“Nobody’s heard of us”

We hear this phrase often, typically from smaller charities concerned about low brand awareness – and from the project briefs and tender documents that we see, our impression right now is that this is a growing trend. But we think there are literally thousands of reasons to be optimistic.

Many charities these days, including many of our clients, are looking to grow public fundraising to insulate their services against austerity cuts, and want to build brand profile to help them achieve that.

But… wait a minute, nobody’s heard of you? But… we’ve heard of you! So too have all of the supporters and partners that fund your projects, sign your petitions, listen to your policy arguments, and enable you to do great work. Add to that list the people you are helping today through your services, their families and friends, and… well, you get the picture.

Nobody's heard of us

It’s an obvious point, but if nobody had heard of your charity, then you wouldn’t exist – because you wouldn’t be raising any money or delivering any services. And while this may sound like hair-splitting (you don’t actually mean nobody) this is more than just semantics. It is a reminder to value and respect the constituency you already have, and build from there. There is a point here too about how brands work.

‘Brand awareness’ on its own is a clumsy term (not to mention a clumsy metric) used to quantify your potential to create and sustain relationships with the outside world. But brand awareness is a complex beast, with some people knowing you well, and some having only a vague recollection of your name. This can be understood better by asking people not if they’ve heard of you, but how well they know you. But the bigger problem starts when charities chase brand awareness in the general public alone, because it is too easy to forget that awareness in some people has more value than in others – while some awareness has no value to you at all. And when you survey your brand awareness in the general public, the fact is that most of the responses you get back just don’t matter, and the trouble is you don’t know which.

Which responses don’t matter? This may sound harsh but it’s the majority of the general public. Most people in the UK will never donate to you, never support your campaigns, and never access your services. For some causes, that is the overwhelming majority. Here’s some data…

Eden Stanley’s category benchmarks

Both of Eden Stanley’s Charity Trackers include the basic question about which type of charities respondents have supported (or would consider supporting), to help us monitor the relative market sizes of the different causes in the UK charity sector, and the shifting demographics within each group. This in turn helps us ensure robustness in our audience segmentations, and understand the market ‘churn’ (supporters  entering and leaving) in any given cause. The market sizes are pretty stable, with numbers moving at a glacial pace. Headline results from Q1 2017 are shown in this graph.

This chart gives an overall picture of the ‘market sizes’ for each category in the UK charity sector.
(Fieldwork: Q1 2017; n=3,000 nat-rep)

Now, experience tells us that most people overstate their ‘consideration to support’ (few of the respondents that say they may support a cause in the next 12 months actually will, unless you find them and ask them), and when you take into account factors like income, or reachability, in practice the ‘addressable market’ for most of these causes is unlikely to be much more than 30% to 40% of the UK adult population. For some sectors (for example environment, human rights, or overseas development) it is much lower than that.

So think about the ‘rejectors’– the people represented by the grey bars, that have not supported your cause, and have no intention to. Does it matter if they have heard of you? Do you care one jot? Or to come at it from another angle, if you allow your communications strategy to be shaped by brand awareness or attitudes of people that will never engage with you, do you risk wasting effort and resource? In most cases, we think probably yes. We call this “whispering into the void….”

The chart below illustrates the point. the NGO Plan International has done a good job of targeting niche audiences, leading to highly differentiated brand performance between the major market segments – the INGO ‘supporters’, ‘prospects’ and ‘rejectors’. The people that know them are the people they need to know them, and that gives them a strong foundation for growth.

Relative knowledge and awareness of the NGO, Plan International, for three market segments.
(Fieldwork: Q1 2017; n=3,000 nat-rep)

Knowing your niche

But of course, understanding the size and demographics of your ‘market’ is really just the start of it. With a little digging, and good data, you will find within any of these target groups a huge diversity of points of view, social and political attitudes, media consumption habits, giving preferences and so on. With good audience segmentation and insight, and a smart, targeted marketing and communications strategy, you should be able to find those most sympathetic to your cause and closely aligned with your values, and perhaps even other target groups within reach that need a little persuasion.

OK, so perhaps not many people have heard of you – we’ll give you that. And yes, it is true that if you look across your sector you will find a general, loose correlation between brand awareness in the general public and income. But let’s bring some focus to this. Chasing general public awareness will distort your strategy and prove a huge distraction, drawing your attention away from what really matters. That is working hard to look after the relationships you already have (there will be literally thousands of them) and taking the time to get to know – and grow – your own niche in a market that is warm to your cause. That’s where the value is, and that’s when it all starts to work.