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Relaunching the lifeboat

As the tide begins to go out on charity donations, the RNLI is having to find new ways of staying afloat. Helen Jones reports
THINK of lifeboats and you either conjure up images of dramatic rescues at sea in hi-tech boats or elderly women rattling tins and handing out flags.

Both pictures are true but the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) suffers from confused public perceptions about its role. Since it was founded in 1824 it has always been a charity and volunteer organisation. The pounds 50m to pounds 60m needed to run the service every year comes entirely from voluntary contributions but, according to Edward Wake-Walker, the head of public relations: "Because it is one of the country's emergency services it is difficult for people to grasp that with its 215 lifeboat stations and fleet of 300 lifeboats around the coast, the RNLI is not funded by the Government at all." Some people even assume that the "RN" in its name stands for Royal Navy.

The RNLI is also having to compete with other charities for public support. Mr Wake-Walker says that as head of public relations his job is a challenging one because the service the RNLI provides is not always highly visible.

Last year's long hot summer put unprecedented pressure on it. Lifeboats were launched 1,557 times in August, an average of 50 a day compared with an average of 17 a day the previous year.

But as Mr Wake-Walker says, this does not receive much publicity because lifeboat crews, who are all volunteers, are naturally unassuming and do not tend to shout about their work. "There are some amazing rescues but lifeboat men are modest and they do the job so effectively that they save nearly all the people who need to be saved. Undoubtedly we generate more attention and support if there is a disaster."

While maintaining a fairly low profile, the RNLI is also facing a fall in a traditional source of income - legacies. Mr Wake-Walker said: "We get 60 per cent of what we need annually from legacies but in the last two years there has been a downturn. Research shows that in the next 10 years all charities will face the same problem: as people live longer they have to spend more of their capital on care and consequently do not have as much to leave in their wills."

The RNLI is therefore paying more attention to marketing. It is unveiling a new corporate identity created by Michael Peters Limited, a design firm. David Riddle, the senior account director at MPL, says: "Before the redesign, the RNLI logo looked institutionalised and old fashioned, reinforcing the misconception that this was a Government department rather than a modern, efficient and sophisticated, self funding operation. We drew on our commercial experience for companies such as Powergen, Safeway and the BBC to help change these perceptions."

The logo has been revamped and simplified and the name changed to lifeboats rather than lifeboat to emphasise that the RNLI has a fleet. However, Mr Wake-Walker notes that unlike other businesses the RNLI could not undertake a radical redesign but has had to go for a subtler approach. "A total redesign would have entailed a lot of costs as we would have had to redo everything from letter headings to the livery on the actual boats and we could not afford to do that." But he adds: "MPL not only modernised our identity, it has also established standards and procedures for its application across the whole of our organisation, which will lead to significant economies in management time and therefore cost."

The RNLI is now planning an above-the-line advertising campaign to increase funds. "We are planning to do a small amount of tactical advertising and this will have to contain an `ask' element," Mr Wake-Walker says. This will be supported by the RNLI's continuing direct-mail programme.

However, despite the growing emphasis on marketing, Mr Wake-Walker admits that the RNLI's most visible face remains those ladies on street corners with their collecting tins.