In 2014, when Macmillan redefined what they were in the world to do, they triggered a shift away from being an organisation that cares for people affected by cancer to a powerful movement that released control of its brand and allowed everyone involved to become, not only a brand ambassador, but a co-producer.

Key to Macmillan’s success was multiplying its limited budget by a highly engaged and motivated ‘fan base’, a strategy that was deemed both bold and dangerous and which resulted in Macmillan becoming one of the UK's most recognised, trusted and respected brands, trumping many bigger spenders in the process.

Without doubt this took courage. Building a platform from which everyone can participate and then stepping back to allow them to do so, meant relinquishing control over the brand, and let’s face it, brands are carefully crafted, well guarded portrayals of what an organisation is about. If we take a brand as being the very perception someone holds in their mind of a product, service or cause, then surely it needs protecting, particularly in a highly competitive and fickle market such as the third sector.

Yet in our experience, working with cutting edge mental health charities, we have seen first hand how this type of co-creation taps into the most powerful form of drive, the Movement. This is where marketers distance themselves from the end result, in effect becoming enabling tool to help people express and achieve their goals.

This shift to brands generously handing over the reins and allowing their target audiences - their customers - to co-produce, focuses on brands using digital to converse rather than broadcast. Co-creating, therefore, is about tapping into people’s core drivers and emotions and getting to the very essence of what the brand means to them.

Some brands are more tentative about it than others. If we think of brand building as the deliberate and skillful application of effort to create a desired perception in someone else’s mind (the consumer), then it makes sense that the next step is to empower and encourage said consumer to roll up their sleeves and become a co-creator. What better way to ensure emotional engagement?

Those brands that seize the opportunity to re-define their roles and re-shape their visions using their audiences as their co-creators are reaping the rewards. A good example of this occurred when the NUS asked their target audience, in this case students, what they wanted and centred their entire marketing proposition around their responses. In so doing they got to the hearts of the 7 million students they represent and showcased the realities of students’ lives and their belief in the power of students to drive change. The resulting re-brand took the students’ voices and crafted a brand that aims to shape the future of education. Like Macmillan, NUS handed over their digital platforms for people to set up their own interest and sub groups, further strengthening the bond with their brand.

The charity sector, more than any other sector, has genuine emotional stories to tell. Whether they are supporting those affected by cancer, working with homeless people or saving endangered species, theirs are true life stories that shape people’s lives, dreams and hopes. The very fact that they champion a cause could result in human co-creation turning into a powerful revolution, however it does require a shift in mindset if charities are to make the most of it.

The flip side of charities closely touching people’s lives is that, at times, these same participants can be critical, their experiences will not always be heart-warming and positive. That is part of the textured third sector landscape, it is not always filled with happy endings.

A charity brand may find they are co-producing with less than happy customers, but that is precisely what will make for a unique brand which is authentic, which genuinely mirrors what is needed, because it comes straight from their target audience’s heart. It may not always be glossy but it will be powerful which in itself will make the brand messaging transformative.

By shifting the mindset away from ‘target’ audience, which implies a more predatory attitude, to ‘participants’, we break down the walls between the organisation and the people, turning the focus towards ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The result will be transformational as those charities who base their marketing on the aggregation of all the conversations between themselves and their audiences, will in effect be creating a bottom-up community which will gain in momentum as it develops.


The need for a solution

Currently charities are losing support as well as vital donor engagement. The more they try to shore up and resist the negative messaging, the worse it becomes. The more they try to put a veneer over their brand, the wider the cracks become. As it turns out, the reason for this could become the solution to their woes. Throwing open the gates to their digital platforms, encouraging people to become active participants, giving them a voice and handing over the microphone will lay the foundations for a fresh new perception of what charities are about.

This is all the more timely as the millennial generation gains traction. With their highly altruistic values, this generation above any other demands authenticity, something that charities should be poised to tap into. It is key that charities establish what they stand for and ensure their values are clearly showcased from the outset.

Building a solid platform with an overarching principle behind it rather than a jumble of content, enables a charity to craft its own, unique vision and footprint. The next step is to turn to its audiences and ask them to build on this vision, to create a brand that resonates with them and has true meaning for all those people it touches.

If the alternative is embraced, and digital is used simply as another means of broadcasting a message, then charities risk slipping into oblivion.


by Max du Bois of brand design experts, Spencer du Bois 

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