Interview: Clarissa Baldwin

The chief executive of the Dogs Trust talks to Gemma O'Reilly about how her Christmas catchphrase has stood the test of time

Clarissa Baldwin
Clarissa Baldwin

One of the most recognisable charity slogans of all time is "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas". Such has been its success since its creation and trademark by the Dogs Trust 35 years ago, that it has spawned many imitators - some sanctioned by the animal charity, others unauthorised.

The charity is now more keen than ever to reaffirm its rightful ownership of the catchphrase and drum home the message of responsible pet ownership that goes with it.

Clarissa Baldwin, the long-standing chief executive of the Dogs Trust, is the creator of the slogan and can still recount its conception over dinner with her husband all those years ago.

"I was head of PR at the charity, though in fact the PR team was me alone at that time," says Baldwin. "The charity was called the National Canine Defence League back then and had hardly any money for campaigns. I was asked to go away and think of something that encapsulated what we did and what we wanted people to do - and to do it as cheaply as possible."

Armed with an arsenal of ideas, Baldwin approached the charity's trustees, who settled on the now famous Christmas slogan. "We had it made into car stickers and sent it to our 300,000 newsletter recipients," says Baldwin. "We never expected it to be as successful as it became - we thought it would be a one-year wonder, but it touched a nerve with people. Members of the public actually got in touch to request the stickers."

Baldwin attributes the slogan's success to its simplicity. "It's direct and not subliminal," she says. "It says what we want the nation to do, and that's why it has been so enduring."

Over the years, the slogan has taken many forms. Marks & Spencer requested permission to use it and gave a donation of £10,000 to the charity. Meanwhile, the lingerie and sex accessory retailer Ann Summers attracted the charity's wrath in 2003 when it adapted the slogan without permission to "a rabbit is for life, not just for Christmas". It later agreed to send out charity leaflets to its customers as recompense.

"It's flattering that the slogan has been so popular, but it's irritating when it's misattributed," says Baldwin. "We want to reclaim it and for it to be enduring for the Dogs Trust."

The slogan has its own entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and although it is most relevant at Christmas, Baldwin says she hopes the core message resonates with the public throughout the year.

Baldwin's passion for the charity and cause is still evident, even though she's worked at the organisation for almost 40 years. She joined the Dogs Trust in the role of head of PR and became chief executive in 1986.

She believes that her background in communications has been invaluable to her rise through the ranks.

"Communications are absolutely vital to an organisation," she says.

"But it's simple really - do a quality job, tell people about it and ask for their money."

She advises other communicators who want to make progress to choose their charity carefully. "You need to believe in what you're doing and focus on the strategy," she says. "Be clear about your vision and mission. It's so easy to be led down another road and do too many things - so stay focused.

"And don't forget to get out and about and see what's happening. Don't just sit in your office and let bureaucracy get in the way. Don't chase paper - get your hands dirty."

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