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Case Study: The National Trust - direct marketing as brand leader

Direct marketing is extremely important to the development of the National Trust and is instrumental in developing a brand strategy.

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The National trust is one of the UK’s leading establishment brands. Now just over 100 years since it was founded by three Victorian philanthropists, it has developed from an idea and a small donation of land to the UK’s leading independent heritage charity and NGO. The National Trust is backed by its own Act of Parliament of 1907, which provides a legal statement of its purpose: to promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and buildings of beauty or historic interest; an asset not always enjoyed by commercial firms.

The National Trust also has a more varied responsibility than any other conservation body. It was, for example, the first organisation in Britain with a statutory requirement to conserve wildlife and geological features in the countryside. For example research suggests the National Trust does more for the British countryside and wildlife than Greenpeace. This also leads it into profound research into issues of conservation: for example, the deep complexity of places and their value to people and habitat, as well as the depth and diversity of meaning and significance Trust properties have for a vast range of people.

During the post war period when owners of stately homes found themselves heavily taxed, particularly with respect to death duties, the National Trust was undoubtedly responsible for rescuing and conserving a substantial portion of the nation’s built heritage and landscape. As a result the National Trust is now a major landowner as well as having nearly three million members who contribute to the upkeep of these resources, thousands of volunteers who contribute some two million hours of support time, and millions more who enjoy open areas in their rambles and site visits.

The National Trust seeks to update its mission by addressing Britain’s wider cultural heritage, symbolised by the workhouse at Southwell, as well as emerging and contemporary issues of heritage under threat, for example in England’s urban landscape.


The culture of the National Trust is first and foremost that of an inspired curator.

The focus was on the acquisition of heritage and the provision of experience, with some tension between the need to protect the heritage and to make it available.

However the development and growth of the National Trust not to mention its ability to keep financing the conservation and resource requires money and this in turn needs fundraising and membership acquisition.

Furthermore, merely to stand still requires new member recruitment. Of the nearly three million National Trust members, slightly over ten percent do not renew their membership. One third of these occur because the members die or move abroad and a further third cancel because of changes in their circumstances.

Until 1995, the National Trust had only actively recruited new members through ‘face-to-face’ activities at its range of properties throughout Britain (the source of 60 percent of new members) or other events (the balance). In the previous ten years, it had engaged in membership drives through teams of professionals approaching members of the public directly. However, the numbers of recruits from visitors to National Trust properties levelled off, and forecasts indicated that these would decline.

The National Trust had become a victim of its own success. As visitor numbers stabilised and more people became members of the National Trust through face-to-face marketing at the National Trust properties, so there were fewer ‘casual’ visitors to recruit. This provided the impetus for change.

The direct marketing challenge

As a result, Denise Cummings, then manager of member promotion and development, was put in charge of developing a direct marketing programme and testing its effectiveness in acquiring new members. They developed a new database, which went ‘live’ at the end of February 1995. Using this database and complementary software, the National Trust could – for the first time – personalise outgoing mail. Having these new resources available enabled the National Trust, through its Promotion and Development department, including Carolyn Young the direct marketing manager, to develop a strategy for using direct marketing to recruit new members.

Within six years, this approach was generating some 76,000 new members for the National Trust each year – or some 21 percent of all the National Trust’s 360,000 or so new membership recruits each year. The number of new members recruited through direct marketing has risen each year so far – from 18,000 in 1996, to 36,000; 60,000; 62,000 and then by 2000, 76,000. In each year since the beginning of the direct marketing campaign, the revenue from ‘first year’ members more than covered the cost of recruiting them.

This activity also had political implications, particularly as the level of income that sites acquired to support their own team and activities was substantially dependent on the income they raised, including through the acquisition of new members. There were concerns about the possibility that direct marketing might lead to a cannibalisation of new member acquisition and as a result see a fall off in income to individual sites, who consequently felt threatened.

However, the evidence suggests that direct marketing is not ‘stealing’ potential members from those who would join the National Trust ‘face-to-face’ at its properties. Analysing National Trust members by their postcodes reveals that, traditionally, most members live close to National Trust properties. Indeed, most visitors live within a 50 mile radius of a National Trust property. In contrast, there is a significantly lower proportion of members recruited via direct marketing who live within this 50 mile radius. This suggests that the direct marketing campaign is significantly widening the scope for membership recruitment.

Furthermore, data on the retention of members suggests that the National Trust is retaining more members who were recruited via direct marketing than those who were recruited ‘face-to-face’. Development of direct debit and Gift Aid as methods for renewing membership has also seen the average ‘lifetime’ of a member rise significantly. These days, once someone has joined the National Trust, he/she is likely to stay in membership for more than ten years.

This analysis of the lifetime value of members, especially those recruited via mail, enable the Trust to take a strategic approach to membership recruitment. The longer members remain members, the more the Trust can afford to invest in recruiting each new member. The more budget per recruit, the larger the volume of admissible activity (remembering that direct provides accurate accountability).

Thus direct marketing therefore proved to be an extremely effective and growing net contributor of new members, as well as a bonus means of contacting and communicating the Trust’s services, values and aims to hundreds of thousands of people each year at no extra cost above the investment in new members.

The primary tool for the achievement of this was mail-media and over time a series of concepts were researched, developed and tested with progressive improvement. Focus group research led to better insight into why people wanted to become members, as well as the identification of different types of

members/customers with different mixes of core needs from the brand. Both qualitative and quantitative (direct response) techniques were useful in improving results. In 2001/2002, the direct team also began to intensify collaboration and partnership with and between agencies, meeting them as a team to review learning, Trust strategy, communication objectives and methods.

Issues such as effectiveness of the response incentive offer (a classic direct/sales promotion technique) also led to questions of brand expectations and impact. What fits the Trust in such a way that it stimulates action? Such questions, as well as the growing and developing activity and impact, led to a significant question for the direct marketers: what is the National Trust brand?

To read this case study in full click here.

Article by Angus Jenkinson, Professor of Integrated Marketing and Branko Sain, Research Fellow in Integrated Marketing at Luton Business School,

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