Brands need saving too: image and impact in values-based organisations

Competition among not-for-profits is tough. Success can depend on a strong brand, smart marketing and transparent corporate governance, as much as it does in any commercial business. But it's not enough to earn a great name. You have to keep it. Surf Life Saving Australia is learning tough lessons, the hard way.

Think dramatic coastal landscape, the pursuit of excellence, links to the Anzac legend, physical agility, community roots, mateship, the volunteer ethos and the Sunday sausage sizzle, and you have Surf Life Saving Australia.

SLSA has long appreciated the role brand plays when it comes to appealing to corporate sponsors and winning community donations. It also counts when engaging the membership of 160,000, more than 40,000 of whom are regular volunteers.


Professor Weewaradena points to the Mirabel Foundation as a resource-constrained organisation that has succeeded by maintaining a close relationship with its community, and with continuous innovation in fundraising. Established in 1998 to help the children of drug-addicts remain with siblings and living with blood relatives, Mirabel supported 1,144 children across Victoria and New South Wales in 2012.

Founder and CEO Jane Rowe believes Mirabel’s limited resources and niche mission have forced the organisation to become especially creative. One of the keys to Mirabel’s success is the strong association it has developed with the entertainment industry.

This year saw the 15th annual Music, Mirth and Mayhem event, Mirabel’s top annual promotional event at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Produced by comedian Lawrence Mooney, the event has featured an impressive line-up of performers.

The SLSA today faces the biggest threat to its public image since the Cronulla Riots. Safety, the very heart of SLSA’s reason to operate, is being questioned. The deaths of three competitors in the National Life Saving Championships over 17 years, and a perceived failure to prevent a recurrence, has plunged the organisation into controversy. Combined with a mass walk out by five out of six independent directors over governance and transparency concerns, and the organisation is in crisis. The risk is that the brand will be the next casualty.

Brand – the value of what others think of your product or service – is a recognised asset for most commercial activities or products. Brand values are the hidden extras that consumers connect with when they see or buy your product. In recent years, a deeper understanding of the power of not-for-profit brands has evolved.

The not-for-profit sector is recovering from an 11 per cent drop in revenue following the global financial crisis. Income is projected to increase by just 0.8 per cent this financial year. Commercial brands are behaving more like charities, through CSR (corporate social responsibility) and cause marketing, placing pressure on charities to up their marketing and brand communications game.

As early as the mid-90s, the SLSA undertook a formal brand audit. Its purpose was to better understand the brand and to make strategic decisions to exploit it further.

According to Associate Professor Jay Weerawardena, who specialisies in non-profit innovation and competitive strategies, SLSA has strategically used its historical, trusted and iconic image to differentiate itself.

The brand audit considered two stakeholder groups, he explains. The corporate community focussed on functional aspects of the SLSA: safety, Australian, healthy, community-focussed, wholesome; while the general community tended to see the brand in more emotional terms: trustworthy, honesty, honourable, friendly, efficient, responsive, dedicated, reliable. “Swim between the flags” was found to have a 99% recognition rate. No negative brand attributes were mentioned.

It was a great result. But brands are not static. The SLSA brand has had to evolve to keep pace with Australia’s changing community expectation. The organisation – and therefore the brand – has faced a number of challenges, from the exclusion of women, resolved in the 1980s, to accusations of racism, which emerged after the Cronulla riots in 2005.

SLSA’s ability to overcome challenges in the past, believes Dr Weerawardena, is because it has preserved its core values: safety, community, giving; and been prepared to acknowledge and adapt when change is due. But now the core values safety and giving are threatened.

“The stakes for not-for-profits are high,” says Dr Sarah Kelly, Director of UQ Business School’s MBA program, and an expert in sports branding. Nonetheless, she believes that long- term brand damage can be avoided, “if the organisation can reinforce its key values-based story at the heart of its brand and reach out to all of its stakeholders, including members, the community and existing, as well as potential, new sponsors.”

But if the brand image positions away from its core values, it loses credibility and results in sponsorship termination, and the damage may be longer lasting. “It is critical for organisations to assert strong values – a raison d’être – and reach out to their sponsors in the immediate wake of scandal around the brand,” she says. “With many non-profits increasingly adopting commercial branding strategies to compete in a cluttered market, there is risk that their unique values basis can be lost.”

How SLSA responds will impact on the organisation internally, but importantly for a not-for-profit reliant on good will and community support to the tune of $36 million a year, the brand will either emerge stronger from the crisis or be diminished by poor decision-making over the next few months.

Last updated:
24 March 2021