Is working out your brand positioning and your brand’s target audience a waste of time?

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

Well, there’s a provocative question or two. But I’d suggest the answer is yes, it probably is.

It all started with a throw-away comment from a client, that a year after working out their ideal target audience, only 17% of their newly-recruited supporters had actually fitted their desired demographic profile. Bad? You’d think so, when that’s probably little better than the normal distribution of the population at large. What on earth can have gone wrong?

The thing is, marketing in the commercial world starts from a different place than it does in the charity sector. In commercial marketing, which is essentially about selling stuff, you have to work out who on earth might be in the market for your stuff (your target audience), and then you make sure your brand, as the wrapper for your stuff, is attractive to that target audience. Then you advertise it to those people, where they will tend to see it. Advertising drives your target consumer audience to a point of sale and tries to influence their choice of brand for the stuff they are thinking about buying anyway. However, at that point of sale is all the other similar stuff you are up against, which is where your brand positioning comes in. You have to set your own stuff and wrapper apart from the others. You have to make yours stand out, so you get chosen.  (I simplify, obvs, but that’s pretty much how it works).

Define-Target-AudienceCharities, however, have no stuff to sell. They have no point of sale. They are not lined up on a shelf waiting for a consumer to choose between them because no-one goes shopping to give. Advertising doesn’t help much, but direct marketing does, with its immediate call to action and response, and that’s why charities are pretty good at it. We need supporters to make their decision now, to respond now, to do it now, because otherwise, the moment is lost and they won’t. With charity fundraising, that first interaction IS the point of sale.

Back in the day direct marketing was just about direct mail and mailing lists, with a few print ads thrown in. Before we knew it, we had an idea of our average charity donor – mostly female of an age either side of retirement, and of a certain level of affluence. And they became our target audience, because they were the ones who gave and we wanted more people like them. Except the logic was flawed. They were the ones who gave in response to direct mail, because they were the ones on the catalogue and magazine lists we used. It came as something of a surprise to find that people who responded to TV were more diverse in age and less affluent (people who watch TV during the day or late at night – figure it out). And face-to-face can’t attract those people for love nor money, they are altogether younger, and if the talk on the street is anything to go by, often the opposite gender to whoever is asking.

So, having a target audience in mind doesn’t really help, if you don’t have the means to reach them. And that’s the story of my perplexed charity client’s 17%.  Their supporter recruitment was all TV and face-to-face. These methods didn’t reach their ideal target audience.

Of course, I’m not saying all targeting is a waste of time. It’s essential to have an idea who you’re communicating with. And with products, such as events, doing that classic approach does work. You create an event for an audience, and give it a brand that will appeal. Think of Movember for men, or Race for Life for women, or even the built-from-scratch charity brand FXCK CANCER for the cool kids on social media.

But on the whole, who you get is largely a function of who you can reach and the channels that work when you recruit. So worrying about the ideal target audience for your brand might be interesting, but not that useful. And rather than worry about standing out with a differentiated brand proposition, you’d do better concentrating on working out your story so it powerfully stops the person you’re talking to in their tracks, and leaves them no alternative but be moved to support your cause.

What do you think?


Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Adrian Salmon · November 13, 2014 at 19:28

Hi Matthew – great post! Funnily enough for the charity you’ve cited, the answer may be that it wasn’t a waste of time, because they now know that, like Bellocq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they were digging in the wrong place? I.e. missing out on the people most likely to be loyal supporters by relying on the wrong acquisition channels?

    Matthew · November 14, 2014 at 00:43

    Thanks Adrian. Yes, that’s true. An expensive lesson! As I say, deciding on a target audience is a waste if you don’t have the means to reach them. Or as you say, if you go looking in the wrong place!

Mike Zywina · November 15, 2014 at 16:04

Hi Matthew – thanks very much for an interesting read.

I agree with you (to an extent) that spending a lot of time trying to work out your ideal target audience is ineffective if you are unable to reach those people. However I don’t agree that the principles for charities are always so completely different to the commercial world.

Yes – a lot of the time people don’t “go shopping to give”. But what about when somebody is confronted with a drop-down list of charities to choose from for a third party challenge event that they’re interested in? Or if they to have a house clearance and want to give some items or the proceeds of a sale to a charity? How do people decide, over many years or even decades, to leave a legacy in their will?

My point is that there are plenty of situations in which people face decisions about which charity to support. These decisions are not always cast in stone and smart marketing – including deciding what type of person to go after and spend your time and money trying to impress – can influence them heavily. Even if most people don’t firstly make a general decision to make a charitable decision then secondly pick a charity, sometimes there will still be a decision to make.

I’ve worked with plenty of charities who have received a lot of money because they were the first charity that sprang to mind for a donor or fundraiser who was in a position to give. If the charity hadn’t have got their marketing right, they might have missed this opportunity!

    Matthew Sherrington · November 17, 2014 at 22:03

    Thanks Mike. The argument you’re making is about profile and awareness, which obviously helps those charities that have it. But I’d suggest that the energy going behind brand advertising and worrying about target audience for brand messages, is a relatively new phenomenon among bigger non-profits, in the face of a more professional and busy environment. All charities pursue profile through media activity. And I think there’s a case for suggesting that the marketing you mention is often fundraising activity, and that most of today’s largest charity brands built their profile through effective and large-scale fundraising activity, not brand marketing. People decide to leave legacies when successful supporter engagement over years keeps the organisation front of mind.

Gavin Coopey · November 17, 2014 at 01:22

Hi Matthew
Great blog. I agree that we don’t work along the same lines as marketing in the commercial world where they identify audiences by demographics which often defines need. However, our audiences can identified by motivations and communications that connect with those motivations. So, if we can gain a greater understanding of the messages that work best to attract, motivate and retain our best existing audiences, then we can use these to ensure we have the best chance of gaining more when used in any context. The challenge is that many charities don’t even understand their existing supporters motivations and the benefits that can come from targeting these better – let alone the direction it gives for our communications in attracting more.

    Matthew Sherrington · November 17, 2014 at 22:10

    Thanks Gavin. I’d agree, using an understanding of supporter motivations to inform the tone of communications is great, even essential. With existing supporters, there’s no excuse – we should be using whatever insight we can, even if we’re too small to afford a lot of research, from feedback and so on. But what I think your addressing is really my last point: concentrate on working out your story so it is is as compelling as possible. If it works for existing supporters, it’s got a great chance of inspiring others. But that isn’t developing a target audience for your brand.

      James · December 30, 2014 at 16:30

      Hi Matthew, as ever an interesting thought piece.

      I’d very much agree with your basic premise that charities are far better placed to adopt a ‘magnet’ strategy – i.e. creating a very powerful and clear brand promise (or brand belief) and draw people towards it, rather than a more commercially minded approach whereby they create a proposition that mirrors the audience’s perceptions and motivations that they’re trying to attract.

      However I do wonder whether this approach is increasingly being questioned by the growing number of campaigns that are engaging audiences in ways where the cause or beliefs of the organization are less central to the creative idea. Campaigns such as Dryathlon to STC’s Jumper campaign to FOE’s big picture campaign seem to me to be rooted in a marketing approach that is audience driven, rather than cause driven – by which I mean consumer insight is the starting point (how can we add value to someone’s life), and then develop the message, rather than the more traditional ‘who could be interested in hearing our story’.

      I think these new approaches are a breath of fresh air and brilliantly ensure the causes remain relevant to a younger demographic. They do however raise important questions (repeatability, migrating new supporters through the traditional supporter relationship approach etc) – however while these are important questions let’s hope they don’t stop other charities thinking more laterally about how they can engage supporters.

      On a couple of other quick points from your piece. I don’t think the organisation should beat itself up too much because the new audience didn’t meet the target demographic – partly as it was using one of the bluntest media channels (DRTV) and street fundraising where the recruiters couldn’t care less who they recruit.

      The other point I’d raise relates to the sectors over reliance upon differentiation. Of course understanding how you’re different from your competitors is important – but far too many charities attempt to differentiate themselves around non functional differences such as their values or tone of voice. I’d suggest most charity supporters really don’t pay anywhere near the level of attention to accurately differentiate between the values of say Macmillan and Marie Curie. Instead I’d suggest more charities pay attention to creating a brand difference that is situational (where, when and how often someone encounters the charity) and functional (what they do and how well they do it), rather than a difference based upon intangible differences.

      Hope there’s something of interest in there somewhere!

        Matthew Sherrington · February 4, 2015 at 16:24

        Thanks James – and I agree with all you’ve said. I think my penultimate paragraph on “product” brands like Movember speaks to your point about events targeting audiences. And I quite agree on differentiation. I recently had a room of 100 peeps from different international development charities, and presented a “brand narrative” they could all sign up to. Luckily for me, they saw the funny side! Because no-one lines you up and chooses between you, what matters is the most you can make of the moment of attention you get.

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