Action Against Hunger operates in nearly 50 countries. It was set up in 1979 as an independent NGO by a group of French intellectuals including Bernard-Henri Lévy, with the goal of eradicating hunger. But in common with many similar organisations, its communications and message had, over time, become complex and perhaps somewhat confusing. Three years ago, design studio johnson banks started working with the organisation on a rebrand. The project highlights some common issues for NGOs of this nature.
Local v Global
Action Against Hunger had, say johnson banks “developed a complicated mixture of local country names, using its French initialism, ACF (Action Contre la Faim), or a combination of the two. Yet in growing markets, such as Spain (Acción Contra el Hambre) and the USA (Action Against Hunger), the ‘ACF’ letters weren’t understood and confused the situation further. So our first task was to try and find a common ground between all the countries, whilst respecting its federal structure (there is no ‘head office’ as such).”
In consultations with the charity, it became clear that presenting itself as genuinely global was a key concern. “In identity terms, this meant something had to give – either the whole organisation had to adopt ‘ACF’ as its name, or each country should adopt ‘Action Against Hunger’ in its local language,” johnson banks explain. “We felt from the start that the full name was far more emotive, and clearly spelled out what they did.”
So the decision was made to use translations of Action Against Hunger in local languages.
In our interview with Michael Johnson about his new book on branding, Johnson emphasises the shift from brands having a ‘mission’ or ‘vision’ toward being able to answer the key question ‘why are we here’? For NGOs this can obviously be a deeper, more heartfelt conviction but nonetheless many such organisations can lose focus over time.
For AAH, johnson banks say they developed a “revised ambition – ‘for a world free from hunger’ – and a new brand narrative”. “We were looking for a rallying cry that could work in dozens of languages, and realised that there is a ‘for’ and ‘against’ in every language,” they explain. “Therefore a clear for/against theme emerged which is proving to be very flexible, links well to their name and offers a clear response to the question, ‘why are you here?’ ‘For action, against hunger’.”
Changing a much-loved symbol
Here johnson banks had to confront a very familiar issue – that longstanding staff and associates of the charity loved the existing symbol and felt great affinity for it. However, for those outside the NGO, the symbol wasn’t as clear as it could be.
“For decades, an illustrated plant and its root had been in use, and the organisation was in two minds about this,” johnson banks say. “For long-term employees, it had longevity and familiarity on its side. For newcomers and outsiders, it was confusing – was it a symbol for a farming organisation, or (in some people’s eyes) a marijuana leaf? After lengthy discussions, and one false start, we agreed that a visual mark was imperative to ‘glue’ the organisation together, and it needed to evolve from the old symbol in some way.”
Eventually a new symbol was agreed which is very much an evolution of the old one but which brings together the two key elements of what AAH provides – food and water. It also allows for the local language variants of the name to sit alongside.
Consistency and coherence
Global charities with very limited resources and multiple local associated organisations and activities often struggle to be consistent in their messaging. Complex identity systems that require all partners to be able to access and use multiple typefaces, for example, are often impractical.
For AAH, johnson banks created a simple system based around one typeface, Futura Bold, allied to free additional typefaces and a simple two-colour livery. “The interim work is being supplied via pdfs but will soon become part of a global hub of online design assets,” they explain. “Clear rules will allow emergency appeals, activities, initiatives and sub-brands to continue, yet within clearer restraints.”
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