Behind the Brand: how Born Free preserves animal welfare, with Head of Marketing Matt Smithers

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Sure, when you think of animal welfare there are a few names that pop to mind. If the Born Free Foundation isn't among those, you've probably been missing out on a range of incredible stories and initiatives, campaigns and ideas that the foundation has been working towards for the past 36 years.

Born Free is the charity that offered us The Bitter Bond, ENGINE's Annual 2020 Gold-winning project in Animation. To date, the Bitter Bond isn't just a beautiful film – it is one of the most upsetting in the history of advertising.

Born Free has a beautiful story – and like most beautiful stories, there is sadly a tragic element in how the organisation came into being. But the founding family has been building on that event to keep fighting animal cruelty all around the world, building a powerful, established and successful brand that is one of the apples in the eye of the sector.

For this Behind the Brand, we reached out to Head of Marketing and Fundraising Matt Smithers, to learn more about what it means to be Born Free.

How was your brand born and what does it do?

Born Free Foundation is an international animal welfare and conservation charity working to end the exploitation of animals in captivity, conserve threatened species in the wild and reduce human-wildlife conflict.

Born Free was founded in 1984 by Virginia McKenna OBE, her husband Bill Travers MBE and their son Will Travers OBE. In 1966, Virginia and Bill had starred in the classic wildlife film Born Free, the true story of conservationists Joy and George Adamson who successfully reintroduced Elsa the lioness back to the wild.

In 1969, Virginia and Bill starred in An Elephant Called Slowly which included an elephant calf called Pole Pole. When filming ended Pole Pole was gifted to London Zoo by the Kenyan government. The actors campaigned to give Pole Pole a better life but in 1983, aged just 16, Pole Pole died. It was the death of this elephant that motivated Virginia and Bill to launch Zoo Check through which they would campaign to provide a better future for captive animals. This was the beginning of the charity’s unique heritage and Zoo Check later became known as the Born Free Foundation.

Today, Born Free’s mission is to ensure that all wild animals, whether living in captivity or in the wild, are treated with compassion and respect and can live their lives according to their needs.


What is one unique aspect of your brand?

As well as our unique origins story, one of Born Free’s key values is that all animals are individuals and each individual deserves the best life possible. This is why we promote compassionate conservation, which includes the protection and welfare of all species, but also all individuals.


Can you describe your brand’s personality in one sentence?

We pride ourselves on being approachable and honest, whilst showing passion and compassion in everything that we do, and we are resilient in our approach and tenacious in our pursuit to make the world a better place for wild animals.


What was the biggest challenge for the growth of your brand?

Eliminating the noise.  I’m a huge advocate for brand insights and I cannot stress the importance of understanding your brand and how it is perceived by consumers. Prior to brand insights being developed, activity was driven by personal opinions and individual preferences. The biggest challenge was drawing a line under our assumptions and opinions and investing considerable time and resource in understanding the brand, the audience and creating a plan for growth.


Which was the first huge success that you can remember?

There have been multiple successes at Born Free during our 37-year history, but for me personally (having been here 10 years), Bitter Bond was the greatest success. This campaign was developed with ENGINE to educate audiences about the barbaric captive lion breeding industry in South Africa. The campaign was seen by millions around the world and won support from influential people like Ellen Degeneres, Rick Gervais and Stephen Fry (to name a few). It drove record traffic to the Born Free website and resulted in a quarter of a million more signatures being added to our petition to end captive lion breeding, which we have delivered to the South African government for action. 


What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your brand in the next year?

The world is becoming more socially aware of the impact humans have on the environment, on nature and on our own wellbeing.  There is a growing movement that Born Free can, and will, be a part of. This behaviour change is paramount in everything we do, and through continued impact and education we can inspire the world to make positive changes, fulfilling programmatic objectives and making the world a better place for wild animals.  

How do we maximise this? We have built robust insights on our audiences, we have established key drivers and motivators to maximise our impact. This, coupled with continued brand loyalty and establishing shared values with consumers could significantly grow the brand next year.


Do you work with an in-house creative team, an agency or both?

Yes, we are fortunate to be supported in our mission by some incredibly talented individuals. PMW are a full-service marketing agency who work with us on growing the brand, and we work with ENGINE as our creative agency, who are the minds behind a lot of the public facing campaigns, most notably the award-winning Bitter Bond and Creature Discomforts films, and more recently Nature’s Closing Down Sale.


What do you look for in a creative agency?

It’s important to pick one which can push the boundaries and find innovative ways to tell our stories. The online space is crowded so the agency must understand our values and use these to find an angle to motivate and inspire our supporters as well as audiences who are not necessarily familiar with the brand. This lets us develop something impactful.

The most important thing, though, is the people we work with in delivering the above. I’m fortunate enough to work with great people at ENGINE, there is continued honesty and transparency in all of our conversations, the work we have achieved wouldn’t have been possible without these people.


What is one tip you would give to other brands looking to grow?

Research! You need a strategy in place, the direction the organisation is going. Once in place, you need research to understand your consumers, markets, trends, and competitors. This will allow you to identify target markets and the channels needed to get your brand in front of the correct audience. This research will allow you to build a clear path for growth and eliminate the problem of the strategy being driven by assumptions and personal opinions which, from my experience, can be a disaster.


What is your current role about? Any ‘typical’ day?

As Head of Marketing & Fundraising I’m responsible for the delivery of all consumer facing objectives, including revenue generation, audience growth, education, behaviour change, and brand development. Typically I’m working with my team (I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some great people) developing content and ideas to have an impact whilst delivering on the objectives.  All of which is the result of insight and trends to help reposition and maximise our outputs.

What’s your one big hope for the future of branding?

My hope is that brands use empathy and impact to set themselves apart. In the NGO sector empathy and impact are the foundations of building loyalty and trust with the brand, and I believe these values can be used in any sector to build a better connection with consumers.  


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