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Charity rebranding on less than a shoe string

The chances are you’ve never heard of NAAPS UK, which for almost 20 years had been the national network for an equally under-appreciated form of social care which used to be known as Adult Placement (the ‘AP’ in NAAPS), but more recently as ‘Shared Lives’. (In Shared Lives, an adult in need of support is matched with a compatible registered Shared Lives carer, and they share family and community life, in relationships which can be life-long.)

NAAPS had 4,000 members but was always a very small organisation, and never broke into the public consciousness. When I became Chief Exec in June 2010, it was no surprise to hear calls for a re-brand. It also didn’t take long to tire of people asking if it was a charity for sleep disorders, or a kind of Danish biscuit. This is my first Chief Exec’s role, but I’d been in the sector long enough to know that rushing into a rebrand  was not an uncommon way for new CEOs to wade into poorly understood politics and end up leaving rapidly, pursued by angry members.

So I approached the prospect of rebranding with caution. Soon after joining the organisation, I attended a seminar on rebranding. Two charities talked about their rebranding experiences. The “shoe string” example had cost around £50,000; a not unreasonable amount given that charity’s strong reliance on individual giving, but still about £50,000 more than we had available. The speaker from a large national charity declined to give a figure, but said it ran into the low millions. It was hard not to wonder whether the large charity couldn’t have raised more awareness of its brand (which remains relatively under-exposed) by spending millions on its core work, rather than on brand research and a rather low key change of name.

Some years ago I lived through a disastrous top-down re-branding attempt, which started with name and logo, at a time when stakeholders were concerned about quality and direction. So I was keen that we put the question of what we should be called to one side whilst we had a discussion with members about what we were and should aim to be. There was a clear consensus on our values, mission and aims, including that one of those aims should be raising awareness. There was recognition that our tiny staff team worked hard and did a huge amount on very little. The recent expansion of our membership categories and the launch of a sister organisation was still causing some confusion amongst core members.

Furthermore, the individual Shared Lives carers who were the vast majority of our members and our main raison d’etre, were least involved with steering our work, despite a rigorously democratic structure of committees and governance. It was this group we most needed to include in key discussions.

We took as much pro bono advice as we could. We decided to take it as read that awareness was universally low, without researching the issue. A market research expert helped us design stakeholder questionnaires to test ideas, first about key messages, then later on, possible names. Pro bono advice on company and charity law confirmed that it’s surprisingly easy to change a charity and company’s name. Have a vote, fill in a couple of forms online and you’re done. The riskier bit is ensuring no one else has prior claim to the brand and bagging as many possible domain names as possible. A trademark lawyer advised us that we probably didn’t need his services as our proposed names were not in themselves trademark-able. Our logo could be registered, but risks were low and that would be something we could do ourselves if we wished. (“I’ve got a story I tell to paying clients, but, basically, it’s common sense.”)

The most useful advice was that, if you are a low budget organisation representing little-known and hard to explain services, then “keep it simple, stupid”: look for a name and strapline combination which gives some idea of what we and our members do, and hints at our values. We drew up a table of possible names and straplines, with columns for each of our USPs to make it easier to see which phrases ticked our boxes. The danger of this approach is that long-winded names and straplines tick the most boxes, but it was useful for focusing us on our key messages, rather than what just sounded nice.

A USP of Shared Lives is that, through helping people settle in an ordinary family household, it can provide a sense of belonging, in contrast to living in a more traditional ‘service’. So we felt “Belonging UK” was short and catchy and it seemed to play well with national stakeholders. I was looking forward to the story it would allow me to tell about members’ work and how it was different to alternatives. This was where going back to our members for what one agency describes as “disaster checking” became vital: most Shared Lives carers hated the idea. There was also a strong feeling from some members that the phrase ‘Shared Lives’ had better feature prominently, or else. Given that mandate and the opposing need to be inclusive of our diversified membership, our options were really very few.

So we arrived at ‘Shared Lives Plus’, strapline: the UK network for small community services. It’s not particularly flashy, but it gives some idea of what we do and why. People either ask, “What’s Shared Lives?” or “What’s the ‘Plus’?” Either way, it’s a good conversation. We held our AGM at a special conference for Shared Lives carers to ensure that our core membership had the opportunity to vote on the change, which was carried almost unanimously. Rather than a pictorial logo, we opted for a ‘wordmark’, which was provided by our retained designer as part of his £200 per month contract. Likewise, our web company changed the logo within their contracted support hours. We replaced some ancient banners and we are ordering new leaflets as part of natural stock replacement. Our biggest extravagance was indulging in some branded biros.

As well as holding a short ceremony at our biennial members’ conference, we had a new government-backed document to launch at an external conference which generated coverage in the national press. We were aiming for a report based on a survey of the impact of our members’ work, but lacked enough responses in time for the launch date, so we are making that part of a programme of post-rebrand marketing over the coming months, which our new colleague in the organisation’s first dedicated communications post will lead on.

We overspent our £0 budget, but only by £610 (on domain names, banners, biros). Our members, touch wood, seem happy with the process and the new name, but mainly happy that we didn’t squander money we don’t have on an issue many of them regard as a distraction.

The process was, however, consistently anxiety-provoking. The feeling of “winging it” on such a risky issue was not at all comfortable. I came to the conclusion that you spend thousands on rebranding to make managers and Trustees feel better about the risks involved, even if you would have reached much the same end point by yourselves.

My top tips for less-than-shoestring rebranding:

  1. With members, start by establishing clear, shared messages about your work.
  2. Changes to a charity’s name are a great lightning rod for disaffection: expect long-held resentments to surface. That can be a good thing.
  3. Get as much free advice as possible before spending any money.
  4. Settle for a good-enough name, rather than spending months and a fortune searching for a sexy one, which some people will hate in any case.
  5. Disaster-check with your least-easily-pleased members. Hear unwelcome messages.
  6. The launch day itself is of little interest to the outside world; plan awareness-raising and marketing activity for the weeks and months following the re-launch.

Those are my top tips – you may disagree or have your own. Either way, l’d be interested to hear from you.

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