Birds Eye View

What can commercial brands learn from charities?

By Rebecca Bedding, Senior Account Manager 

Throughout my time working in the charity sector I was part of many conversations asking ‘what can we learn from commercial brands here?’ – particularly when working in innovation. That out-of-sector perspective is definitely a valuable one – it’s helped the sector develop and move forward, but it soon becomes too easy to assume that commercial status and big budgets is the only indication of shiny new things and pioneering ideas. In a world that’s increasingly demanding more than just profit from its corporate world, for-profit businesses could benefit from taking a look at what they can learn from the third sector.

41% of consumers say that environmental and social consciousness is their key criteria when making a purchase (Brain, 2021). It’s a stat you just love to see – consumers are demanding that brands go beyond just posting some green credentials on their site. The growth of b-corps and purpose-led brands means that having purpose baked into the meaning of your brand is becoming an expectation, not just a nice-to-have (we’ll explore this more in a coming article!).

Purpose, meaning, passion – this is all charity bread and butter. I’ve worked for and with a number of charities and I can truly say that every one of them was driven by passion for their cause, from the outside in. So great is purpose in this sector, that most often a charity’s very aim is drive itself out of business – the ultimate confirmation of successful social change, we don’t need to come to work tomorrow! When it gets to the end of the year, it’s not this year’s bonus the finance team is announcing – it’s the number of people impacted by the work of you and the people around you. It’s a fantastic feeling.

And this drive translates to every piece of communication these charities send out into the world. When a piece of comms finds the right audience, you already have something in common; ‘we both have a passion for this to change’. And it’s this that leads to loyalty. A previous Kite Factory piece from Charley Day looks at the significantly stronger retention rates that the charity sector sees in comparison to commercial brands – and in tough times, like a cost of living crisis, it’s loyalty that will see brands through.

But this can’t mean every brand on the shelf defaulting to yet another digital loyalty scheme. We’re already drowning in ‘points’ in so many forms – Clubcard, Nectar, Chilli, Boots, Pret Perks. So much so that you’d think that by the time it comes to choosing our toilet paper, points and loyalty would go out the window and we’d go where price leads us. Yet pop into the loo of so many homes, you’ll see the distinct pattern of ‘Who Gives a Crap’ toilet paper sitting there on the shelf. And the thing that kept us there beyond the ‘refer a friend scheme’ – aside from being able to play toilet themed Where’s Wally on the loo – was purpose. Knowing that the money we’re paying truly makes a difference. It’s why in 2020, Who Gives A Crap’s record $5.85m donation was a huge 75% increase from the previous year (SmartCompany).

If brands spoke with the transparency and authenticity charities do, if they baked purpose into the core of their brand – would we trust them more? Would we stick around?

However, it’s one thing having purpose behind your brand – it’s another being able to effectively tell people about it. And this leads us to another lesson from the charity sector – impact storytelling. Storytelling is at the heart of effective fundraising. When communicating with supporters, a common mantra is ‘take us out of it, connect people with people’. Charity comms, when done well, tell compelling stories that inspire people to take an action that go beyond ‘what’s in it for me’ – they join movements, they donate, they volunteer, they advocate. Tapping into what really drives people, the things that tap into their emotions – it means that people go above and beyond, they take action.

Ever-changing audiences are crying out for ethical purchasing opportunities, and creating this ‘people to people’ connection, rather than ‘people to company’, is going to be a gamechanger. Commercial brands can learn a lot from not-for-profits and their decades of experience looking beyond the behavioural and ‘how’ people buy, but at what drives people to buy. Being able to resonate with consumers at this level will leads to emotional connections that drive brand loyalty.

Charities live and breathe purpose, they communicate in ways that often mobilise tens of thousands of new supporters every year – and they often do this on a truly shoestring budget. Charity marketing teams have become experts in being resourceful in spend, looking at ways to achieve their goals with fewer resources. This requires a creativity and innovation that we most commonly see in our charity clients rather than commercial – a willingness to try new things to answer if this will help make the budget go further. In recent years charities have been forced to adapt their product offering to remain relevant to younger audiences – innovation culture ramped up and spread throughout the sector. In addition to this, charities know they have to compete in the market for voice against much larger budgets – they know that stand out is the only way forward and have become willing to test and innovate in order to get there.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the change driven by the charity sector – one of innovation and ever-growing movements of people, all driven by purpose and a passion for social change. And we’re seeing this purpose leak into the commercial world, driving growth in b-corps and purpose-led brands prioritising doing good for the world alongside doing good for shareholders. For those companies losing relevance with younger audiences, struggling to keep up with their demands, I’d advise you get in touch with the third sector and ask them for advice on these three things – innovation, storytelling and, most importantly, purpose.

In the  final article of the series, Rebecca looks at the (unintended) impact of purpose-led brands.