Charity, brand drag and the abject

How brand becomes the enemy of impact in charitiable settings.

At an instinctive level I have always hated the idea of brand. Being a complexifier who thinks that life is innnately and gloriously messy, that categories are adaptive and fuzzy and that people are a lot less rational than we plan to, the urge of brand practice to create single truths for organisations in image, word and journey can create unindented consquences that can have a profound effect on a charities ability to be, well, charitable.

Let's be clear about what branding tries to do - it's a way of trying to isolate the organisations idelaised version of itslef from its own messy reality. There is no brand that completely aligns with it's stated values, from Google to Dyson it's a moments work to point out an inconsistency between ideal and practice. We kinda accept that, particualry in charity where our intentions are always pretty good. In charity we aren't branding or telling a story that omits the basic function - to make someone else money.

But in charity there are ways that we can let branding – and the measurement of brand – materially effect the abilty of the charity to do the work it says that it wants to do.

Charites have become increasingly business-like. There are drives towards efficiency that are most often driven by staff come over from the business world where true north is always profit. And efficiency is something that makes a charity easier to support - that little graphic that says 95% of our money goes to the end user and 3% goes to making the next pound - is driven by that. Efficiency is a critical factor in the fundraising equation - much easier to quatify than the effectiveness or outcomes that the charities activities actually deliver.

That's because Charities supposedly work on impact but actually they are organised around governance – you have to assure the donors and the charities commission that the money is well managed. Governance is easier to do and measure than impact, so, by default, most charities are hot on it but struggle to be able to articulate outright impact on people's lives.

So, in terms of staying around, the value of brand is that it gives you a percentage of attention in the market which you then try to convert, as efficiently as possible, into income and pass as much of that on as you efficiently can into some kind of activity that you can talk about.

That is the governance and efficiency model of charity - top down, ROI led, KPI driven, where data gives you the next frontier to be charitable in and brand creates a singularity of mission that people can relate to and back.

The other model of charity is that of the abject. Here's the first definition that a 10 second web search got me:

"The term Abjection literally means "the state of being cast off." The concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. In contemporary critical theory, it is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as prostitutes, homosexuals, convicts, poor people, handicapped persons and astrologers. This term originated in the works of Julia Kristeva. Often, the term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abject things or beings inhabit."

For my purposes here the abject are the marginalised and actively discarded. If you think that the UK society does not actively discard people then we have a chat about that some other time. It's pretty clear that pile of the abject is a considerable percentage of the population. To give names to these groups (fuzzy categories and intersectionality allowing) the disabled, immigrants, LGBTQ+, the white poor, traveller communities, people of non-white ethnicity and of course, the sick. Let's get historic and gothic and choose the image of the leper - someone who is alive but doomed to death, ignored, shunned even blamed for their own disease, existing in a deep pain that could be relived to some degree.

There are people who see the abject and respond. They have a profound empathy. They are nurses and CAB advisors and family members and people on the street who will help.

So there's some interesting things going on when you look at things this way. First both systems can and usually do exist in the same organisation and one will hold sway more than another for periods of time. Most charities are literally split down the middle with the Efficient charity sitting in head office and the Empathetic charity on the 'edges' (eg where people actually do their charitable work). I would also say that the value of the charity in its work with the abject is almost entirely carried by the empathy set, with an element of structural improvement from the efficiency crew.

Contrary to this Charities tend to want to present as monocultures. They want to have 'shared values' or 'our values' as if a few words can sum up the lifelong journey of a worker who puts their hat in the ring, or rally them more than the lived experience that motivated them to join. There is a kind of culture shock when you come into a big-brand charity; you come because of the empathy and then have to deal with the efficiency culture. It's not always a comfortable experience.

I could spend a while shooting holes in company value statements but let's just say they fulfil the same role as christmas cards - it's nice that you thought of me but really the message itself is empty content. What does it mean when head office tells me my shared values are  Courage / strength / ambition / fortitude / whatever / whenever when I am on the edge, dealing with the abject? For many (not all) it's an insult. Someone from an agency has interviewed 'the stakeholders' which hopefully include some on the edge, then 'ideate' (shoot me now) and then research the effect of those words on the giving public.

But let's move on. The problem with stories told again and again is that they tend to become legends and then you tend to assume they are truth. One of the stories that brand depts or agencies like to tell is that it has increased your recognition in the community by a certain amount, that your brand has 80% recognition in the market. This is of course a very good thing when your model depends on a percentage conversion of that large figure into someone 'likely to give'.

And it is very easy as an organisation to mistake that percentage of market recognition to be an absolute good. And because it is significantly easier to talk about market recognition than impact  -  because those pesky abject just want to get on with lives, or are not being surveyed, or don't have a persistent internet connection, or are simply invisible  -  it becomes dogma and a measure of actual success.

A simple thought experiment shows how ineffective brand recognition is a single metric: Maybe you recognise the Nike label. Great. Now do you associate Nike with leading edge sportswear or worker exploitation? There is a percentage who will surely think the later - eg that the brand is toxic for them. One person's food is another's poison.

Brands of course are meant to be idelogically neutral or positive, but they aren't. Brand recognition is not a measure of impact, it just shows you a literal truth - hey consumer, do you know who this is?


Ok, job done.

So I have seen this happen and the effect of it is that you think you are reaching people with the right story and they will see you in a positive light and then use your (excellent and entirely free) services right?


Like our example of Nike the brand might, just might, have a negative impact on a substantial percentage of your audience. Your brand might be seen as elitist, or for 'home counties' only, or unfriendly to populations or, worse, actively misunderstanding the needs and context of my community. I could give examples but you get the idea - the Brand has a net negative impact on the organsations reach and impact.

Ouch. Wheres the line for that in your annual report?

So, is that the charity's fault? Well it is the fault of monolithic branding, which is to say all branding because branding aspires to the monolithic and singular. This is where you then get into umbrella brands, brand patterns, antibrands (Brew dog) and all that, this is where the case study is meant to help, this is where the agency comes in and gives you insights on ways to update your brand. I suspect in due course to see a pitch where an agency is creating mirco brand programmatically at a local level that factors in socio economic and other factors and then uses AI to create, test and deliver those down to the postcode level - this would even dynamically colour, design and select layouts. Even as I write that I am aware that, simply becase I can write it and adtech is so banally evil, it will already be happening.

So what if that monolithic brand was alienting people you wanted to reach? What would you do to correct it? For a start you would put up your hand and stop pretending that the brand worked for you in all instances. Would you then abandon the brand for a new one? Would you then just repeat the same mistakes becasue of history and group think? Would you try to dress up your brand with different assets to fit that community? That's what I would call 'Brand drag', and not in a good way.

You would probably start by making sure that your complete organisational stack had representation of the communnities you were trying to reach in it, not just signalling representation but employing it and having it run things. That would probably be profoundly uncomfortable. It would mean bringing the abject into the house not only for healing, but for direction.

Imagine that, listening and working with the people who are trying to help. Creating actual in person partnerships. Sounds like hard work, sounds like you are going to have to step outside the brand castle - but what else are you going to do, become increasingly irrelevent, relentlessly pursue efficicency and twiddle with your brand values every three years?