Choosing the right type of merchandise for your charity can be problematic. Joe Lepper offers some useful advice.
From the NSPCC's Full Stop badges to the Royal British Legion's poppies, charity promotional merchandise can be enormously successful - in terms of raising both funds and awareness.
But with such a variety of choice - from familiar items such as pens to quirky products such as elephant dung lampshades - choosing the right type of merchandise and ensuring it is properly produced and distributed can be problematic.
Charity consultant Tony Elischer, managing director of Think Consulting Solutions, says a common failure is not looking at merchandise strategically. "It is a tactical tool, that's all," he says. "To just use it willy nilly is pointless."
Undoubtedly, one of the most successful recent uses of merchandise has been charity wristbands. Launched in the US by the Lance Armstrong Foundation and pioneered here by the Make Poverty History campaign, more than 10 million have been sold in the UK.
But even this success story has not been without pitfalls. In May this year it was reported in the media that some of the MPH wristbands were being produced in sweatshop conditions in Chinese factories.
Whether you have encountered similar problems in the past, seen promotional merchandise campaigns fall flat or have yet to consider using products, this step-by-step guide will help you on your way.
1. Decide on the purpose of your merchandise According to John Mallows, chairman of trade body the British Promotional Merchandise Association, charities need to justify their use of such products in terms of cost and what they hope to achieve with them.
"When you are using any product, you need to make sure that it is worthwhile," he says. "You need to know what you want to achieve from it. Is it to make money - if so, will there be marketing as well to support it? Or is it to raise awareness?"
ActionAid commissioned a range of slogan T-shirts for its youth-focused campaign 'Bollocks to Poverty'. The T-shirts were initially produced with the sole purpose of raising awareness. ActionAid handed them out to celebrities at music festivals and as a result high-profile figures, such as the band Razorlight, are now regularly seen in the media wearing the item.
After this extensive media coverage, the charity was swamped by calls from potential customers wanting to know where they could buy the T-shirts.
"It was never our intention to use the T-shirts for fundraising, but with all the interest, the laws of supply and demand took over because the demand was clearly there," says Taahra Ghazi, head of school and youth at the charity.
Amnesty International had a dual goal for its 'Protect the Human' badge, which was launched in November. As well as raising money from sales, Amnesty wanted to use the badge to encourage people to buy more, so it included with the badge a code that unlocks exclusive material on the organisation's website.
"We wanted to do something more with the merchandise, so it was not there exclusively to raise funds but was combined with other marketing areas," says Amnesty spokeswoman Sarah Green. "It is so much more than a badge."
2. Link a product with your charity's mission This step is not vital but, according to Mallows, it is important for the end user to understand what the link is. "This is where promotional merchandise can be effective by producing something that makes you think of the charity," he says.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust took this approach in a campaign in October that included an eye patch. "People don't have to think long and hard about what the link is. It makes it easy for the end user and produces immediate recognition," says Mallows.
Another example is the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association's current promotional merchandise campaign with Andrex toilet paper, which also uses a dog for its branding. Consumers collect six tokens and send them off with a £5 cheque to receive a charity-branded toy dog.
"Using products that can be associated with our brand has certainly helped us," says Julie Armour, corporate fundraising national account manager with the charity. "Doggy merchandise such as the Andrex puppy is popular as it has that 'ahhhh factor' and is a natural affiliation for the charity."
However, Armour adds that charities should not take the link too far.
Guide Dogs was recently offered the chance to produce merchandise through a licence agreement with a famous cartoon dog, but this was rejected because the dog, which the charity declines to name, is not used as a guide dog.
3. Ensure your merchandise is green and ethical An anti-poverty campaign that uses sweatshops abroad or a green campaign that uses non-recyclable material are PR disasters waiting to happen. Ethical and green practice across the supply chain is something all charities need to be aware of.
Lucinda Frostick, head of communications at the Institute of Fundraising, says research into the supply chain is vital and recommends enshrining good practice in a contract. "You need to know who you are working with and you need to flag this up at the contract stage," she says. "Reputation risk-management is one of the biggest issues to face charities. The long-term damage can be enormous."
Although all suppliers must adhere to local laws surrounding ethical practice, in some countries these fall far short of UK standards, so many suppliers have also signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (www.ethical trade.org), a partnership of charities and firms that is designed to improve working conditions across the world.
Mallows believes that the dynamics of the market will ensure that, if an organisation supports poor working practices, it will eventually go under. "No one wants to get caught in a PR disaster," he says.
But even if poor practice is discovered, more charities and UK suppliers are rejecting the easy solution of severing ties with the overseas suppliers.
Instead, many are working with suppliers abroad to improve working conditions. This is arguably what saved the reputation of charities such as Oxfam when the MPH wristband sweatshop scandal, involving poor pay and long hours at two Chinese factories, broke.
Rachel Wilshaw, purchasing strategy manager for Oxfam, says: "We've just completed a second audit, which shows that hours have come down, which is good." The charity is also trying to make audits more robust by involving local charities in the process, particularly to carry out staff interviews.
4. Negotiate a good deal with suppliers Charities regularly get discounts from suppliers, so it is always worth asking for one. "Some charities can pull at the heart strings and end up getting a more favourable rate, and some firms want to be associated with a charity and so will lower the price," says Mallows.
"It just depends on the supplier."
However, charities are increasingly aware that a deal can sometimes be too good to be true. Oxfam trains its purchasing staff in negotiating techniques, but warns them against seeking too much of a discount. "If the price comes down too much, then it may have an effect on wages," says Wilshaw. "Maybe it would have an effect on hours worked."
With promotional merchandise forming such a vital part of marketing strategies, many charities realise it is better to spend more on quality and the knowledge that it is being produced ethically. ActionAid is one of a number of charities to use ethical specialist supplier Sandbag. "This may cost more, but it is something we wanted to do to make sure it is being produced in the right way," says Ghazi of ActionAid.
5. Get the distribution right Even if a promotional merchandise campaign is ethically sound and creatively innovative, the whole process can come unstuck because of poor and costly distribution.
Armour says Guide Dogs has had problems with delivery costs, with some firms being "unreliable and expensive". This is why, where appropriate, it tries to secure deals where the costs are absorbed by a corporate partner, such as the partnership with Andrex.
This kind of approach is vital with size-based pricing coming into effect next year. Charities that send pens in their direct mail packs are likely to be hit hardest, with mailings of less than 50,000 costing an estimated 3.75p more per letter.
Grant Morgan, group chairman of cause-related marketing firm Louis Kennedy, whose charity clients include Guide Dogs and Children In Need, says: "The days of just ordering a lot of cuddly toys, pens or pieces of plastic and then trying to distribute them through some scattergun approach are gone. Charities need to look at the rate of return. There are better ways to distribute."
One popular alternative to mail is distributing promotional merchandise.
Amnesty has linked with Blackwells bookshops to distribute its 'Protect the Human' badges and is restricting its mailouts to opinion formers and online shoppers.
Christian Munro, a director at ethical supplier Sandbag, which also develops online shops for charity clients, says the biggest innovations in merchandise are 'virtual' products where all distribution is handled electronically.
This can include sponsoring an animal and receiving email updates and a certificate or buying MP3s and video downloads. He said: "It may be virtual but it is still merchandise - it still exists."
6. Monitor success If the goals of a promotional merchandise campaign are clear, then it should be relatively straightforward to monitor its success.
"Most promotional merchandise is designed to entice a direct action, whether it be to donate, to log on to a website or a call a number. Go back to your objectives," says Mallows.
Frostick says it is vital to ensure database records are up to date and time is taken to talk to donors, opinion formers and supporters about the merchandise. "When a new donor calls, are they asked how they heard of the charity and what made them call?" she asks. "Was it because they got a cuddly toy in the post?"
She adds that media monitoring firms, which are frequently used to assess the success of PR campaigns, could also be hired, especially if the release of the merchandise was backed with media relations work.
VERY WELL DUNG
The Church Mission Society's promotional merchandise may be among the quirkiest in the sector, but it is far from frivolous. Among the most bizarre is the charity's range of elephant dung products, including stationery, Christmas cards and even lamp shades.
The charity aims to raise cash through its online shop and increase awareness by sending products to politicians and opinion formers. But the merchandise also helps change the lives of young deaf adults in Tanzania, who make the products in a workshop set up by one of the charity's field workers.
Jeremy Woodham, of the CMS communications office, says: "We were looking for a way to help the young deaf people in the area who are treated like social outcasts in their country and have very few prospects."
The charity's creative use of raw materials for its promotional merchandise has also been put to good effect with production of wooden crosses in Uganda. These are sold online and sent to opinion formers, with the Archbishop of Canterbury among the most high-profile recipients.
The crosses are a symbol of the charity, but also carry a chilling message because they are made from the branches of the cwa tree, which are used as instruments of torture by the Lord's Resistance Army rebels in the country.