significant portion of a consumer’s daily interactions, so why not build an early presence in this space – especially if you can do it relatively cheaply – rather than fighting for scraps as a latecomer?

Amazon Echo for charity

Building the capacity to innovate into your communications strategy – perhaps by creating an innovation lab within your organisation, or baking lean methodologies into business as usual – helps create opportunities to gain a big market share of early adopters when new trends take off.


The recent trend for declining perceptions of charities doesn’t mean your organisation can’t build a blockbuster brand. By defining an ambitious core story, adapting it to suit the interests and habits of your audiences, framing it heroically, creating positive actions, and being prepared to take advantage of future technologies, charities can transform their tired old appeals into branding dynamite.


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