Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A brand icon for the noughties

A couple of months ago I was disappointed to see that my local Oxfam had closed – and I assumed that the newly opened Oxfam Books round the corner was now a replacement rather than an addition to the empire.

How very very wrong. The shop has now reopened as an elegant and inviting Oxfam Boutique. No smell of old ladies. Junky white elephant stuff artistically displayed round the back. Appealingly labelled fashion items. I loved everything about it.

Oxfam has been the gold standard of charity shops for longer than I can remember. It has also clearly articulated what it does – tackle poverty, probably most accurately the effects of poverty, as perhaps the political implications of ‘Make Poverty History’ make the task a tough gig. What struck me most poignantly, whilst standing in the Oxfam Boutique in Chiswick, was the brilliantly successful brand that could both be the face of fundraising in innovative, topical and reciprocal ways, as well as the face of effective, credible aid giving.

In the 60s we had an Oxfamilybox at home.
The innovative idea was that you made the box up (it arrived as a flat piece of card) and passed it around at mealtimes when you were appreciating your food and worrying about ‘starving Biafrans’ – the first serious famine that I can remember – and maybe the first one that got decent TV coverage. My interest in graphic design was kindled by the brilliant name/perpetual branding that ran right around the box. It still plays around my mind like one of those Escher staircases that has no end. 

Oxfam had been born in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief and openend the first of its shops in Oxford in 1948. Their innovative thinking and willingness to invest to accumulate (for which charities always gets criticism) has now really come of age. The boutique has beautifully captured the freecycling-recycling vibe in an elegant way. Those canny enough to know have always used charity shops as a source of ‘individual’ fashion – especially those amongst us with an art school background. The concept of reusing cast-offs is so green that it hurts. So much more ethical than the five-minute thrill of the Primark frenzy (despite the fact that we are now stressing over those children who are unable to help provide for the family as it’s unethical to employ them – help!) The boutique has cleverly divided its sustainable fashion into five categories (or is that sub-brands?):
  • Loved for Longer (which I think is a lovely idea) – high quality donated fashion
  • Fair Trade Fashion – labels like Green Knickers, People Tree and Wright and Teague
  • Reinvented (which I think is truly inspired – and inspiring) – pieces reworked by young designers and fashion students
  • Made with Love – accessories made by volunteers
  • Good Fashion Sense – designed to be different: organic, recycled, alternative fibres…
This is brand success indeed. I felt a mingled sense of pride, ehthusiasm, nostalgia – and more importantly probably, a strange willingness to pay the not inconsiderable prices attached. We are no longer talking ‘jumble sale’ prices – a trend that has been eeking in over the past few years but now seems more justifiable. And the very definition of a brand.

The whole Oxfam identity has been recently overhalled and refreshed by Interbrand. The new strapline, ‘Be Humankind’, which I think is delightful has met with, I think, surprising, controversy. Some people say they ‘don’t get it’. Some say it’s not campaigning enough. I think it has a touch of the Oxfamilybox about it. A compilation of appropriate words in a new and moving way.

What can we learn from this as a brand story? It’s a brand with authenticity, focus and purpose. It has been modest in its expansion over 60 odd years. It’s invested where it had to to create reputation, recognition and convey a message. It’s lucked into a trend. Respect to this brand icon.