Since its first appeal in 1988, Red Nose Day has sought to raise
money for worthy causes in a style that is markedly different to other
charities and events.
Yet 15 years and thousands of events later, the brand faces a constant
battle to re-invent and re-invigorate itself.
Over the years, Comic Relief has varied its focus to keep the public
keen, coming up with gimmicks such as 'The Invasion of the Comic
Tomatoes' in 1993 and 1997's 'Small Change - Big Difference'
The diversity of the marketing of the event has been matched by the
alternating focus of the appeals. It initially concentrated on famine in
Africa, before addressing a host of medical and social issues in the
This year's event - 'Say Pants to Poverty' - has again seen the charity
come up with a fresh angle, which, according to media relations manager
Sarah Burke, 'works brilliantly as tackling poverty is at the core of
what we do, and it's a great opportunity for entertaining photos with
Since the inaugural event in 1988, the captive audience status - the
backbone of the telethon - has been diluted by the plethora of satellite
and digital stations available on our screens.
Burke admits that the charity is 'lucky to have strong support from
celebrities - the likes of Richard Curtis bringing in fresh talent and
continually coming up with ideas such as Celebrity Big Brother, enabling
it to overcome stiff competition at TV and charitable levels.'
Indeed the reprise of Channel 4's reality TV phenomenon - a rare piece
of cross-channel co-operation - epitomises the goodwill the event
attracts even among its erstwhile rivals.
The willingness of the organisers to expand into different areas is
vital to its continuing success. This year sees the advent of online
donations courtesy of technology giant Cisco Systems, as well as
campaigns targeted specifically at untapped fundraising sources in the
Shimon Cohen, CEO of Bell Pottinger PR which is handling publicity for
Cisco's involvement, believes that by implementing top of the range
technology (which can apparently handle 200 consecutive credit card
transactions a second) the charity can reach beyond the confines of both
the UK and the eight hours of broadcast it commands on a Friday
Harrison Cowley volunteered its services to the organisation and has
been promoting the charity directly in the regions through a mixture of
celebrity appearances, promoting local projects, and corporate
Director Alan Twigg denied that this was a reaction to dwindling
interest, but simply an attempt to enhance donations in areas which
often miss out on the London-centred festivities.
Burke dismisses the suggestion that necessity prompted a change in
emphasis, describing the move as 'raising the profile of the fund,
getting it back to its roots and making it relevant to people in the
regions who immediately associate Comic Relief with work in Africa.'
Patrick Keegan, media director at Freud Communications which handled the
launch of this year's campaign, sees a shift in the way money is
'Maybe there were more students sitting in baths full of baked beans ten
years ago than there are now, but that's because you can do so much more
and still contribute, such as watching a charity football match,' he
Indeed the raft of commercial arrangements involving Comic Relief makes
donating money easier than ever. A 1999 report by Business in the
Community showed that 86 per cent of consumers looked favourably on
firms which undertook good works. In the same year, Persil increased
sales by 25 per cent while raising pounds 260,000 for Comic Relief with
themed 'Red Nose' boxes.
While the companies involved will only say they join in because it is a
good cause, there is no denying that the firms are also able to improve
their corporate image as well as sales.
The use of corporate partners - 29 involved in various roles this year -
is also an opportunity for Comic Relief to make money outside of the
traditional five-week binge.
'It's just about looking for new audiences that we don't easily attract
through Red Nose Day itself,' explains Burke. 'This year we've had the
chance to get the attention of a lot of kids with the JK Rowling book
and, at the other end of the market, Delia Smith's book too.'
A slump in charitable contributions in the early 1990s was widely
attributed to the recession. This downslide has continued as the
majority of charities have seen both the size and the quantity of
donations continue to tail off.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has admitted the slump
could be linked to the launch of the National Lottery since 'some people
don't make a clear distinction between buying a ticket and giving to
However, while others have struggled, Comic Relief recovered
dramatically to chalk up record takings in excess of pounds 35m in
With economic conditions roughly comparable to those two years ago, and
the charity continuing to diversify and find fresh sources of revenue,
the real test for the publicity operation will be whether or not Red
Nose Day 2001 can raise even more.