Branding Nonprofits – Case Study of The Salvos

salvoas red bucket

Branding Nonprofits – Case Study of The Salvos

Nonprofits face many difficulties when branding. Some of these are unique as the value proposition for a nonprofit is unique to that sector.

It is a social exchange with an intangible, higher-order reward as its value proposition. The key issues are values and vision, trust and transparency, organisational culture and structure.

Researchers agree that Values are the heart of the brand for nonprofits. This term appears to be used somewhat interchangeably with Vision and Beliefs. There is also agreement that trust absolutely must play a strong part of any nonprofit brand due to the value proposition.

Brand Personality has been mentioned only marginally in research and its strategic application as a positioning tool could be further explored.

The brand personality has slightly different attributes to commercial brand personalities and is considered very important.

The personality of the brand (the way in which it expresses its vision and values) can be a powerful identifier for particular target markets. The need to clearly articulate the values and vision is extremely important. Nonprofits are having some mixed success at doing this, not taking advantage of “the veritable goldmine” (Quelch, 2007).

Nonprofits need to be able to conduct branding on a lower budget and avoid being perceived as spending money on trivial or inconsequential matters. A model needs to be developed to enable practitioners, who may not have the skills of a commercial practitioner, to build a brand that is contextually meaningful within a nonprofit environment.

Funding and organisational issues pose challenges as well albeit not unique to nonprofits.  Structures should be established that best help the organization achieve its objectives as efficiently and harmoniously as possible, and that structure need not replicate a corporate one.

From their point of difference, nonprofits have enormous potential to maximise their brand equity. Communicating the values and vision are both its greatest stumbling block and its greatest opportunity. They need to reconfigure some elements of branding (the articulation of the symbolic aspects of visions and values) in a very different way to the commercial sector. 

However, in terms of acquiring publicly-donated money, they also need to define their customer more adequately. They should also use the leadership of the commercial sector to model ways of targeting, segmenting and positioning to support and reinforce this relationship.

Managerial Implications


The Salvation Army, affectionately known as ‘the Salvos’, is an international organisation which exists to offer people full life in Christ and to help those in need. It was founded in 1865 by a former Methodist minister in London and came to Australia in the late 1800s.

It has diverse operations including:

  • retail outlets in which it sells second-hand clothes, books, shoes, toys and furniture;
  • disaster relief;
  • aged care facilities and programs;
  • counselling services including drugs, alcohol, financial and gambling;
  • family tracing services for missing people;
  • churches and ministries;
  • moral support to frontline infantry soldiers during battle;
  • court and prison support;
  • rural support.

Each year the Salvos has a major door-knock appeal to raise funds. It also conducts direct mail, has information tray mats at McDonald’s, and enjoys free-of-charge media advertising, as well as television, radio, press, signage, bus sides, magazine and cinema.

It is Values and Beliefs-based rather than Vision-based. As there is no set final objective, it is not pre-set to decline as a brand.

Salvation Army achieves brand cohesion through a unifying ‘umbrella’: succinct, compelling international mission statement, set of beliefs, local “internal mission statements”. The “symbolic” attributes of its brand go hand-in-hand with attention to the “functional” brand attributes including the iconic ‘red shield’ logo, crest, uniform and flag and military motifs.

A Brand Story

Most people are unaware of its breadth of activities. A broader showcasing of the breath and history might benefit the organisation by differentiating it from competitors in the same category. A Brand Story as a simple way of passing on the message and history of the brand should be developed.

Brand and Culture Management

In order to operate within the culture of the nonprofit, the involvement of staff is critical. By combining the responsibility for Staff Culture with Brand, the brand could be then understood by all staff and applied appropriately at every level. This central team would manage the functional aspects of the brand including advertising, events, store layouts and signage and standards. They would also manage staff recognition and internal communications.

Key regional ‘Brand Guardians’ across the operations should be coached as to how they apply the brand – visually and behaviourally – in their areas. They should also be trained in the basics of writing media releases using templates supplied by the central team, in order that local media are engaged and the story keeps being told from multiple voices. The upshot is that national advertising and the grass-roots level supporting each other and speaking with the same voice.

Volunteers need to feel that they are valued and valuable. As such, Salvation Army might consider an internal recognition program. This would help staff feel involved and acknowledged as the unsung heroes that they are, as well as serve to model to other volunteers ‘best practice’ ways of applying the brand.

Trust and Communication

Like all nonprofits, Salvation Army needs clear and measurable key performance indicators. As well as publicly promoting these, it may be beneficial to state targets in more meaningful ways than dollar amounts. For example: instead of saying “the target is to raise “$250,000,” it could be “to clothe 50,000 kids in struggling families” or “get 1,000 drug-addicted youth into care.” This will help increase the sense of participation and involvement by donors and may attract those outside the target due to relevance.

Post-Appeal outcomes should be published thanking all donors and sharing the accomplishments achieved together. This would help overcome any post-donation dissonance. If the donation is generous, this should be in the form of a (proforma) personal letter sent at a regional level.

As the social exchange needs to be reinforced, the sense of accomplishment may help maintain loyalty. It will also close the loop in many cases where donors are aware of an issue, give money, and never find out concrete outcomes of how many lives the money helped save, how many tents were built after the earthquake, and so on.

Communicating achievements is important for both the prerequisite notion of trust, as well as the role of reinforcement it plays in the social exchange.

Transparency factors in the simplest terms eg proportions of donated money that go to XYZ should be published where they are readily available, such as online, not just buried within Annual Reports. Media attention through releases and stories at a local as well as national level should be generated upon completion of activities or achievement of goals.

Targeting, Segmenting, and Positioning

Research, if it has not been done already, would be beneficial to identify the key donor group(s), existing and future.

Armed with this information, more personal relevance to this target could be included in fundraising and disaster relief advertising. For example, if research found that the key donor group was average-income Australians with school-aged children, it might find it beneficial to get away from focusing on the dire plight of homeless teenagers and vagrant 50-year-old alcoholics if this is not of direct relevance to the donor target. Instead, it should focus on more everyday scenarios through which donors can make more of a connection.

As society changes, the positioning of the message also needs to change. Aside from the tagline “Thank God for the Salvos”, there is another common saying “God helps those who help themselves”. Post GFC, marketing communications might benefit from a focus shift away from the down-and-out toward beneficiaries more closely resembling the donor (ie getting a hand up, rather than a hand-out).

Involvement and Adding Value

Salvation Army might want to consider ‘productising’ the social exchange in order to attract new donors. Many charities offer a selection of merchandise commensurate with the donation (eg pens, badges, pins and ribbons). These charities include Red Nose DayJeans for GenesDaffodil Day, and many others.

One problem with this merchandise is that it is often ‘gimmicky’ and environmentally unappealing. Salvation Army might consider merchandise that reflects its history and practical nature of its brand, such as can-openers, hammers, rulers, school exercise books – the things that people actually need. These should be placed where conveniently reached by the target (for example Bunnings or Coles) as well as its stores and website.

By enlisting donors to become involved in the fundraising themselves, they provide a further element to the social exchange, the branded activity being a public expression of the donor’s values. This could also be highly effective in a business-targeted context where a whole team of staff may participate in an initiative, such as Movember, or a charity fun run, from which the organisation, as well as the participants, get some reflected glory. It also achieves a more grassroots community development, which could spread through the right event or experience, similarly to the Music Fairs previously held.

Salvation Army might consider participative events so that donors recruit friends, colleagues and family for their donations in order to undertake an experience. In keeping with its history and ethos, this might be a Kokoda Track challenge – both rewarding for the donor/fundraiser, as public relations and publicity for the Salvos. Salvation Army would then benefit from following these people up with positive congratulatory messages, as well as invitations to become more fully engaged in its activities. Such an experience would deepen the brand bond with these participants.