Brand awareness is King! Or is it?

Published by Sean Triner on

AdvertisingSean Triner discusses why the traditional commercial approach to branding is fundamentally flawed when it comes to fundraising.

I think any money spent on brand awareness by a charity with a view to increasing fundraising income is absolutely and completely wasted.

I emphasise with a view to increasing fundraising income because I can imagine a scenario where a charity wants awareness for its mission, not for fundraising.

Examples include Amnesty International ‘Shedding light on human rights abuses’ and a suicide prevention charity getting the phone number in front of people.

Also, I am not arguing that better brand awareness is a bad thing for charity. It is just that when it comes to fundraising, spending money to raise brand awareness is a waste.

For many commercial brands investing money on pure brand awareness exercises seems to be good value. So why not charities?

For three reasons, the first two of which are superfluous if the third holds true.

1. We don’t spend enough

In Australia, a brand like Ford would likely spend in the region of $60m per annum on awareness. And this helps them maintain their ‘top of mind’ position. A new car manufacturer would have to spend probably twice that per annum for five years to begin to claw a way up to being comparable.

A charity spending $18,000 or even $500,000 on advertising would see its unprompted awareness score hardly move.

2. Good public fundraising raises awareness – amongst the right target audience

A successful cycle ride, street and door canvassers (face to face) asking for automatic donations, direct mail all raise money and awareness. Advertising online, on TV or ads asking prospective donors to ‘SMS for your free climate change action pack’, and then following them up with phone calls also raise money and awareness.

3. The difference between consumers donating and purchasing commercial products is fundamentally different.

So lets explore number three.

Lots of aspects of fundraising are similar to commercial organisations – i.e. the need for staying on top of cash flow, costs, results, testing etc. But where it is different is in the ‘Push – Pull’ relationship.

cola advertisingThe consumer approaches impulse items, like Coca Cola, as a PUSH .i.e., they go and buy a soft drink, and Coke is (or is not) their choice of beverage. They get a new car and choose between a Ford and a Toyota.

These brands spend millions on ‘Top of Mind’ marketing, which makes sense.

However, charity fundraising is different. Statistically speaking, people don’t give without being asked. The only exception is a media disaster story such as an earthquake, or, bizarrely, Princess Diana dying.

Outside of emergencies, fundraising is a pure PUSH exercise. Being top of mind definitely makes asking easier, but a charity that asks effectively and is not top of mind, beats the charity that is top of mind, but doesn’t ask effectively.

Even if being top of mind is worthwhile the problem then becomes in budget. A typical charity awareness budget is far too low than the millions required to move it up from, say 2.5% unprompted awareness (the accepted top of mind measure) to 5%. And that shift would make a negligible difference in ask success.

The final nail in the coffin for much awareness advertising is a point I made earlier. Effective fundraising (eg face to face, direct mail, phone) actually raises awareness anyway. Because of the income associated with it, this usually makes it more effective than any non-fundraising awareness activity.

Put simply, spending $300,000 on acquisition plus $100,000 on awareness is probably marginally more successful than spending only $300,000 on acquisition.

But spending $400,000 on acquisition would be even more successful, at least 20% more so, and possibly 33% better.

You could argue that ‘free’ awareness raising activity is good, and I would agree. Great PR, celebrity involvement, a football club event could be examples. But I would say just be really sure they were really free – what about the staff time, chasing, rearranging, agreeing contracts and volunteer management?

So please, if you want to fundraise, spend your hard earned budget on fundraising, not awareness.

What do you think?

Sean Triner

In 2002, Sean moved to Australia and joined forces with Australian data-expert, Paul Roberts, to form Pareto Fundraising. Their ambition was to apply what they had learned from years of pushing the boundaries in the UK to help Australia’s best charities increase their income and donor bases beyond their dreams. Challenging, fun and always practical, Sean is an energetic speaker who leaves conference, seminar and Masterclass attendees inspired, motivated and buzzing with brilliant ideas about how to take their fundraising to the next level. Sean is also a ‘trained’(!) stand up comedian, deadly snake rescuer and story teller. Useful skills for presenting and article writing.


Paul Delbar · September 15, 2014 at 16:51

I’ve read this piece three times and I’m still confused. I get the feeling you are oversimplifying things …

Of course, if there is no ask, there is no result. Even Ford and Coca-Cola have to create selling opportunities. But it is hardly fair to compare most nonprofit brands to these large brands. If you are in diabetes research funding, being top of mind IS important — with the right audience.

Judging from the budgets you quote, are you not confusing focused actions to make your organization known to key stakeholders with mass-media campaigns to reach ‘everybody’ ?

Stephen Pidgeon · September 15, 2014 at 20:30

Spot on Sean, I agree entirely but I might suggest one more difference to a commercial brand. In any charity brand is encompassed all the wonderful things that the charity achieves. But that’s only half the brand, the other half is that it’s a charity so it first has to raise the money in order to do those wonderful things. So, unlike a commercial brand, a charity brand has two parts. And luckily, it’s dead simple to get that latter bit over to the public, you simply have to ask for money. That’s the clearest way of saying you’re a charity. Asking for money actually adds to the brand experience. Most Comms folk I’ve met find that a bit distasteful.

Sean Triner · September 15, 2014 at 23:34

Hi Paul
Sorry it is confusing, should have got a better editor.
But I am not disagreeing with you – focused awareness amongst your target audience is indeed important; and best achieved by direct marketing rather than broad public awareness.

Sean Triner · September 15, 2014 at 23:36

For a more thorough exploration of this issue check out
The Money-raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving by Jeff Brooks.

Tom Ahern · September 16, 2014 at 14:50

There are exceptions, of course. PETA’s brilliant use of celebrities and ghastliness to outrage and energize generated extraordinary awareness (and donor income) at relatively small cost, thanks to the multiplying effect of a rapt media in love with shock. But … too often, awareness and direct marketing are viewed as equally plausible by the powers that be, in terms of fundraising potential. They are not equals at all. Awareness in ordinary (non-PETA, non-brilliant) hands is a lovely way to spend good money for almost no return on investment. Simple truth. Chasing brand awareness should be the last thing considered by a charity, not the first.

    Sean Triner · September 16, 2014 at 23:11

    Indeed, PETA is a good example of making something like this work, though it combined direct as well as awareness.

    Check out these two brilliant, old direct ads. Both are direct response, but would have also achieved awareness (as per my second point in the article). I don’t know if PETA would have followed up responders with an ask, but I imagine so.
    I reckon they could work now, (with or without Chelsea Clinton!) http://bit.ly/PETA-direct1

    The PETA ‘send for free…’ element of their ads is genius, and working well for many charities these days. In fact, it is one of the biggest areas of revenue growth for many charities in UK, Spain and Australia. We follow up the leads with phone calls, mail and email for regular gifts.

    Having ads with direct calls to action is, to me, direct marketing – it can be directly and specifically measured against responses per media or per ad. Which is very different from public awareness advertising.

    PETA still use cool, non direct ads for charitable purpose. Here is a modern (2012) PETA ad. I have no idea if is working as well as the hard hitting genius of the 90s.

    PETA was a perfect storm, with thoughtful awareness ads combining with direct response to succeed (I’d love to know how much it raised) but it is a rare example. On the other hand, direct has loads of examples.

    Greenpeace’s superb face to face program over the last couple of decades, Action Aid’s self mailer and Amnesty’s direct mail in the 90s, Cancer Research UK and NSPCCs direct response TV ads in the 00s.

    So I agree that, for fundraising, chasing brand awareness should be the last thing considered by a charity, not the first.

    Anyone else with any great examples of other public awareness campaigns working?

Harvey McKinnon · September 16, 2014 at 22:02

It pains me to agree with any Australian, especially you, of course, but I totally agree with you Sean. We had a former client who gave a major ad agency $1,000,000 to raise money, and “build brand awareness”. Total money raised $7,000. why the entire communications and marketing team were not fired is beyond me.

A few years ago Canadian International NGOS did a brand recognition survey. Oxfam and Unicef topped it. They had 5 times the name recognition of World Vision! Yet World Vision raised 4 times more money from the public than both Oxfam and Unicef combined. I prefer money and donors to awareness any day, thank you very much.

Lo Jarl · September 17, 2014 at 23:18

At least in Sweden there are different types of charities. Some rely heavily on governmental funding or funding from large donors and possibly in cooperation with various commercial brands. Others rely almost completely on private donors.

Obviously it is more important for a charity that is governmentally funded to show their face and make people beleive that the tax money are well spent. For the small charities that get their funds from individuals who want to make a difference, direct fundraising is the only option, there wouldn’t be any money for the branding anyway.

What about Greenpeace? Would you say they are branding at times or constantly fundraising through their actions?

Simone Joyaux · September 20, 2014 at 01:37

Another angle… adding my voice to Harvey, Tom, Jeff and Stephen… And Sean…

I’m amused (or annoyed) by the “awareness/visibility” thing. Just because I’m aware your NGO exists does not mean that I care.

And I brand you. You can do all the awareness stuff you want … but the way you treat me, my personal experience with you is what matters. That’s your brand to me.

Kim Power · February 12, 2015 at 07:30

Sean, this is very helpful. We are a small, OK, tiny charity that has nevertheless managed to get authorisation as an overseas aid organisation and full DGR status. But we don’t have budgets anything like you are discussing. But we are investing in new methods of fundraising and I’ll look forward to following the blog.

Mike Mansfield · August 14, 2015 at 15:50

Sean – interesting stuff.

Of course charitable organisations should not invest in brand awareness campaigns, and yes a strong fundraising campaign with tick the brand and fundraising boxes far better, but I am not sure I agree with your assertion that “Outside of emergencies, fundraising is a pure PUSH exercise.” This appears to the basis for your argument and I am really not sure this is the case.

More and more donors are giving without being directly asked. Fundraising, like all forms of ‘modern’ marketing must become interruptive than disruptive and the relationship between donor and charity needs more balance.

While I agree with some of the narrative, I believe the gap between commercial marketing and charity fundraising is blurring. Donors are telling us that more and more, they want value for money. They are more discerning and a simple ‘please give’ message is not good enough.

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