I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When charities start banging on about their Brand Identity it makes your heart sink like a stone.

I had a telephone call yesterday which warrants being shoved out into the ether. Well. I reckon it does. First, new readers of this blog will need some brief background. I manage a charity in Scotland and every month we hand out two hundred plus food parcels to the ever growing number of citizens who can’t afford to eat. To be honest, ‘food parcels’ isn’t the best way of describing what we give out. ‘Food Bags’ would be rather more accurate. Basically we put two and a half days worth of eating into a carrier bag. The contents are tins, packets jars and a loaf of bread and all you need is a microwave to cook it up.

OK. So that is all straightforward enough. What kind of people come in for these food bags? Just about anyone these days. From working families to chronic alcoholics and all stops in between. Loads of folk can’t afford a basket at Tesco these days. Are these people bad people?


They’re just people who have hit the bricks and hitting the bricks in Britain 2013 is not a good thing to do. I guess a fair proportion could be found under George Osborne’s ‘shirker’ umbrella which the tabloid press has latched onto with such enthusiasm. Let’s not get into all that. Basically these are fellow citizens who have come into hard times and like they say, everyone’s gotta eat.

So, Consider the scene set.

The relevant fact in terms of this blog is that First Base needs 2500 large carrier bags a year to do our stuff. For the last couple of years we have bought these from Lidl, by the box, for the sum of 9p each. Do we get a discount? No chance. Are we helping to destroy the planet? Probably. Should we shell out for some sort of uber-eco friendly bags made from re-cycled, biodegradable broccoli florets? Well maybe we should, but 9p a bag is about our limit. So Lidl plastic remains our bag of choice.

In the week before Christmas Carol and I were in the Barnado’s shop in Dumfries picking up some bits and pieces. Once we had paid up the guy at the counter asked if we would like a bag and we said sure, why not. The bag in question cost 9p and it was clearly labelled up as having come from Barnado’s. On closer inspection we both agreed at in terms of dimensions, it was actually way better than a 9p Lidl bag. Then of course we kind of figured that if we were going to spend the thick end of £250 a year on planet wrecking plastic, it would be rather better to invest the cash in a venerable old charity as opposed to a German grocer. And we also figured that it would be preferable for our food parcel/bag clients to walk the town advertising a much treasured childrens’ charity rather than a Teutonic purveyor of consumables.

I put this idea to the guy behind the counter and to be honest he was a little knocked back. The idea of anyone asking to buy 2500 carrier bags was obviously somewhat off the wall. He promised to have a word with his boss and get back to us.

No call.

Christmas came and went and the phone remained silent.

OK. Time for plan B.

Google – Barnados – Customer Services and a cheery lady who promised to talk with the Team in the Retail Department. And she promised that someone from the Team in the Retail Department would get back to me.

They didn’t.

Two weeks passed and the phone remained silent.

And looking back on it, alarm bells should have started ringing at the first mention of ‘the Team in the Retail Department’. Could Dr Thomas John Barnado have ever envisaged a ‘Team in the Retail Department’ way back in the Dickensian depths of 1866 when he set out to help the rickets ridden orphans of smog bound London? I bet he couldn’t.

Well, having waited a fortnight for contact to be established I gave up the ghost and tried again. This time I asked to be connected to the Retail Department and I was put through to the smooth voice that sounded all marketing and PR. She listened patiently to my Lancastrian tones as I explained how we bag up 2500 food parcels every year and would quite like to buy 9p Barnado’s bags to do the bagging.

At this point I could sense a feeling of quiet panic wandering up the phone line from London.

“You mean you would like to put emergency food for homeless people in Barnado’s bags?”

“Well it’s not all homeless people, but basically, yes.”

“I’ll have to talk to my Line Manager.”

Cue some music and a wait of a couple of minutes. I tend to get anxious when consultations with Line Managers interrupt a phone call. Organisations with Line Managers don’t tend to like the cut of the First Base gib much. They tend to see us as being too cavalier and not politically correct enough and maybe just too uncouth and Northern.

After a couple of minutes the smooth voice was back with me.

“I am afraid that we don’t think it would be appropriate for the Barnado’s brand to be associated with this particular activity.”

Ah ha! So that’s where all this was headed to. It was the Brand thing. Some of you might fond the idea of charities working on their brand image with the same enthusiasm as the likes of Nike and Chanel as being a bit strange. Absolutely not. Brand Identity is the new black for many of the big charities. This new state of affairs has come about over the last few years. Big charities have gone down the route of hiring in high profile Chief Execs to run their railroads along the lines of modern corporations. These individuals come in from the upper echelons of the corporate world and sometimes they even take pay cuts whereby they eke out a living on a lousy £100,000 a year to do their thing. These are of course man and women for whom Brand Identity is a major, major issue.

Well, it was made very clear to me that hell would freeze over before the iconic Barnado’s brand would be associated with a two bit charity from some godforsaken Scottish town complete with council estates and nasty poor people who can’t even afford a few items from the Tesco Market Value range. God forbid. I could sense the feeling of mild horror in the voice at the other end of the line as she summoned up hellish images of the horrid world in the frightening wilderness lands to be found north of the Watford Gap services.

At the top of this blog is the artist’s impression of the new Gucci Head Office that Barnado’s are building for themselves. It will be ready and raring to go by the spring of this year and the blub on the website promises ‘It will give us a modern, light and flexible working environment and provide the infrastructure and ways of working to enable Barnardo’s to continue to be the UK’s leading Children’s Charity.’             

Well jolly good for them, I must say. And let’s face it, if you were about to move into this kind modern, light and flexible working environment would you want your brand to be associated with a dodgy Scottish outfit doling out food to a bunch of shirkers? Absolutely not.

I wonder what Dr Barnado would make of it? Something tells me that he would have not been overly concerned about having a modern, light and flexible working environment way back then in the shit and squalor of Victorian London. I figure he would have been more concerned with cholera and diphtheria and TB and malnutrition and constant abuse. But what do I know about it?

Looks like we will be sticking to Lidl bags for a while.


  1. Disgusted of Turriff! Seriously. You think you've heard it all... so, I have 2 potentially practical responses. 1) Try and cut a deal with the co-op. (though if you fail there I'll just have another dream dashed!) 2. I have had a very quick look online for carrier bag suppliers. I guess you're looking at the 50cm wide ones (the big lidls bags) and the best deal I've come across for this size is £27 for a pack of 500. Which even with my dodgy maths suggests it'd be much cheaper than shelling out 9p a time. I'm happy to do a bit of online research for you on this and come up with 3 or 4 possible suppliers - shall I do that? Every little helps after all! I'm just so shocked that a) they don't offer you a discount and b) they think it's 'inappropriate' Stop now before expletives start. Anyway, say the word and I'll have a look for plain carriers which might fit the bill. Just tell me if it's the BIG STRONG AND STURDY Lidl's ones or the smaller ones cause it's a long time since I bought a plastic bag I use the reusable ones BUT I can see the absolute need for plastic in your case.

  2. I stopped donating to Save The Children for much the same reason. They had become 'corporate'. Such a disturbing and alarming piece. But Cally's right - you can get bags MUCH cheaper than this. The Co-op might definitely be a possibility. But for instance - look on eBay, here 500 strong recycled Jumbo carriers for £15.00. But there will be more, others. Most of these sellers are businesses so you could give them a ring and see if they could do you a deal. And you can bet they wouldn't be concerned about 'Branding' - yeuch! Shame on Barnardo's!