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Has the charity sector gone colour blind?

July 27th 2011

One way to build recognition of a brand is through association with a core colour regardless of the sector. If you think of easyjet you’ll probably think of orange for example. Coca-Cola is red. The Yellow Pages and funnily enough are yellow.

There are so many charity brands clambering to command (and maintain) public attention picking the right colour isn’t easy. Macmillan is green. But so is NSPCC. The Dogs Trust is yellow. But so is Cats Protection. Shelter’s red. British Red Cross is red. The British Heart Foundation is, yes red of course. I could go on and on.

This issue becomes paramount at running events when every charity wants to achieve maximum stand-out and none more so than on London marathon day.

When I was Brand Manager at Shelter our infamous Director of Fundraising told me our marathon vests had to be yellow, because yellow would provide the best stand-out, even though the corporate colour was red. Incidentally our Communications Director told me I couldn’t use the word “brand” either, but that’s a different story. Either way creating a marathon running vest is a very good test of a distinctive brand identity.

But what is worse still is when charities working on the same or a similar issue compete for the same colour. Breast Cancer Care is pink. Breakthrough Breast Cancer is pink. Breast Cancer Campaign is pink. Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life is predominantly pink. OK, so they may be different shades of pink. Baby pink. Hot pink. Maybe even magenta. Call it what you want. I still see pink.

Breast Cancer Awareness month in October and the problem gets much worse. Once called the “pink mist” it is now more like a thick pink fog and could even be counterproductive to build brand awareness – heaven forbid.

A report by London Business School, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and international business school INSEAD claims that gender cues such as the colour pink can activate “a defensive reaction” in women that may actually be a barrier to them engaging with cancer awareness campaigns.

Dr Stefano Puntoni, associate professor of marketing at Rotterdam School of Management and co-author of the report, says: “These defensive mechanisms interfere with key objectives of breast cancer campaigns. For example, they lower women’s perceived vulnerability to breast cancer, reduce their donations to ovarian cancer research, make breast cancer advertisements more difficult to process, and decrease memory for breast cancer advertisements.”’

No brand can completely own a colour, but they should definitely seek to differentiate themselves through the use of it. And a recognisable identity isn’t only about your choice of primary colour. A brand can be differentiated through its choice of fonts, photographic style, illustrations and graphics as well. Put together well and people should always recognise your brand even if the logo was covered up.

And whilst we’re bashing pink, and magenta, let’s not leave cyan out in the cold as that’s also currently in vogue. Parkinson’s UK was built around it and now the new look Action on Hearing Loss is built around both cyan and magenta too. Maybe it’s only me as a self-confessed brand geek that notices these trends, but if you want your brand to truly stand-out from the crowd ignore colour at your peril!

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Dan is The Good Agency's Head of Brand – and an expert on brand identities for third-sector organisations.

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