"It was because the Vegetarian Society had a relationship with journalists and we didn't have a strong identity," says Ruth Semple, head of communications, public policy and research at the Vegan Society. "Part of it was the way people perceive veganism – as something scary."
Semple, who joined the charity in October 2012, knew she had a serious problem to solve. Not only was the visibility of the charity low – among the public as well as journalists – but the branding and identity no longer reflected its aims. Rather than existing solely to provide information to help individuals become vegans, the society now wants to engage with policy-makers at a higher level on a wider range of issues, such as international development and climate change.
So Semple embarked on the charity's biggest-ever rebranding project, which cost £6,000. "At first some staff were resistant because they didn't see the need for it," she says. "They asked why we were spending so much money on design work when we should be doing other things."
Nevertheless, she went ahead with the project, drawing on pre-existing academic research examining the portrayal of vegans in the media – typically, says Semple, they were seen as ascetics or faddists - and analysing the 2013 membership database, which found the average age of members was 56.
"We realised that we needed to attract the next generation and find out what they wanted," Semple says. So she set up eight focus groups with the charity's target audiences. Students were contacted through the students union at the University of Birmingham – where the charity is based – and the society put a call-out on social media for non-members, offering a free vegan lunch to everyone who attended. Semple believes that all charities, even those with limited resources like hers, should consult focus groups before carrying out a rebrand. "They can be expensive, but if you have somebody in your organisation who has that qualitative research experience or who could be sent on a course, do it in-house," she says.
One consistent piece of feedback from the focus groups was that the logo – a sunflower on a dark green background – did not appeal. "They thought that we looked like a hippy, niche kind of society, which we're not," Semple says. What followed was a lengthy process to design a new logo: the charity chose turquoise lettering with the V depicted as flowering plant, symbolising a new era. It felt this design gelled with its new image as a vibrant, professional organisation.
The next step was to draw up some brand guidelines for the charity, setting out how staff and volunteers should portray the society and veganism as a movement. Semple recently ran a workshop with all staff, imparting these guidelines, addressing the logo, colours, typography, imagery and tone of voice of the charity's written and verbal interactions. Even volunteers will receive "visual identity" training. "Volunteers represent the society and it is important they are on-brand," says Semple. "The code of conduct is being rewritten and they must follow it - if they don't, our reputation suffers."
Since the charity launched its new website in April, traffic has increased by 50 per cent and the number of Facebook "likes" on the charity's page now exceeds 1,000 a week, compared with 100 to 200 previously. The number of volunteering sign-ups has risen seven-fold from five a week to 34, and businesses such as Ecotricity, Ikea and Tesco have sought to collaborate with the charity.
Semple says the increase in support is entirely down to the rebrand and attributes the success of that to thorough preliminary research. "It's so easy to think 'I don't want to do evaluations or focus groups; they take so much time' - but it is worth it," she says.
- This story has been corrected. It previously said the academic research referred to had been commissioned by the Vegan Society.