Home Archive April 2009 Brains behind the brand
Brains behind the brand
Friday, 24 April 2009 12:09

With a brand recognised by less than 1% of the population, the Motor Neurone Disease Association decided to take action. Max Hotopf examines the rebrand:

You don’t want to die of motor neurone disease. It gradually severs the brain from the body, cutting  mobility, movement, even voice. At any one time, 5,000 people have the disease in the UK. Some last  over five years; the average is 14 months. MND kills five people a day in the UK.

Back in late 2007, the task confronting Donna Cresswell as newly appointed director of communications was how to rebrand the Motor Neurone Disease Association to help it grow fundraising and clout. Her budget was just £50,000 for research and design, a big change from her previous role at Carlsberg, where she spent £400,000 re-branding Carlsberg Tetley as Carlsberg UK.

Set up in a bungalow in Nottingham in the late 1970s, today the charity has 3,000 volunteers – they provide practical support, befriending and fundraising, along with 150 paid staff. e 3,000 don’t split neatly nto the two areas – half do everything while 1500 just do the fundraising. Most of volunteers are family and friends of sufferers. Some are sufferers themselves. As well as ensuring sufferers have the best possible life and death, MNDA also funds research into how to fight the disease.

Cresswell’s mission was to build public awareness of the charity so that “we punch above our weight”. On the face of it, this sounds risky. MNDA occupies a unique niche market with a constant flow of new funds and volunteers. Why go mass market and compete with the likes of Oxfam when your unprompted  ecognition is less than 1%? Cresswell says that the decision is not that black and white. “Think concentric rings. You have the 5,000 sufferers, in the next ring the family, say 25,000.

Beyond that, friends and then the larger ring of employers and workmates. We want to be able to push out to these rings, to have enough public awareness to get a company of 2,000 to adopt the MNDA as their charity of the year because one of their employees has the illness. It is this ring, of maybe 500,000-plus+plus people, who we want to reach. But we also need to reach the legacy market: GPs, social services and neurologists.”

To lobby government, MNDA also needs to present itself as a major player. Concomitantly with the rebrand, the MDNA was offered the chance to shoot a film advertisement for free to raise public awareness of the condition. The 90-second film, ‘Sarah’s story’, deploys the sort of shock tactics that Oxfam used over Biafra in the 1960s. But instead of starving, big-eyed babies, it shows a young woman being thrown around by invisible forces before being dragged into a wheelchair. With a 15 rating, it has appeared in  cinemas. Compelling and beautifully directed, it has so far been banned from TV by regulatory authority  Clearcast. You can view it on YouTube.

Cresswell is clearly frustrated that five complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority have been enough
to keep it off the TV at a time when the MDNA hasy have a good the best chance of securing free airtime.
A pro-bono poster campaign based on the film will air soon on the London Underground. Her initial brand audit showed that the charity “had got a lot of things right. For example, internal communication between volunteers and staff was excellent.” But the audit backed up her hunch that the logo and branding did not really reflect the charity’s ambitions. “The logo was blocky, worthy and a bit dull. It did what it said on the tin coupled to a thumbs-up sign.”

This thumbs-up was the last defiant gesture made by film star David Niven, who died of MND in the 1970s and symbolises the idea of hope and resistance in adversity. Beloved by the volunteers who understand its significance, it can baffle the outside world. “It wasn’t right to use as send material with it on to to send to a government minister. Unless you understood the history, it kind of says: ‘Hey, 5,000 people are dying of this dreadful illness and that’s all right,’” says Cresswell.

She then commissioned Spencer Dubois, an agency which specialises mainly in the charity sector to research brand values. How did the firm win the four-way pitch? “Because partner Max Dubois just got it,” she says. “He just understands the different stakeholders and the importance of volunteers. The agency also presented a very process, analytical pproach which we liked.”

Focus groups were conducted with the different stakeholders from trustees to the general public. It showed that there was a lack of consensus on what the organisation stood for. For some, it was all about the best possible care, for others it was about research. The research enabled Cresswell and Spencer Dubois to build a consensus and to tease out the values: “We realised that we wanted, for instance, to position ourselves as the experts on motor neurone disease, as the people with close links to neurology, with a deep understanding of the social care system and how it worked. Above all, we want people to respond with a feeling of hope. People, sufferers, their family, donors - all need to feel there is a certainty of care and a hope that one day we will crack it.”

At this stage, Cresswell decided to stay with Spencer Dubois and to commission design partner John Spencer to do the design. The image that came out of this was of a broken lettered “MND” in blue with a strong orange’a‘ for the association.The idea, says Cresswell, is to indicate what the disease does in terms of disconnecting the individual and to position the association as a unifying hope. Spencer also came up with an entire “design system” setting out all the elements for the different types of communication.


In the end, the thumbs-up was retained, albeit mainly for internal use. “I came to realise its importance in our heritage,” says Cresswell. “It has real emotional power.” In practice, many of the 90 regional chapters of the charity have their own websites which, six months after the change, still deploy the thumbs up logo and variants on the old logo. Cresswell says she believes in a gradual approach and that she appreciates it will take time to wean volunteers away from the old system. “Just about the only resistance has been over the thumb. For charities, rebrands are always difficult as there is always the thought we could buy a stairlift
for the money spent on this.”

Six months on, it is too early to reach a conclusion about the impact of the new brand. But Cresswell says fund raising has more or less doubled to £13 million over the past five years. The MNDA also recently won £7.5 million chunk of research funding from the government. And a rebrand of this depth of research sounds a real bargain for £50,000.



Communicate, communicate, communicate
Cresswell admits that she may not have prepared the board of trustees adequately. “There as one sticky moment when they thought they were going to see the final logo and the meeting was all about  process.” The board was very supportive but it made her aware ust how easy it is to wrong-foot your stakeholders.
Choose the right partner
Cresswell is certain that MDNA did this with Spencer Dubois. Coming from the ommercial sector she was amazed at how far budgets went.
Listen very hard to your supporters before you do anything
Take soundings and be aware of the cultural heritage even before you start focus groups. You need to be very clear about where you’ve come from and why the heritage is what it is before you can successfully move the organisation on.

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