What’s in a name? Just about everything

‘Action’ on this, ‘beating’ that: in their naming and branding, charities are becoming much clearer about what they do and why. Michael Johnson of johnson banks charts the development of this new, ‘active’ approach in the sector

‘Action’ on this, ‘beating’ that: in their naming and branding, charities are becoming much clearer about what they do and why. Michael Johnson of johnson banks charts the development of this new, ‘active’ approach in the sector

15 years ago if I’d told you that in 2013 the charity sector would be one of the most vibrant, challenging and competitive branding sectors, you’d have laughed in my face. Because any notion of ‘branding’ was virtually non-existent. Charities had logos, yes, but they sat meekly in corners. Occasionally ad agencies were crowbarred into doing a poster, but usually in that we’ll-do-you-a-great-ad-that-will-win-us-awards-and-you’ll-be-grateful type of arrangement.

Slowly the market began to change. Charities began to understand that if they were unclear about what they stood for, so were their ‘customers’. And who exactly were their customers anyway?


The first rebrands were subtle rather than dramatic. Ten years ago, when asked to chip in on Shelter’s repositioning, our design route was only intended as a simple update of a 30-year-old logo (with the ‘h’ slipped in for good measure, see above). Their name was never queried – after all, ‘Shelter’ for a housing and homelessness charity couldn’t be beaten.

But imagine if your name actually doesn’t convey what you do? Or can’t be remembered, or, worst still, confuses people. What do you do then?

In 2004, a project by Landor in the USA opened many eyes to a new way of communicating when the impossibly acronymed YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) adopted a new strapline: ‘eliminating racism, empowering women’. No big surprise there, but the breakthrough was its scale – three times the size of YWCA and above it, not below (see image, top). Overnight, an organization was starting to tell people what they did and why, on every single thing they put into print or pixel.



Macmillan identity and campaign by Wolff Olins


The tipping point in the UK came when large charities began to ‘activate’ their names in a similar way. Macmillan Cancer Research amended their name to Macmillan Cancer Support, then incorporated it into a series of ‘we’ statements. Backed up by a relatively big adspend, we all soon saw ‘We are Macmillan’.

The positioning and questioning language used by their consultants, Wolff Olins, as an internal clarification exercise (‘so what is it that you actually do, and what do you offer?’) had all of a sudden gone public. The idea was that the ‘We’ was all of us. And ‘we are all Macmillan’.

Now you can debate whether this thinking has genuinely permeated, but there’s no doubt that YWCA and Macmillan made people see how charity brands could become active, campaigning schemes in their own right and perhaps negate the need for ‘advertising’ in the traditional sense.

Just a quick skim across the sector reveals a vast amount of activity in the last decade. Many UK charities have looked at themselves, what they do, how they say it, and worked out how to say it better.

The Anthony Nolan Trust changed its name to simply Anhony Nolan, with branding by johnson banks


Sometimes the verbal changes have been minor – The Anthony Nolan Trust has simply shortened to ‘Anthony Nolan‘. But now they talk about matching bone marrow and saving lives, not leukaemia – the difference is in the messages, not the name.


Parkinson’s UK by The Team


Others have taken an easy – but increasingly generic – route of attaching the ‘UK’ suffix to a version of their old name. So the Parkinson’s Disease Society removed both ‘disease’ and ‘society’ (both difficult and sometimes ‘turn-off’ words) and shortened to Parkinson’s UK.

Look around and the ‘UK’s’ have taken over. National Kidney Research Fund? Kidney Research UK. The solution to the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged? Age UK (promptly followed by Age International). And most recently The Prostate Cancer Charity has become Prostate Cancer UK.



The Prostate Cancer Charity before (l) and after Hat-Trick’s new identity and name change


Some of this activity is debatable, and it’s too early to tell if all these facelifts and all that ‘UK-ness’ will have a genuine effect. But the signs are that when combined with stronger messages and communications (such as Parkinson’s adoption of ‘change attitudes, find a cure, join us’ or Prostate Cancer’s Sledgehammer Fund) it can lead to awareness going up, and more money coming in.


Action for Children by Baby Creative


Another trend is ‘action’ and various ‘action’ prefixes. The London Association for the Blind became ‘Action for blind people’. Then National Children’s Homes finally became Action for Children in 2008 after trying ‘NCH’ for a while. You may not like the ‘action for…’ wording (and at the time, neither did the ‘Action for Kids’ charity who felt it a little close for comfort), but there’s no doubt it’s a much more active phrase.



The RNID changes to Action on Hearing Loss. Design and branding by Hat-Trick


Another organization saddled with a difficult name was the RNID, always confused with birds or the blind, but actually the hard of hearing (as in Royal National Institute for the Deaf). Their problem? Just 4% awareness amongst the general public. Their solution? ‘Action on Hearing Loss’. A bit clumsy, perhaps, but at least it’s less confusing.

Where this thinking will go next is hard to predict: for example there are only a few ‘beating’ charities at the moment (Beating Bowel Cancer, Beating Eating Disorders) but that list will probably grow. Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research should probably really just change their name to their strapline, ‘Beating Blood Cancers’, if they truly want people to understand what they do.

We’re putting the finishing touches now to a scheme for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, who, whilst well known in the cystic fibrosis community, suffers from low awareness amongst the general public. In early meetings we spotted the ‘is’ at the end of ‘fibrosis’, and suggested a scheme that always explained what it is. This ensures that the logo is always a statement of intent, allowing them to become a well defined, ‘active’ brand virtually overnight.

So we’re artworking nearly 40 different ‘logos’, varying from campaigning (Cystic Fibrosis a fight we must win) to fundraising (Cystic Fibrosis counting on your support) to those explaining it in more detail (Cystic Fibrosis a sticky, painful, suffocating condition). Depending on the tone and message they require, they’ll swiftly be able to adjust each leaflet, poster, web page or banner accordingly.


Alzheimer’s Australia by Interbrand Australia


Perhaps going forward we’ll also see more schemes like the recently developed Alzheimer’s Australia, which places words around the core words to activate them, such as ‘Fight Alzheimer’s, Save Australia’, and so on.


I Amsterdam by KesselsKramer


Be.Brussels by Base Design


There are signs that this kind of thinking is creeping into the cultural and education sectors too. Kesselkramer’s ‘I Amsterdam’ campaign was a great, early example, and now, after a shortish drive you can Be Brussels too or, if you go a bit further, be Berlin. The New Museum’s ‘sandwich’ approach to their name, and what they do, activates in series of different ways, as does The University of Westminster’s (and now The University of Plymouth’s too).



New Museum by Wolff Olins

University of Westminster by Jane Wentworth Associates/Hat-Trick


Plymouth University by Here Design/Buddy


What is clear is that many of these examples are blurring the lines between identity, branding, advertising and communications – the core brands remain central and become the launch pad for entire schemes, never pushed back into the corner and back to anonymity. These changes cost money, but in many cases the funds and awareness raised quickly offset the outlay.

Perhaps soon, the blue chip sector will look at these ideas and follow suit. But that would mean loosening their ‘logo guidelines’ and allowing their brands to communicate…

Now, wouldn’t that be something?



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