Pulling down walls

The National Trust stands accused of being stuffy and standoffish, but that could change with a new digital strategy to connect with the masses and an effort to show its campaigning side. By Rufus Jay

The National Trust is injecting £5m into digital marketing to put the internet at the “heart of its communications” and overturn the charity’s staid and stuffy image (MW last week).

It plans to overhaul its digital strategy over the next two years, allocating £2m each year to a new department of 25 people led by Nick Burne, the National Trust’s head of digital media. A members’ social networking site will encourage users to share photos, while other projects include streamlining and redesigning the website, advertising and sponsorship pilots.

A National Trust spokesman says the idea is to engage people emotionally and deepen the relationship with everybody who is involved. He says that membership had previously been sold as a value proposition, but the Trust now wants people to join “because they believe in what we do”.

The spokesman says the National Trust is seen in the same light as the BBC, a national institution, but warns: “I think there are some that find us stuffy, stand-offish and posh, and we need to address that.” He adds there is a tendency for people to believe that the National Trust just looks after stately homes, but he points to the 700 miles of coastline and over 600,000 acres the Trust owns. “We are going to put a lot of emphasis onto what we do beyond stately homes and remind people we are a countryside, nature and wildlife organisation.”

The charity was founded in 1895 by three Victorian philanthropists – Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, because of concerns about the impact of uncontrolled development and industrialisation. It aimed to be the national guardian in acquiring and protecting areas of the coastline, countryside and buildings which are under threat. Over a century later it is now one of the largest organisations in the world and has 3.5 million members. The charity looks after 612,000 acres of countryside in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus over 700 miles of coastline and more than 200 buildings and gardens.

Observers agree that the National Trust has a rather staid image. “Some of the associations around the Trust are that it is posh, stale and middle England,” says Izzy Pugh, associate director of cultural insight at branding agency Added Value.

Anna Eccleton, director at the Value Engineers, says the National Trust is associated with “hunting, green wellies and Land Rovers. It has to be inspiring to people, otherwise it’s just dusty old buildings.”

Last year, the Trust’s total income was £357.2m, with membership subscriptions (£100m), direct property income (£82m) and legacies (£47m) making up the bulk. National Trust Enterprises, the commercial and licensing arm, contributed £48m.

Eccleton says the National Trust is not doing badly, but says it must move into the mainstream. “It is bang on trend inspiring outdoor weekends,” she says. “It could capitalise on that. At the moment it’s a club people are not sure they want to be a part of.”

It is not the first time the Trust has tried to turn around its image: in 1967 it came under fire from Commander Conrad Rawnsley, grandson of Canon Rawnsley. He lambasted leadership for being out of touch with ordinary members, elitist and too concerned with country house preservation, and subsequently sacked its appeal director of enterprise. However, there were signs of change and that same year the Trust began two Acorn camps, the first of its working holidays for young people. A couple of years later, in 1970, the Trust founded National Trust Enterprises to sell branded merchandise at its properties.

But Pugh adds the Trust is taking a much more modern and interactive approach these days by getting people involved. “Its website is focused on visits, whereas before it was focused on property and heritage,” says Pugh. “It feels like it is now helping people make use of the British countryside, not just helping stately homes. This is partly due to the digital environment.”

Pugh says that the charity environment has evolved and that change may also have been a driving factor behind the National Trust’s digital push. “The National Trust is nice,” she comments. “But it doesn’t have a driving mission in terms of competing against other charities, and it has strong competition.”

Its voice is passive; it doesn’t sound as if it’s campaigning for the protection of heritage and the integrity of the countryside, she says. “It doesn’t have the emotions, the passion and conviction of, say, Amnesty or Oxfam. The charity environment has evolved, making the National Trust look a bit blinkered.”

Its very set-up means the brand has no “direct” national competition, although bodies such as National Heritage and local conservation charities also fight in a similar space.

The National Trust spokesman agrees it must do more. “We have to maximise the value of the product.” He adds that the Trust’s Web presence has been far too passive and that it is not “on broadcast”. The spokesman adds: “Here is a real opportunity to revolutionise our relationship with the public, not just our members.”

The National Trust is performing well as a charity, but appreciates the flaws in its brand. Through the internet, it hopes to educate and engage people and change the negative perceptions that cling to the brand.

Timeline:The National Trust 

1895 Founded by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley 

1927 Stonehenge Down acquired after national appeal 

1931 National Trust Scotland established 

1970 National Trust Enterprises formed 

1981 Trust membership hits 1 million 

2007 Trust membership reaches 3.5 million 

2008 National Trust launches £5m digital push

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