The branding of doing good

Our friends at the Big Lottery Fund have put to the world a big question: What’s the future of doing good? As brand people, here’s our perspective.

Doing good happens in a marketplace, where donors, social organisations and recipients interact in complicated ways. And in any marketplace, branding plays a role, helping organisations to stand out, and helping individuals to make choices. But the marketplace is changing, and branding is changing too.

Over the last ten years, most charities have adopted the language and philosophy of branding, mainly to attract donors, but also to amplify their campaign voice and to activate service users. But few charities have strong brands. Some, because they’ve shifted focus (for good reasons) from a single activity to wider system change, have diluted their brand – they try to stand for too many things. And the whole idea of ‘charity’, as a kind of meta-brand, has been tarnished. Many people in the west see charities as old-fashioned – and sometimes aggressive in the way they raise funds. And in the east, charities are often seen as corrupt: a way for rich people to avoid taxes.

Meanwhile, a new player has joined the marketplace. Since Enron and the financial crash, commercial organisations have felt the need to achieve social as well as commercial goals – and have come to see that the two objectives can be complementary rather than contradictory. It’s not just the buy-one-give-one-free model of TOMS shoes, Warby Parker glasses and One Water. Almost every big corporation now has a statement of purpose, and if we think it’s all cynical greenwash, we underestimate the seriousness of a new generation of CEOs. Doing good has become a way of doing business – and profit-driven organisations can in some situations create social change more effectively than charities.

Underlying all this, Internet culture has helped transform the consumer. Individuals have more knowledge and more confidence. They trust institutions less. They worry that charities often do more harm than good, and that ‘aid’ can perpetuate a culture of dependency. When they hand over money, to a charity or a corporation, they want to know where it goes, and to see some kind of return.

So what’s the new role of branding in this new marketplace? To enable people not just to give, but to invest. To help them make active choices: to be, in the American jargon, ‘conscious consumers’. A trivial example is the way Waitrose’s green token scheme enables shoppers to choose which local charity Waitrose will support. More interestingly, Kiva enables individuals to make not charitable donations but small loans to specific people – $827 million so far. In campaigning, a new brand like 38 Degrees can react much faster than traditional charities. And contemporary brands give power at the other end of the chain, to what used to be thought of as recipients: Yegna is a media brand that gives girls in Ethiopia new confidence and new aspirations.

Most interesting of all are the brands that give new power to both ‘donors’ and ‘recipients’. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Art Happens, Chuffed and many others enable individuals both to start and to fund projects. They empower both the giver and the recipient, and move way beyond the cap-in-hand worlds of ‘charity’ and ‘fundraising’. The organisation in the middle is no longer an agency passing money and skills from the rich to the poor, but a broker, through which individuals can better achieve what they want.

This phenomenon is already mainstream – but it’s still only a small part of the huge social marketplace. But it could signal a future, where brands are no longer about ‘doing good’ at all, but about collectively ‘making good things happen’.