Commentary

The Great At Doing Good

The concept of brands and branding has spread far beyond its origins in consumer products. Politicians, towns, celebrities, events, and governments all recognize that their brand - what they stand for and the sum of all perceptions - is a critical component to achieving long-term success, regardless of how they define it.

With good cheer, seasonal requests for donations, and sad stories about the needy already emerging for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I got to thinking about the connection between brands and charity. The importance of brand has also extended to organizations dedicated to doing good or helping segments of the population.

In fact, a robust brand may be even more important to the long-term success of charitable organizations than to that of traditional businesses. Think about it. In a typical business transaction, money is exchanged for a tangible product or service. Purchasers have the opportunity to feel they have gotten something. Even if the brand image isn't great, there is still a quid pro quo and everyone wins.

But what about a charitable organization? What do "consumers" really get for their spend? Self-satisfaction? A sense of well-being? Or just a tax deduction? If we can assume that the primary desired outcome of donating is a sense that we are helping make the world just a little bit better, then we'd better trust that the organization really will do the right thing with our money. Hence, they need a good brand.

Also, even in good times the fight for a share of a donor's or sponsor's wallet is fierce. How do we decide where to give? As I started thinking about it, the decision criteria for giving exactly replicates Landor's well-known four pillar model for building strong brands: be differentiated establish relevance, build esteem, and grow knowledge. We give to an organization because it seems special (differentiation), it fits into our life (relevance), we feel good about it (esteem), and we understand what it does (knowledge).

To see which charitable organizations had the strongest brands on the four pillar model, we tapped into Landor's consumer brand equity tool, BrandAsset Valuator (BAV), the world's largest study of brands. In the United States, we measure over 3,000 brands annually on more than 70 key measures of equity and imagery. BAV includes products, services, companies, and TV shows, just about every type of brand you can think of, including 44 national charities.

According to 2008 BAV data, the Top 20 U.S. charities with the strongest brands are:

1 St. Jude Children's Research Hospital11 Doctors Without Borders
2 Ronald McDonald House 12 March of Dimes
3 Make-A-Wish Foundation 13 American Diabetes Association
4 American Red Cross 14 Meals on Wheels
5 American Cancer Society 15 YMCA
6 Habitat for Humanity 16 Boys and Girls Clubs of America
7 American Heart Association 17 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
8 Breast Cancer Research Foundation 18 Big Brothers and Sisters
9 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 19 Save the Children
10 Salvation Army 20 United Way

What does this list tell us? First, as a nation we value our children and want to keep them well; we most admire those brands that try to do so and reward them with our respect. Seven of the Top 20 focus on children and youth, and the top three, sadly, are dedicated to helping very ill children and their families.

Overall, 11 of the 20, including the top five, focus on health and illness issues. Very topically, we also reward noncommercial/nongovernmental health care organizations with remarkably high brand strength scores. Although tempted, I refrain from hypothesizing what this may mean for the current health care political situation.

Of the organizations concerned primarily with youth, four try to help from a medical perspective and three the "whole person" - YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. These three are long-established groups that also appear high on Forbes magazine's 2008 list of the 200 largest charities. Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), only four of the Top 20 charitable brands serve needy grown-ups and the whole family - Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Noticeably absent from the Top 20 are organizations with an environmental focus. The first brand, the World Wildlife Fund, shows up at number 24 followed by Greenpeace at number 27. Further, only three on the Top 20 list have an arguably international focus: Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I wonder: Would the WWF and Greenpeace have stronger brands in the United States if they were seen as more local or homegrown?

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Are the brands dedicated to health care and youth stronger than those dedicated to older adults and the environment because we care more about kids and health? Or do we care more about kids and health because the groups dedicated to them built stronger brands? I daren't say.

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2 comments about "The Great At Doing Good ".
  1. Anne Ptasznik from Creative Fusion , November 18, 2009 at 8:52 a.m.

    I'm not surprised that St. Jude's is the top of the list. I heard Marlo Thomas speak at a speakers' series years ago. I can still remember the heartwrenching but inspirational stories she gave about the work of the hospital. The pictures she painted through her stories have left such an indelible mark, I could even repeat them myself, and actually I have.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , November 18, 2009 at 9:26 a.m.

    Just a reminder: Before a donation is made to any favorite charity through a brand or its own brand, check to find out what percentage goes to help and what percentage is stuffed in their own pockets for administration and marketing. If it is more than 10-15% move on. A lot of people need a lot of help.