Can Commercial and Charity Brands Learn From Each Other?

By Rebecca Bedding, Senior Client Account Manager at independent media agency The Kite Factory

It’s common in this industry to view commercial and not-for-profit brands as completely different beasts. The former is often seen as focused entirely on their financial gain, and the latter on their purpose. And while there may be some truth to this, changing consumer expectations in recent years have made many marketers reflect on exactly what it means to be a brand in the modern age – whether for profit or purpose.

Working at an agency with a rich heritage in charity clients as well as a range of commercial brands, I have watched clients navigate their growth journeys and can say that the challenges both sectors face are not so different after all. The perceptions that the two broad sectors are worlds apart is outdated – and it’s time to talk about their commonalities.

The shared challenges

Regardless of the sector, understanding the audience’s perspective is constant across brands. “How can I speak to one group without isolating another?” Or “can the brand stay relevant to its audience when the world is changing?” Every brand is looking to find, better understand and more effectively establish an emotional connection with their consumers – and at a time when 65% of UK adults already feel bombarded. It can feel like a losing game. There is only limited attention available, and every brand is competing. Advertising in the digital age is harder and more fragmented than ever, and all brands, commercial and charity alike, are feeling the squeeze.

This, coupled with the slow tortured death of cookies, means that the fragmentation is set to continue and measurement will be more challenging.

The bottom of the funnel is getting tougher to measure and everyone is desperate for a solution. As advertisers grow and mature mid funnel, measurement becomes more important – after you have scooped up all the low hanging fruit you need to create consideration among new people. But that mid funnel is incredibly difficult to measure as it’s so intangible compared to awareness (do they know your brand or not?) and conversion (did they donate/buy or not?). Even when you move into awareness, this becomes patchy at best when you include digital. Robust and consistent measurement is a challenge that all advertisers face.

Learning from the differences

Commercial and charity brands are facing similar challenges but they can learn valuable lessons from each other’s playbook. Swapping a couple of tactics from different sides of the fence could unlock potential for each to perform better.

The core difference between the two sectors is that charities are defined by their cause and brands are defined by their product and/or service, with the organisational culture and direction flowing from that. Being cause led often means that charities can lose sight of things like creating value for the donor, customer experience and bravery in their messaging. All of which are second nature in much of the commercial world.

Being product led makes it easier for commercial brands to put consumers at the heart of their business – they are selling products to people and everything externally facing is tailored to maximising positive experience of the brand to build lifetime value. Theoretically, a charity should be doing exactly the same but the fact that their organisations are (rightly) built around their cause can muddy the waters. But when public accountability is increasingly important, charities cannot solely rely on the cause to do the heavy lifting of the brand.

Every touch point a charity has with its donors or users, should aim to build favourability and relationships with the person. In some cases this might even mean less contact.

The question of what commercial brands can learn from charities isn’t asked often enough. Consumers are demanding more from brands, 41% say that environmental and social consciousness are their key criteria when making a purchase. It’s not sufficient to post some green credentials on a website, the influx of B Corps and purpose-led brands mean that having purpose baked into the core of the brand is an expectation now, not a choice.

Purpose, meaning and passion are all charity bread and butter. It’s the cause for their creation. Having a commitment so strong that more often than not its very aim is to drive itself out of business. The ultimate confirmation of successful social change.

Commercial brands need to lean into genuine purpose, not enact another digital loyalty scheme. Look at the ‘Who Gives a Crap’ toilet paper that dons many bathrooms, besides the refer-a-friend scheme, what makes it remain a shelf staple is its purpose and commitment. It’s not just a product, but a statement.

Most important is effectively communicating purpose. Charities are experts in impact storytelling. Storytelling is at the heart of effective fundraising, and when coupled with strong emotions, tells compelling narratives that inspire people into action, going beyond the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor.

Audiences are changing rapidly and are crying out for ethical purchasing opportunities. Creating this ‘people to people’ connection, rather than ‘people to company’ will be a gamechanger for commercial brands.

All good marketing starts from an audience first perspective, whether commercial or charity. Marketing teams have many of the same challenges wherever they work, but looking across the divide and communicating every now and then will ease difficulties each sector thinks they are facing alone.

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