On Friday I appeared on BBC Radio Newcastle's breakfast show and one of the discussion points was the Poppy Appeal and its role in today's society. As a supporter I was saddened and more than a little surprised by the extent to which there is confusion around what the Royal British Legion does and what the poppy itself actually stands for. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised because I know in terms of my own response that the messaging behind the Poppy Appeal has stopped resonating as much as it used to. From anecdotal evidence gathered since the show it seems this is a pretty widespread issue. With dwindling contributions, this needs to be addressed fast to safeguard such an important charity's future.
In recent times, public support has been captured by Help for Heroes which has won hearts and minds both young and old. Strong, consistent messaging and the use of a wide range of online & offline media has contributed to this, as has the use of those in and retired from front line service and their families, but this doesn't mean that the role of the Royal British Legion should appear any less relevant.
A perception study would no doubt shed light on what the British public feel about both charities but from the general response to the open radio discussion on Friday and conversations with others since, it is clear that there are those who believe:
- the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal is associated with WW1 and WW2, not current and recent conflicts
- there is a pressure to wear the poppy rather than this being a matter of personal choice
- wearing the poppy demonstrates a pro-war stance (this totally surprised me).
My opinion on the latter is that the poppy is a brilliantly chosen and highly emotive badge that recognises the casualties of war that we owe our lives to. I was profoundly moved when I studied the First World War in particular - this is where the poppy symbol originates from - and anything that draws our attention to all past conflicts, opens discussion on the rights and wrongs and allows us to learn lessons from these can only be a good thing. My toddler has already asked me why I have a poppy and I look forward to a time when he is older and we can talk about what it means, passing part of our heritage onto the next generation.
For me, wearing a poppy does not signify I am pro-war or pro-violence but grateful to all those who have given their lives across the years to safeguard our freedom. For me, it is a symbol of hope that by remembering the fallen, we will tread carefully where there is conflict and do the very best we can to achieve a peaceful outcome without the loss of human life. However, that's my interpretation and not everyone shares that view, which is significant comm's problem in its own right.
This past week there has been some excellent media coverage about the Royal British Legion's Field of Remembrance at Saltwell Park in Gateshead and as a comm's tactic I particularly liked the flashmob around Grey's Monument which launched the North East Poppy Appeal, being a fresh idea to drive awareness among younger generations.
However, this type of tactical campaign once a year may not be enough to sustain the Royal British Legion and its Poppy Appeal in the longterm. Although I know that every penny I give goes to today's serving members of the Armed Forces and veterans of all ages and their families, thousands of people don't and Help for Heroes is now occupying that space in the minds of the general public. This significant threat to its fundraising efforts should not be underestimated.
So where now? Without any real knowledge of the Royal British Legion's current strategy, I believe there are things it can do to modernise and win back ground. This includes:
- perception work to provide insight as to its position in the marketplace and inform its strategy going forward
- clarification of its messaging to tidy up confusion, dispel myths and re-secure its first mover advantage
- greater adoption of new technologies to spread the word and re-engage with supporters of all ages. Just think about how quickly people were willing to add a poppy to their Twitter avatar when the option became available. If you clicked the above link to the flashmob story, you might have noticed a lack of video and share functionality - even if it's on the Royal British Legion's YouTube channel, they should have provided a link (just checked and it's not)
- revisiting and repackaging content to re-engage with today's audiences (a potential way around budget issues)
Most powerfully, it should look to work with Help for Heroes to clarify the role of both charities and to harness the momentum and support the latter is currently enjoying. With its charity single (released by military wives, not celebrities) and numerous other campaigns, Help for Heroes has won the popular vote.
Without careful planning and clever execution by the Royal British Legion now, Help for Heroes could subsume it in the future or at the very worst drive it to extinction. Some might say Help for Heroes may have won the current battle for hearts and minds, but hasn't necessarily won the war. I'd say the most positive results may actually be found in the ground in between the two - a lot of good can happen in No Man's Land.