Earlier this month, Macmillan Cancer Support was hailed as the most successful charity brand in Third Sector's Charity Brand Index.
Because Macmillan beat bigger names such as Cancer Research UK and the NSPCC, the victory was interpreted as evidence that smaller charities can punch above their weight.
I don't agree with this interpretation. One of the reasons so many people have heard of Macmillan nurses is that one in three people in this country is affected by cancer at some time. We are so familiar with Macmillan that it is almost a generic term - we use it to describe any medical person concerned with palliative care. Consequently, Macmillan has a high level of recall and is a widely recognised brand.
A cursory look at the top 25 charities in the index reveals that the organisations whose brands are most successful are those that have made a big investment in external communications over sustained periods, enjoyed exceptional access to free exposure via TV programming or achieved visibility through people - as in the case of Macmillan.
So although Macmillan has less cash to invest in its paid-for external outreach than some of the other top 25, it achieves high visibility simply by calling its staff by its name.
The inescapable fact is that no charity made the top 25 without a massive level of external exposure. Regardless of whether it has been achieved through a large direct spend on advertising and direct marketing, or a large indirect spend on PR and media outreach, all these organisations have a high level of visibility and all of them have sophisticated approaches to maintaining their place on that list.
These charities have brands that leverage change, raise income, influence behaviour and further their aims. That's something all charities would like to be able to do, but the index offers scant hope that this is possible without a sustained programme of investment in external communications.
The solution is to be highly focused. Most charities don't need to reach the general public - only sections of it. The more focused we can be about identifying and narrowing those sections, the more effectively a strong brand can be developed and built.
It is possible to have the best brand with the right target audience for your work and be virtually unheard of by the wider world. You need to expand the brand only as the charity expands and the need for it increases or changes. Until then, although we might also aspire to the brand recognition of Macmillan, we don't necessarily need it in order to be effective.
- More Communications at: thirdsector.co.uk/resources/goodpractice
- Mirella von Lindenfels is director of Communications Inc
FACT FILE - Charity branding
The inaugural Charity Brand Index was published on 9 November in partnership with PRWeek and market research company Harris Interactive.
The rankings were based on a survey of 3,032 members of the public. Respondents were asked questions on subjects ranging from recognition of the charity's name and support for its cause to their level of trust in it and whether they remembered seeing media coverage.
Macmillan Cancer Support has an annual income of £126m. The second placed charity, Cancer Research UK, has an annual income of £476m.
The other charities in the top five were the NSPCC, the RSPCA and BBC Children in Need.
In a 2007 study of charity brands by consultancy Intangible Business, the top five brands were Cancer Research UK, the National Trust, Oxfam, the Salvation Army and the British Red Cross.