CMO

How a brand refresh is helping Guide Dogs Australia transform its national approach

Marketing and comunications centre of excellence leader shares the historic work to launch the first national brand in 60 years and the client-centric collaboration it's triggered

Shifting perceptions of guide dogs as a literal representation of Guide Dogs Australia’s trusted services to icons of the powerful attributes driving the not-for-profit’s wider approach is the “bodacious” goal behind a landmark national brand effort.

Guide Dogs Australia was established in 1958 and runs on a federated model, with participating states localising brand, services and programs of work. A decision to unite to better communicate the breadth of services the organisation provides people with low vision or blindness has led to a transformative program of work that has gone well beyond a visual brand refresh.   

Guide Dogs Australia head of marketing and communications centre of excellence, Charlie Spendlove, told CMO that while teams had been working well together, it became apparent there were fragmented and inconsistent representations of brand across the country. This had led to efficiencies internally and confusion externally about what the NFP provides.

“Frankly, it was a dog’s breakfast in the way brand was represented. It wasn’t marketing ourselves and leveraging the equity we have in this iconic brand well,” Spendlove said. “Importantly, it was also confusing for the people we serve. More and more, people with low vision and blindness are accessing multiple providers in multiple states. We had to be accessible as a brand and easy to deal with.”

Another change driver was rising demand for the NFP’s services as a result of Australia’s ageing population and the rise in eye conditions such as macular degeneration. Even more concerning for Spendlove was research conducted by Guide Dogs Australia three years ago, which found people waiting 3-5 years before seeking support as their eyesight deteriorated.

“That was a terrifying statistic for us,” Spendlove said. “Not only are people waiting too long, it’s so much harder and longer to rehabilitate. Also, they didn’t understand the range of options available to them in terms of service provision. It was very concerning to us as a mission-based organisation.

“We are focused on supporting people to independence and living the life of their choice... To think people were becoming more isolated as they weren’t seeking help and losing that confidence was worrying.”

The NFP is best known for its guide dog services and has the word ‘dog’ in its brand name and featured in all marketing. Yet guide dogs actually only make up 30 per cent of the services Guide Dogs Australia provides today. Spendlove highlighted other support services on offer include orientation and mobility support, white cane training, children’s’ development services, and supporting people with acquired brain injuries who have lost vision.

“Many services wrap around the person. And a guide dog isn’t for everyone,” she said. “We needed to make sure we could be mission driven and support people to get back on their feet. To do that, they needed to know what we do.”  

Recognition the states were “more the same than we are different nationally”, a historic shift commenced in the way Guide Dogs Australia gets its message out.

Finding consensus

“It was the biggest and most sophisticated piece of collaboration across the federation in our history,” Spendlove continued. “Looking at brand, which is arterial to everything we do, it was a natural progression to finding other synergies to work together while still retaining a localised approach to our markets.

“So while brand is significant piece of work, there are a number of other national programs running in parallel to build efficiency and interaction in all we do.”

Three centres of excellence were set up nationally: Guide dogs and innovation in that space; marketing and communications; and fundraising. Formal structures and frameworks have been introduced to be consistent and share assets and thinking while ensuring diversity of thought.

“The first thing I’d recommend anybody does is to be clear on the scope of what you are trying to achieve and have strong team principles and rules of engagement around how you are going to collaborate,” Spendlove advised. “Excitingly, while marketing leads in each state were leading the conversation, there was also a broader cross-functional team to provide reference points to the whole organisation. Whether you’re in the kennels or in fundraising, you were engaged from the beginning of where this project could support you and your input into it.”  

Guide Dogs Australia called its strategy “go slow to go fast”. Alongside internal teams, it brought on FutureBrand to ensure the right people were in the room from the beginning and progress the brand rethink.

“Often people feel marketing strategy is ‘done’ to them rather than co-designing the process. We worked hard to put the right governance frameworks and decision-making matrix in place so any rubs or conflicts would come back to an objective strategy to make decisions in terms of improving client outcomes,” Spendlove explained.  

Consumer research as well as brand testing involved 3500 stakeholders nationally. For Spendlove, a personal moment of clarity occurred during brand user testing. “It was with a mother of one of the children we support, and as we were talking through the new branding, I could hear the child say ‘that’s Guide Dogs’. It was the first time the child could read our brand because it was so simple and clear with the right contrast,” she said.

In addition, Guide Dogs Australia undertook a digital audit with partner, August, finding more than 40 social sites and 20 websites and microsites across the federation. Four state-based sites and the mothership site have now been consolidated on the same multi-site code base. All five refreshed sites launched simultaneously in February and are designed with accessibility front and centre.

The NFP also opted for a single social channel. “That has freed up time to create more engaging content rather than doing administration. We’re outperforming competitors 7:1 in this space and that happened within six months,” Spendlove claimed.  

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Agency partners were instrumental collaborators. “FutureBrand really got it and took time to understand the problem we were trying to solve. Their experience working with the NDIS was very useful, but the way they collaborated was like they were part of our team, as did August. Everyone worked together,” Spendlove said.  

To rebrand or not rebrand

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of fear and trepidation about removing the dog from the NFP’s brand and visual imagery given how much it’s loved by fundraisers and consumers. Spendlove said debate on the brand name reached all levels of the business.

“The ultimate view was that the brand equity was so strong and trust is such a key differentiator, that to try and recreate that in a service would somehow sully the authenticity of who we are,” she said. “Over time, with the right strategy, we hope to shift the memory structures of those around us to stretch our brand into other spaces. Plenty of brands have done that - Virgin, for example.”  

Credit: Futurebrand


Work was also carefully done around photography. While the guide dog in not pictured in the brand logo, the NFP continues to use imagery of dogs in many materials.

“We had to consider an almost paradoxical position where we’re trying to communicate we are more than dogs to clients to make the biggest social impact, but at the same time we’re reliant on dogs to fundraise for us - their interest is in the dog,” Spendlove said.

What became clear was the attributes these iconic animals represent - care, focus, trust, loyalty and playfulness – are also the attributes running through the veins of the whole organisation, she said. “That came through clearly in the research – it’s such a clear point of difference we just weren’t communicating,” Spendlove said.

The new branding sits under the overarching idea, ‘Find your way’. The logo has been refreshed through bright and positive colours supported by directional graphic patterns designed to add energy and movement. There’s a fresh photographic approach to celebrate achievement in everyday moments and human connection, and a full stop added to the end of “Guide Dogs.” in the typography.

Guide Dogs Australia’s big ambition is to have the highest level of social impact locally and globally and get people seeking help earlier while reducing the stigma of going blind. It’s a big long-term goal, and Spendlove agrees it could take 3-5 years to see impact.

Credit: Futurebrand


But thanks to the brand work, teams are sharing assets and have improved operational efficiencies across the board, allowing staff to focus on service delivery. “That’s one of the most responsible things a federated model should be doing,” she said.  

What’s more, the trust the NFP carries holds it in good stead in an environment where trust is crucial to consumer decision making, Spendlove said. “The guide dog is the epitome of that trust. We need to hold that up and continue it in every service we deliver.”  

The NFP’s next step is developing several evergreen assets that will be brought to market over the course of next year. Spendlove said these will aim to reinforce the brand campaign and help improve awareness of Guide Dog Australia’s non-dog services long-term. The organisation is looking to ongoing brand benchmarking to measure its success on this front. Other ROI indicators include lead generation, channel interactions, earlier connections with consumers and conversation rates.

“We are extremely good at storytelling, it’s just a question of continuing to remind about who we are and why we are different,” Spendlove said.  

“New colours and fonts can feel like vanity, but I know at the heart of what we’re doing is trying to make our brand so much more accessible.”

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