When Brand Goes Bad: The Red Cross Runs Into Trouble, Again

Many of us have lusted after the brand recognition held by the American Red Cross. No organization is better known, by name and by logo, by donors in every generation.

That’s great, until an organization runs into trouble. Then the brand recognition works against it. If a scandal had rocked a lesser known organization, there are few of us who would recall that when we received a solicitation a year down the line. But since the Red Cross brand is so memorable, we all remember its egregious missteps.

Last fall, as I chose where to direct my post-Katrina donations, the Red Cross’ bungles were top of mind. And so I gave to two organizations based in the Southeast that I felt were much more likely to use my money effectively to help hurricane victims. Early this week the New York Times reported that the Red Cross is now investigating wide-ranging accusations of impropriety among its Katrina volunteers.

Remember, brand goes beyond your nonprofit’s name, logo and positioning. Nothing is a more important brand component than your organization’s promise to deliver consistent value to its stakeholders. Your brand promise.

Since honesty is part of the value expected by Red Cross’ donors, relief recipients and other stakeholders, these recent scandals emphasize the organization’s failure to carry through on their promise. Now that’s a real disaster.

At this point, the American Red Cross is off my donation list for the foreseeable future. Its brand has gone bad, and I don’t see much hope of resurrection.

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Nancy Schwartz on March 30, 2006 in Branding and Messages, Case Studies, Fundraising: Innovations & Research, Nonprofit Communications | 4 comments
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  • Before you write them off completely, you might want to consider your local chapter. Mine reponds to about 4 to 5 house fires every week, helping people get the things they immediately need to keep going (eye glasses, perscription meds, hotel room, food, etc.). The local chapters have nothing to do with the national response. So, as you say, there brand is also hurt by accociation, but I feel I needed to point out that the local is unconnected (financially anyway) to the national.

  • Christmas Shown

    If interested, contact me more about my own experiences within the ARC Disaster Relief Operations in New Orleans; I spent nearly six months volunteering/working for them. Then spent about another 6+ months volunteering in various other Disaster Relief and Preparedness operations. There are huge problems; mainly due to the size, structure, and culture within the organization. I would be interested in a dialogue with you concerning the changes that have begun this past year within ARC from a National standpoint down to the local chapter reorganizations. Also the overall “gaps” within US society/government to handle such potential disasters.

  • Golden

    Hi Nancy,
    I worked worked for the Red Cross and was a leadership volunteer for them for many years. Tragically, I agree completely with your assessment.
    They have been branded far beyond their capacity and knowledge. They are down to fewer than 800 chapters, from a high of over 3,800. It’s a cautionary lesson to other nonprofits.
    The Red Cross has NEVER had to be competitive in its markets: for over 100 years they have had what amounts to a sole-source PR contract with the US Government. They get the majority share of both response AND preparedness dollars — when they are the agency that benefits most when people are not prepared. It’s a conflict of interest that we continue to ignore.
    You don’t raise BILLIONS if people are being safely evacuated and cared for by a united, prepared community. You raise billions on the backs of people suffering.
    They still use the most graphic disaster images in their preparedness outreach and education — when their own research from 1992 shows that it stops people from getting prepared.
    There are many reasons why local nonprofits refuse to partner with the Red Cross, or do so only to please a funder. It’s very sad, because so many good, kind people work and volunteer with them, and they are clueless to much of the history and politics.
    Thanks for the great site, blog and content, and for speaking the hard truth about an agency that impacts the nonprofit sector in such a big way.

  • Becky Wilkes

    I agree, also. I worked as a local chapter director and the emphasis was always on money, money, money – not services. Success was judged on how much profit you could send to Washington, not how many people’s lives you touched. When we decided to put our energies into a local organization, we were told by Red Cross officials that we’d have no luck because “Red Cross is bigger and has more power.” Unfortunately, that power has built an empire that misleads the public and garners donations that are misused. High salaries in Washington, positions that are unwarranted, and layers and layers of administration – without thought to the poor citizen whose life has just been demoloished by a disaster.

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