Matthew Sherrington: When rebranding is not the answer

The potential rebranding of Platform 51 shows that charities should not rush to change their names, says our online columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

"Platform 51, the women’s charity formerly known as YWCA..." So began Third Sector’s piece on Friday announcing wholesale changes at the charity, the offloading of service centres to other organisations and, yes, probably another change of name. 

It’s the sort of introduction that tells you a rebranding has failed. YWCA rebranded less than three years ago, saying the old name "no longer stood for anything". Since then, heavily reliant on grant income for service delivery, it has lost a lot of income and has been left in an unsustainable position. What a shame; I’m sure it does great work.

Platform 51 apparently signals the fact that 51 per cent of the population are women – but since it needs explaining, I think it’s safe to say the name doesn’t really tell you anything either, except, obviously, to those in the know. My mind jumps instead to a 1970s New York disco, Boots make-up and Harry Potter – plausible, if bonkers, associations.

So did the rebrand have much to do with Platform 51’s decline? Probably not. When you are heavily dependent on a few statutory funders to deliver services, they are going to trust your reputation for delivery and a name-change won’t make much difference. Public sector cuts are biting into funding for services everywhere. No, the name change was probably a desperate bid to reach a wider audience and generate new public support when the writing was already on the wall. Doing it so badly just won’t have helped, but with Platform 51 I’d guess deeper strategic issues have not been dealt with fast enough.

When you’re desperate, you make silly mistakes. Like thinking a new brand will draw new support like moths to a candle. Like deciding your existing name doesn’t stand for anything, when you just haven’t bothered to craft a compelling story that invests it with meaning and excites people. Like deciding your name is an old-fashioned acronym that no one knows, when it’s only you who’s bored of it, precisely because not many people know it. And like deciding that what you need is a clever contemporary name and logo, when it’s an indulgent self-reference that no one will get, never mind understand that there’s a compelling call to action lurking beneath.

If in doubt, don’t rush to change your brand. Remember, it’s not there for you; it’s there for the benefit of your various audiences. Whether you like it or not doesn’t matter. Work out your story first. Decide who you are, what you stand for and why people should care. Freshen things up. Maybe changing the name will still be a good idea. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant in fundraising and strategic communications. Follow him on Twitter

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