From consumers to causes: Why the third sector needs to embrace commercial comms

Authors: Zoë Dawson
  • Posted on: May 19, 2023

We’ve all seen the image: 84 mannequins on the ledge of ITV’s London buildings to raise awareness of male suicides.

It’s a heart-wrenching image. It was an amazing idea from CALM (executed by Adam&Eve/DDB) and it had an incredible impact, getting the nation talking about male suicide.

But if I added a mannequin for every time a charity/NGO/campaign group asked for this stunt recreated for their cause, every building in London would be covered.

In the third sector, we have a tendency to overlook brand advertising and comms, and go straight for what other people are doing well in the not-for-profit space for inspiration. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s no problem with being aware of the work coming out of our sector. Seeing powerful campaigns from organisations like our own makes us excited, it helps us strive to be better, and most importantly, it reminds us of the impact we’re able to create in the world. 

But if we’re all looking in the same places for inspiration, we’re all going to start sounding the same.

Social impact isn’t everything.

I hope I don’t get fired for saying that, so let me explain.

We need to stop dismissing consumer driven communications as irrelevant to the work we produce. Or even going as far as thinking consumer comms = bad, cause-based comms = good. Because at the end of the day, we’re all competing for the same audiences, and they get so many messages every day, they’re not differentiating. They just remember the good stuff. And most of the good stuff is coming out of brands.

So what can we learn from them to elevate our communications and steal their audiences?

1. It’s Not About You.

Sorry. But this is often the first way the third sector goes wrong. You might have heard the quote “you wouldn’t worry so much about what people think about you if you realised how seldom they do” or words to that effect. It’s even truer for organisations (for profit or not).

What brands do well is thinking of the audience first. They ask themselves: how can we fit into their lives and what they think about themselves? Instead of asking: what do we want to tell them and how can we make them think this about us?

McDonalds is a great example. Although there’s plenty of “check out the new burger,” they also talk about what McDonalds represents in people’s day to day, from me time to quality time.

It’s all about connecting. Being relatable. Telling stories that resonate with who they want to reach, rather than ploughing on with their own story and hoping the audience will respond. Which leads me to…

2. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story

Something I hear a lot in the charity sector is this: 

“We have loads of true stories from the people we’ve supported. We just need to tell them,” or, “the story of our organisation is really interesting, let’s tell that.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Just because you care about your organisation and the people (or animals, or plants, etc.) you support, it doesn’t necessarily mean your audience will too, especially newer, cold audiences. True stories are a great way to emote people – but only when they’re also really great stories.

Advertising famously doesn’t always care if something’s true if it’s not going to make someone buy their product. It’s one of the worst things about ad-land… but it does mean they excel in the art of storytelling. The ad world understands that capturing your attention means telling stories that you want to hear and are going to remember. 

They capture the essence of who a brand is, and say it creatively, rather than trying to say everything. My favourite ad of all time is Guinness Surfer. It says one thing: good things come to those who wait, and it says it beautifully. Truthfully, there aren’t really white horses off the coast of Hawai’i (I know, I was shocked too), but that’s not the point. Also… It doesn’t mention Guinness once.

In this day and age, we’re overwhelmed with stories… TikTok videos, memes, news, a million TV shows coming out every day and even more movies, ever available in the infinity of streaming services. We shouldn’t just be asking can this story compete with other charities? But can this story compete with The Office or the newest live-action remake of a Disney film no one asked for?

3. The Problem with Hope.

The reason we tell stories in the first place is because they’re one of the best ways to make people feel something.

Traditional charity communications has a habit of leaning heavily on one of two emotions, at opposite ends of the spectrum: guilt and hope. We’ve all seen the former, and with a magnifying glass being held up to terms like ‘poverty porn’ in the last decade, there’s been a concerted effort to move away from these tropes. But instead, we seem to be steering heavily towards another buzzword, ‘toxic positivity.’ 

Inspiring hope in our audiences is important, but when the objective of every campaign is to empower and inspire, it’s hard to cut through the noise. 

In brand comms, we see a much bigger spectrum of emotive drivers. Brands like Innocent and Old Spice do humour really well, Nike is the hero of motivation, Skittles goes for silliness, and Christmas ads nail soppiness. (My favourite last year was The National Lottery.)

What all of these have in common is they go beyond the basics, and think about the emotions people genuinely experience, and want to, every day. Hope doesn’t always feature, where having a laugh or feeling excited might. 

Ps. Charities don’t have to be scared of humour. Used well, humour can make a serious topic far more engaging. Take Coppafeel, the breast cancer charity that don’t mind using  boob jokes and puns to get people to check theirs. Not to toot our own horn, but we kind of nailed this with our WWF campaign that turned endangered fish into a sexy romantic comedy

4. Consistency is King

What’s Nike’s strapline? 

What about KitKat?

And Tesco?

I know you know all three. (If you don’t, where have you been!? Just Do It, Have a Break Have a KitKat, and Every Little Helps.) 

These are just three of the many brands that have found a good message and kept it up. This works like peanut butter: it sticks to the inside of our brains and makes us remember them. The only charity strapline I remember (and I work in this sector) is A Dog’s Not Just For Christmas…

But it’s more than that. It allows the creatives working on their campaigns to have a really clear diving board for storytelling.

When you have a very powerful, public facing North Star, or as we call it at Shape, defining attitude, we can find a million ways to tell that story. Nike have made Just Do It work in every space: selling shoes, inspiring joggers, fighting the patriarchy, the list goes on. Whatever the story, the strapline is the perfect sign off. 

Meanwhile KitKat has had some of the most creative advertising out there by not just saying their message, but living it too.

The result? A brand that tells great, relevant, relatable stories every time.

5. Put Yourself Out There

Big brands have a lot of money, and that means they have a lot of air time, which isn’t a luxury most charities are afforded. But it’s worth thinking about why multi-channel communications work so well for them, and how we can do a poor man’s version. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Attention, attention, attention. That’s all we’re aiming for when we communicate with our audiences. Any call to action is secondary to getting them to look at it in the first place. And what do you pay more attention to, something that crosses your path one time for five minutes, or something that follows you around like an annoying younger sibling? (guilty)

Brands get everywhere. Open the newspaper, BOOM. Go outside, hello again! Start scrolling, there they are.

So how can we have a similar effect on a budget? First of all, don’t give up hope. Media Companies like JCDecaux, and even TFL, offer free advertising opportunities for nonprofits. Local News outlets often have even more readers than national papers, with much cheaper ad space. And then we have social… 

Do you want to know the most effective piece of brand advertising Burger King came out with in 2018? This tweet. 3 words. 0 pennies. Most liked brand tweet of all time.

Having fun with your organic socials is the easiest way to increase the likelihood of someone seeing your message. Just be topical, be involved, and be concise. Not everything – or even anything – will go viral, but if you keep it up you’re getting somewhere. 

And if none of that’s possible… There’s always guerrilla marketing. (Don’t say I sent you). 

That’s a Wrap

I’m a big lover of advertising, as you can probably tell from all the links in this piece. 

But after starting my career in traditional ad agencies, I moved to Shape History. Why? Because I wanted to have an impact every single day, not just the odd days my agency got a pro-bono charity piece in.

I haven’t regretted it for a second, but sometimes I find myself missing the willingness of brands to take creative risks. It makes me wonder, when fighting for a fairer world is such a brave thing to do, why the third sector is so nervous about channelling that bravery into their communications. 

As consumer-facing brands are becoming more involved in social impact themselves, it’s more important than ever that we up our game to compete. 

After all, if Nike can get their audiences to take a stand for human rights (with Air Max’s on their feet) we can definitely do it too.