• Transform magazine
  • April 01, 2020


Brand profile: Macmillan Cancer Support

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Charity sector branding requires a kind of acrobatics in order to balance the needs of fundraising, communications, social media and public interaction. How has Macmillan Cancer Support led the way in repositioning its brand? Jeremy Owen reports

The third sector, once the preserve of village church halls and dusty corners of government, began to make a lot of noise in the media in the 2000s. it is hard to pin down exactly why this occurred, but an organisation that undoubtedly heavily influenced both the way the sector is viewed and how it regards itself is Macmillan Cancer Support. The large British charity has a personality-led visual identity that derived from a mould-breaking rebrand in 2006. Macmillan’s director of brand Kate Barker says the rebrand had an effect on the charity landscape comparable “to the impact Innocent had in the consumer goods market when it first launched.”

In 2006, in collaboration with global brand firm Wolff Olins, Macmillan identified a need to make considerable changes in order to ensure its future survival. According to Wolff Olins, at the time, “Macmillan was best-known for its nurses and the end-of-life care they provided. Yet this valuable role came with a harmful side-effect: a public perception of the nurses as ‘angels of death.’”

This perception, however, was not unique to Macmillan. According to the agency, “In keeping with the sector at this time, Macmillan was institutional in its behaviour. And its communications felt institutional, which gave limited scope for tackling the broader impact of cancer.”

What followed was a thorough strategic redefinition of its form and function, transforming the organisation from an anachronism into something dynamic and progressive. The resulting visual identity, with its distinctive headline font, rough-hewn edges and striking use of green, heralded that change.

In the years since, the charity Macmillan has become is a totemic symbol for brand communication across the third sector and the corporate world. In 2014, it was named 'Brand of the year' by the Marketing Society and was shortlisted again in 2015. That year also saw Macmillan named the fifth-most influential UK brand by the Guardian before placing second in the Aesop Brand Storytelling report. The brand’s ‘No one should face cancer alone’ campaign won the not-for-profit category at the Marketing Week Engagement Awards in 2014, among others. It was named YouGov’s top charity brand four years in a row (2013-2016) and last year, once more topped the Third Sector Charity Brand Index.

The beginnings of this success story were rather more low-key. In 1911, civil servant Douglas Macmillan watched his father die of cancer. His father’s suffering moved Macmillan so much that, with the £10 legacy his father bequeathed him, he founded the Society for the Prevention and Relief of Cancer in the same year. His aim with his new undertaking was to provide support to all people living with cancer by providing advice and information, homes for patients at low or no cost, and voluntary nurses to attend to patients in their own homes. Throughout the decades since, Macmillan has attempted to adapt and develop, according to the needs of the times, but its aim has always been to remain true to founder Macmillan’s original mission. Often in the third sector, branding is a secondary function, but since its rebrand, Macmillan has viewed branding as a key tool in achieving its objectives.

To maintain the connection between the brand and the public, the core part of the work was the establishment of five key values on which all following activities would be built: being personal, demanding better, being practical experts, being open and inspiring others. The new visual identity attempted to re ect these maxims through a design approach that is more human, warm, accessible and playful. The brand has been refreshed several times over the last decade, most recently in early 2014, when dynamic paint panels and adjustments to the secondary colour palette were introduced. In 2018, a further review of the brand will occur.

In the years since the charity rebranded as Macmillan Cancer Support in 2006, Macmillan has become something of a totemic symbol for brand communication across the third sector and the corporate world

Critically, Macmillan has ensured that this visual element is always supported by authentic real-life experiences that resonate across the whole of the organisation. This is best exemplified by the ‘Not alone’ campaign, a move that was instrumental in improving impact by packaging its many activities and resources under a single emotional driver. Macmillan is also successful in creating effective activations, in particular the juggernaut ‘World’s Biggest Coffee Morning’ event which combines the cosiness of that traditional third sector activity, the church hall get-together, with contemporary media and organisational savvy.

In accordance with academic theory on the future of branding, the Macmillan approach has created a platform that empowers individuals to create their own outcomes rather than a brand that is dictatorial to its audience. The distinct Macmillan identity has gone a long way to ensuring the success of the practical actions. its unique construction perfectly dovetails with the content and communication that the brand is purveying. It remains an effective name badge but also possesses the capacity to step back and function as an official stamp that lends authenticity and gravitas when it is working in a collaborative state.

To realise these external ambitions, any brand requires a strong internal culture. Macmillan works hard to maintain an internal culture whereby staff, volunteers and supporters feel they are part of ‘Team Macmillan’ and experience a great sense of involvement in a movement. Face-to-face brand training sessions for new starters and regular creative clinics ensure everyone is aware of key brand challenges and understand how Macmillan should look and sound as set down by the brand guidelines. An in-house team of designers and copywriters are responsible for any creative output but, when the level of work demands, this core team works in partnership with a roster of specialist creative agencies.

Through an advanced understanding of brand strategy, Macmillan has been able to face the ongoing challenges of what has become an increasingly difficult sector. Since 2006, the public pro le of the third sector has also grown, in accordance so has the level of public and media scrutiny. Macmillan has employed media savvy to its fundraising methods and campaigns but, on occasion, these efforts have been publicly challenged. Notably, its use of the global social media sensation hashtag #icebucketchallenge was alleged by the press to be an appropriation of a property commonly believed to belong to ALS charities. Similarly the ‘Brave the Shave’ campaign, while a popular one, was reported as being found disrespectful and offensive by some.

In all cases, Macmillan responded by reinforcing its firm commitment to meeting public expectation through taking immediate action and making changes to the way it works. These counter-actions were an acknowledgment that Macmillan and its brand will have to work harder than ever before to maintain the public’s trust and continue to drive meaningful relationships with supporters. Barker says, “It is essential we continue to review our brand and ensure it is relevant to our audiences.”

The branding challenge for third sector organisations is a paradoxical one. They exist to do good for people in need, but at the same time the incredible growth of the sector has perhaps had a negative effect on that key driver. A number of examples illustrate how charity media has had a less than desirable effect. So-called ‘Second disasters’ are a widely discussed issue where public requests have been so successful that aid arrives in such mass that it becomes a hindrance. Similarly, the over-use of negative messaging, dubbed ‘Poverty porn,’ in charity advertising has been suggested to actually decrease public help by inspiring audience fatigue. These phenomena conspire to make the target audience feel useless in the face of such enormity. To address these unfortunate effects it may be best if the third sector took a softer approach as a measure of respect both toward people in crisis and toward fundraising. But that would ignore the reality that in an increasingly noisy media landscape. charity messaging must respond in kind or run the risk of being overlooked.

Macmillan has demonstrated that it is possible to establish a third sector brand that follows – and with a recorded income of £230m in 2015, arguably betters – the methods of the commercial world; but success has come with its own difficulties. What the third sector can learn from this is that when it comes to branding for the good of others, some might feel the brand has gone too far, but for the people that rely on it, the brand promise must prove itself to be more than a handful of platitudes and a nice logo.