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editorial | Reviving the brand

Fresh blood at the Red Cross

Just because an organization has existed for a century doesn’t guarantee that it will be around for another 100 years. Even the most iconic, venerated institutions must struggle to keep up with the times, remain relevant, and ensure that their messages are continuing to be heard.

Years of declining membership prompted the Girl Scouts, founded in 1912, to shed an old-fashioned image with a “brand revitalization” campaign. The group revamped its logo and began to reach out to Spanish-speaking populations. To combat stagnating membership, Camp Fire, a similar organization founded in 1910, conducted 31 focus groups across the country. Camp Fire ultimately dropped its tag line, “Today’s kids. Tomorrow’s leaders,” because young people today “feel like they can be leaders right now,” explained Camp Fire CEO Cathy Tisdale.

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The American Red Cross, founded in 1881 by a woman who helped soldiers wounded in the Civil War, is also undergoing a much-needed makeover. In recent years, the national organization hired Gail McGovern, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, as its new CEO. McGovern has overhauled the organization’s IT systems and invested in social media. The Red Cross became one of the first organizations to use text messages to raise funds after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Here in Boston, Jarrett Barrios, CEO of American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts, is also using creative ways to reach a new generation of volunteers: happy hours — events he dubbed “Flirting with Disaster” — and a website where kids can upload videos about what to pack to survive a zombie apocalypse.

These tactics might not resonate with older volunteers who grew up rolling bandages during World War II. But they seem to be working for younger people. The average age of Red Cross volunteers has dropped from 58 to 45, according to Barrios. He says the average age of new volunteers is 27. That’s good news, because no matter how old an institution may be, its survival will always be at the mercy of the young.

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