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Charitable Design?

by First name Last name on 10/05/2011 | 8 Minute Read

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So, just how are brands approaching altruistic branding? And, just because we can doesn't necessarily mean that we should."

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Charitable design?

A couple of weeks ago I did a 3 km open-water, sea swim for charity and whilst I was pounding through the choppy, cold waves I knew I wasn’t alone. I’m sure we all – or all have friends – who have been raising money for charity through a walk, swim, hosting a fundraiser event... And, in business, Pearlfisher is definitely not alone in taking on a certain amount of pro bono work for charity each year. Added to this, is the fact that we are made aware of yet another charitable or charitably linked brand campaign on a daily basis – and this really got me thinking about how we all want to do our bit for those who are less fortunate than ourselves and about the role of ethical and altruistic branding per se. Seemingly, we all want to be - and do - good but it is also all too easy to cross over into the realms of the bad and the ugly…

A lot of campaigning now happens through events and multi-media campaigns. Nike Foundations’ ‘Girl Effect: The clock is ticking’ ad is a stroke of inspired genius and more brands are actively pursuing their target audience – and conducting their campaigns - through the digital media arena.

Just published is the 2011 Information Week 500 list – an annual ranking of American companies which use innovation in their strategies in the most effective way – and which puts Levi Strauss in the no. 2 spot for this year… The most successful digital projects of the company include promotional activity dedicated to the launch of Levi’s Curve ID, the jeans line that is focused on shape rather than on size. Also, the ‘Shape Of What’s To Come’ global online community for young women and its range of charitable initiatives.

But the success of Levi’s – and all charitable campaigns, digital or otherwise - does come back to just how the charity link up is directly connected to the brand truth and values and just how well – and synergistically - the design (both on and offline) promotes this.

And charity brands and products – and the touchpoint role of product packaging – is still a huge and lucrative market. But how is it evolving? We have already come a long way from a purely worthy aesthetic and a charity link up that relied solely on a logo placed on the box of a brand already actively supporting the ethical world. And consumers are now probably immune to this. So, just how are brands approaching altruistic branding? And, just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.

Brands are stolidly taking on the CSR mantle and we believe that there is now a market split 3 ways. There are what we are terming the traditional ‘charity badgers’ – we all know them and know what we have come to expect from them. These are countered by the new and stark looking ‘campaignable brands’ - somewhat under-designed but making use of their packaging as the blank canvas for their brand manifesto. The third type of charity brand is what we call the ‘do gooder and look gooder’ - where there is some sort of brand and charity synergy and purpose and the design works with rather than against this. Let’s explore this in a bit more detail.

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The ‘charity badgers’ tend to just stamp products with a charity logo and/or create specific charity branded merchandise. Avon is probably one of the most famous with its Breast Cancer Crusade (founded in 1992). And whilst lapel pins in the shape of a Breakthrough Breast Cancer ribbon or HIV Aware ribbon still have their place – and have successfully raised a lot of money - I think we now expect more from brands, and their creative offer, to make us sit up and take notice. And we as the brand designers and creative experts - need to also think – about our cause and conscience and not just give the charitable brand a ‘pretty halo effect’.

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As much as we are seeing an upping of the ante in terms of digital campaigns, it is refreshing to see that brands are realizing that they can also move away from the plethora of real-time events and social media campaigns and use the packaging design of their products as the brand manifesto – enter the new breed of ‘campaignable brands’. Newcomer to the beauty arena ‘Stop the Water While Using Me’ is one of the best examples to date. Bold, striking and clever but, I fear, a trend that will soon wane as, once again, all could potentially start to look samey which is maybe where we are now with the ethically right-on water category.

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Wunderwasser is one in a long line of water brands trying to make a difference for charity – and trying to be different on shelf by printing the brand story – ‘150 liters of water for charity’ on the front side of the bottles. But the campaigning via packaging in this category is starting to wear thin and whilst adopters - such as beauty - are now getting their moment in the limelight, there are lessons to be learned. What is maybe more appealing is, for example, the widely acclaimed Virtual Water project which shows just how successfully information design for the modern world can work with a poster and iPhone App detailing how much fresh water is used to produce selected products.

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Then we come to the ‘do gooder and look gooder’ – and this is where we should be focusing our attentions and using our creativity to genuinely help give something back. The RED products/RED brand is still a great example of the power of bold, simple and on target design. It’s not just about putting a pretty face on corporate greed but hitting the right note by keeping the design single-minded and just focused on the colour – with premium vodka brand, Belvedere, the latest in an esteemed brand line-up to produce a RED limited edition.

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And the original brand/charity pioneers - such as MAC - have managed to maintain their charitable profile and respect by not just proving a long-term commitment to ‘Giving Back’ – via their MACaidsfund.org to support men, women and children living with and affected by Aids globally – but by using a specific product – VIVA GLAM - ‘to make a difference one VIVA GLAM lipstick at a time’.

For Spring 2011, VIVA GLAM captured the essence of Lady Gaga with a new shade of nude Lipstick and Lipglass inspired by The Lady and her passions. MAC has kept the VIVA GLAM offer fresh by ensuring that it is as much about a la mode colors, new and exciting packaging and celeb endorsement as its charitable mission. The new Gaga inspired GLAM is as bold, forthright and colourful as the Lady in question and comes complete with her eponymous signature.

And whilst limited editions have both their fans and foes, there is still a lot to be said – in the charity kudos and desirability stakes  – by launching synergistic limited editions rather than just random one-offs.

Essentially, in the brand arena, it comes down to cause vs conscience. With the widespread change of designing for social impact affecting the whole brand and design community, we are obviously all looking for ways to maximize the opportunity. But whilst we all have a more developed conscience and are looking to brands to helping us make the right, informed choices, we do not necessarily want to have our choice informed by a good cause rather than by color or covetousness! And this is where design and new design devices and expressions cannot – and should not – be ignored.

All design challenges are about resolving problems - as are the challenges facing our charities. And, moving forward, we need to look for a host of new, creative and inspiring brand opportunities to explore causes, blend influences and create awareness which can appeal to the hearts, minds and desires of the brand/charity consumer whilst also addressing our changing society. - ends –

Jonathan Ford

Creative Partner, Pearlfisher

Jonathan is a designer and co-founder of Pearlfisher, the leading American and UK design agency, with one of the best track records for design and commercial effectiveness for brands.




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