The Samaritans have been providing support to people who are contemplating suicide for almost 70 years. Every year their volunteers answer more than five million calls.

Like many others, I’m worried about the impact that the pandemic is going to have on our mental health as we face the biggest challenge that society has seen since World War Two.

Last year the Samaritan’s worked with Spencer Du Bois to show it’s “so much more than a helpline.” Spencer Du Bois is a brand consultancy for social change. They work with charities to challenge attitudes, change minds, and inspire action. I wanted to speak to the Executive Director of Spencer Du Bois, Max Du Bois to learn more about how they worked with the Samaritans to bring hope to life with the life-affirming power of human connection, which I’m sure you’ll agree is something that we all desperately miss.

What was the challenge that you were trying to help the Samaritans to address?

The challenge we were helping Samaritans with was ‘relevance.’ The Samaritans brand was well known as the last line of defence; the helpline for when people didn’t think they could go on any further and wanted to talk or felt they wanted to end their lives.

Now, the Samaritans had a new corporate strategy that had been signed off by their fabulous chair and the Chief Executive. While the strategy focused on making sure fewer people ended their own lives, they didn’t just want to be known as the last line of help when they do so much more.

They had a range of new initiatives and ambitions to support people. For example, they work with schools and in prisons to raise awareness of mental health and they also want to launch a whole host of products that would help us build up our personal resilience to ward off suicidal thoughts. They also wanted to help us become a great nation of listeners. So, you might notice in a meeting, that your colleague is slightly down or a little distracted and you just might ask “Max, are you okay?” Or, another friend of yours might have been tweeting some really strange and disturbing things. Staff at Network Rail have already been trained to spot signs of distress because a lot of people try to end their lives on the railways, they’ll go up to people and ask if they fancy a cup of tea. And it’s that power of human connection.

But, where they were known, they were only known for their helpline. To realise the new ambitious strategy they needed to reach more people which meant an increase in donations and their donor base. They also wanted to recruit younger volunteers.

So they had a brand strategy that wanted to do one thing, but a brand that said another. Also, at the time there were a lot of mental illness charities that started coming in on the Suicide Prevention area. And we’re reaching out very effectively. The Samaritians believed that suicide deals with mental wellness. They didn’t want it solely defined as a mental illness. One in four of us will have suicidal thoughts, and one person, every 90 minutes act on those thoughts. That’s 6000 a year. So you’ve got this tragedy, it was decreasing in some areas, but for young people, it was on the increase, so that was the big challenge and it all revolved around relevance in a bold new mission.

Did the team have a ‘Eureka’ moment?

Yes, there was a eureka moment. Or rather several eureka moments that led to a sudden, wow. There was one eureka moment where having done a lot of work, we presented a brand positioning to the Chief Executive and our core team. The positioning described where Samaritans were then, and it was the kind of thing we knew we could get through the volunteer Council. Following a period of silence, we looked around and said, it’s not good enough. There’s some stuff missing, we need to be brave. And that led to a eureka moment that led us to the real powerful realisation – the power of human connection. Focusing on the power of this connection enabled us to bring hope to life, to reach out to people to connect. And that eureka moment actually was led by the Chief Executive at the time who had talked about this day in and out, it had been lying there just beneath the surface. And we just pulled that out and said, This is what it’s about.

So that was the Eureka moment. It was very heartfelt. And it was very brave of the organisation who could have just said, “No, we’re happy with this proposition that you just presented.” But as we said earlier, brand isn’t just a snapshot of where you are today, it has to take you to where you want to be in the future. It’s got to have that stretch. The Samaritans have a council of 120 volunteers who are on the front line. When we presented the ‘the power of human connection,’ I won’t say it was given a rough ride, but it was certainly thoroughly interrogated. Having said that, there were some great people on that council who stood up and said, “No, this is the direction we’ve got to go in” as well. Sometimes in branding, you do have eureka moments, often to me, it’s a gradual building of that momentum. And it gets to a point where things suddenly breakthrough and you look back and you go, “that’s it” and in hindsight, you wonder why it took so long to get there.

What was the story behind the design of the new brand?

During the strategic brand review, it came clear that while the old visual brand had been very good and getting them to where they were, it was a corporate brand. It had a logo. The graphic style was very much about isolation. It didn’t talk about the power of human connection, which is that golden thread that runs through the new visual identity. So we looked at it and explained to the Samaritans that they didn’t have a brand identity, they had a corporate identity. They needed more brand assets, something that was going to stretch across four or five generations. I don’t think many charities understand how difficult it is to get a brand to appeal to multi-generations, from the boomers all the way down to the xennials. Our ambition was to create a brand identity that symbolised the hope of human life. Every asset that we designed told the story of the power of human connection. We needed the brand to be able to live in the digital environment, which the old brand was really struggling to do, but also live in the physical environment and the fundraising environment.

We’ve kind of shot consistency in the head as a philosophy. We prefer coherence. You don’t have to be rigidly consistent with your brand application. What you want is lots of elements that can morph and map around the outside world, but all have a really clear centre of direction.

And actually, I’ve got to be honest, when you’re designing a new brand identity, there’s something magical that happens. I’m an analyst, so I’ll look at great creative work and try to analyse it by asking myself; is it distinctive? Does it stand out? Is it relevant? Will it connect with people? Does it capture your imagination?

It was a lot of really bright, capable, creative people really dedicated to the cause continuously pushing themselves to bring the Samaritans brand to life.

The new brand launched in March 2019, how has it been received?

They feel it’s been hugely successful, here are some of the key highlights:

  • 95% awareness
  • UK’s 11th most popular and 18th most famous charity or organisation.
  • Logo recognition is up at 47%
  • Online income has increased 262%
  • Social media reach has expanded 42%

The Samaritans are governed by a federal structure which is essentially the worst structure to try and rebrand. But we were lucky, the volunteers understood our ambition and embraced the new brand proposition. There was no rebellion which is highly unusual within federal structures. More people are visiting the Samaritans website and they’re spending more time dwelling on some of the most important pages.

Strategic brand reviews have the power to reinvigorate an organisation because it makes people ask questions and look at doing things differently, they bring people together behind a common shared goal because the volunteers clearly know what they do and love what they know. ‘The power of human connection’ has not only helped to align the Samaritan’s team, it’s driven up their awareness and their visibility. The new messaging has supported the Samaritans in their policy work too.

And I’m always suspicious of just awareness as a metric. For me, I like salience. The new proposition has driven up salience of key areas which has resulted in a rise in individual giving which is wonderful news! It’s also helping corporate partnerships. It’s been very popular with Network Rail, who have been launching major campaigns for them.

When I begin working with new brands I explain that people always overestimate the short term impact of a brand launch, but underestimate the long term impact. With the Samaritans, I’m really pleased the short term impact was way off the scale of everything we anticipated.

Spencer Du Bois builds brands that tackle some of society’s toughest challenges – how does the team approach these challenges?

We’re lucky enough to only work in the purpose sector. Originally we just worked with charities, but then we began working with health trusts, NHS trusts, and then with Universities.

We recently worked with Imperial College London. They wanted their brand to focus on the imagination and creativity of science to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. They are doing some truly fascinating work. They are at the forefront with their modelling and their science.

We’re lucky to work with a range of big and small charities. They normally reach out to us when they’re undergoing some form for step-change. We only work with clients that we feel can make a difference and want to make a profound impact on the audience they’re talking to. An example of such a client is Fight For Sight, who fund research into sight loss. In their market, you’ve got the RNIB and Guide Dogs. They raised about 500 million a year. Less than 1% of the money raised for sight loss is invested in research, but yet science is at the tipping point where we know so much more, and Fight For Sight has been producing new ways to prevent, diagnose, treat and cure sight loss. They came to us wanting to create a revolution in the way people view sight loss and change their perception that it couldn’t be cured.

If a client came to us and simply said that they wanted to increase their market share, we would interrogate them. There’s one question that I like to ask the board which is; if we take you away, what will the difference be? Can someone just go to another organisation and get exactly the same offer? I think that unless you’ve got something that is uniquely contributing to solving a problem or just helping support the people that no one else supports, you should actually look to merge and that takes a certain amount of conviction. There were three or four bowel cancer charities all during roughly the same thing, until two of them merged together. And I applauded that because I thought it was a great, great move.

At Spencer Du Bois we’re lucky to have a set of skills that we’re quite good at that enable us to help brands change the world. So it’s my, shall we say, luck, history and a lot of good hard work by some very talented people.

What advice would you give to other charity brands that support mental health and wellbeing?

Before I give any advice, I’d want them to know that I think they’re fucking amazing. Never have you been needed more.

And I then also say don’t rest on your laurels. Mental health is a global epidemic. As a result, many charities are responding to the needs of their patients and offering mental health support in addition to their core offer, but it’s important not to forget about your core. This is how some charities lose their way.

This is controversial, but I think sometimes we’ve reframed the debate of mental illness into mental health and slip into mental well being. And I think there’s still a lot of people who suffer from severe mental illness and there still is a lack of understanding and awareness of severe mental illness and their needs are overshadowed. I’d like to highlight the work of the Richmond Fellowship, and  the Recovery Focus Group who brought together several charities that want to make recovery a reality. I love the Richmond Fellowship and the Recovery Focus Group because they don’t want to just “warehouse people” but help them move forward. What I’d like to see is a revolution in mental illness that makes recovery a reality, that makes it their definition of recovery, not some generalised impact goal. So it’s not just warehousing and stabilising, but it’s pushing the agenda forward. And actually, I think, during the Covid-19 crisis the focus on mental wellbeing will have helped people that are struggling. But I’d really like to now see mental health charities come together to push the agenda forward and say people with severe mental illness aren’t freaks, that they’re people just like you and me, who have challenges that we need to support.

Before I go, I wanted to talk about one of the big things that I’ve noticed. Some people have been looking at the pandemic and proposing an economic response because we’re frightened of its economic impact. But this isn’t an economic crisis. It’s a social crisis. With an economic impact. There’s a very good paper looking at how we can turn this crisis into social impact. In the report, they compare the HIV Aids crisis to the Financial Services crisis of 2008/9.

Now, my view is that because HIV AIDS was a social crisis and the financial crisis was an economic crisis, they have very different interplay. The author believes there were great social strides made following the HIV/AIDS crisis but he says there was no substantive social change after the Financial crisis, although we all wanted it.

To support the Samaritans please visit their website.

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