The Girl Guides, a Canadian institution for more than 90 years, was in trouble. 'We were the largest invisible girls' organization in Canada,' says Georgia Guy, Girl Guides manager, external relations.

The Girl Guides, a Canadian institution for more than 90 years, was in trouble. ‘We were the largest invisible girls’ organization in Canada,’ says Georgia Guy, Girl Guides manager, external relations.

A lack of public awareness and increasing competition for a young girl’s time and her family’s dollar were contributing to an alarming drop in the number of participants. From 1996 to 2000, membership fell by 21%, leaving only 150,000 girls and 34,000 adults nationwide to carry on the tradition.

It came down to a simple choice, says Guy: ‘market or die.’

So the Girl Guides of Canada (GGC) embarked upon a cataclysmic campaign that served as a catalyst for change within the whole organization. ‘You go Girl!’ was the little promo that could.

The goal

‘We want more girls to get more out of Guides,’ says Guy. By focusing on a modern image, the Guides hope to slow the attrition rate and eventually increase membership.

The strategy

In mid-1999, GGC hired Toronto-based social marketing firm Manifest Communications, which conducted telephone surveys and focus groups with members and non-members over the following year and a half.

Research confirmed theories of low visibility (except for Girl Guide cookies) and an outdated image. Some went as far as calling the organization ‘militaristic’ and ‘geeky.’ However GGC didn’t expect focus groups to use words like ‘solitary’ and ‘lonely’ to describe the worldwide sisterhood that stresses just the opposite: friendship and teambuilding.

‘There were huge gaps between what parents and girls identified as priorities in an outside activity and their perception of what Guiding provides,’ says Guy.

Mothers identified team spirit, self reliance, confidence and values as important for their daughters. The girls said they just wanna have fun, friends and new adventures.

‘Although this is what we do, people just don’t know that,’ concludes Guy. So the strategy was not to change the principles of Guiding, but to change the image and the message. ‘Fun had to be louder than purpose.’

That rebranding challenge went to new Toronto-based creative company Fire Engine and its two partners, Andrew Csafordi and Tara Wilkinson. They were further challenged by the fact that the primary target – girls aged five to 12 – falls into the elusive tween market.

That target roughly spans the three youngest branches: Sparks, ages five and six; Brownies, ages seven and eight and Guides, ages nine to 12. Enrolling girls at a young age presumes a market for older branches as they grow up.

Strategic insights about tweens were folded into the campaign. For instance, they are opinionated (know what they like) and influential within the family (have sway over the decision to join), so promotional pieces had to appeal to them and speak their language.

The visuals are ‘zany and silly,’ says Wilkinson, a former guide herself. They also pumped up the traditional colours. Extremely bright shades of Sparks’ pink, Brownies’ orange, Guides’ blue and others were used along with the tag line: ‘We’ve changed… into the brighter colours of Guiding.’

The final decision rests with the parents, however, so they are also targeted, as are non-member women 18-plus for leadership roles. One side of mini brochures called ‘pocket pals’ is directed at the child, the other at the mom. The main headline, ‘You go Girl!’ is ‘a fun expression of support used by both girls and women everywhere.’

‘We wanted to show what fun and friendship feels like,’ adds Wilkinson. The photography shows girls in twosomes or groups laughing, blowing bubbles and making faces. Copy lines playfully promote the girls-only environment – desired by both parents and their tween daughters: ‘Freckles and curls, it’s just us girls.’

The copy also alludes to a more relaxed attitude towards uniforms because young girls are in that ‘let me be me’ stage, says Guy: ‘Come as you are and bring your friends.’

The execution

Last April, a ‘Funference’ was staged for 30,000 leaders to create internal awareness and drive orders for the new print materials. Adults played games while listening to the Backstreet Boys ‘to see through a girl’s eyes,’ says Guy, ‘To be the brand.’

Members loved the new materials so much that four times as many pieces were ordered as in previous years. Over four million posters, ad mats, bookmarks, brochure stands and sheets of tear-off tabs featuring the 1-800 number were shipped in May to prepare for fall registration.

To further liven the brand, a fun wall was produced at the Merton Street GGC headquarters in Toronto featuring promo headlines, wild colours, faux fur and canoe paddles stuck to the wall. The summer issue of Canadian Guider magazine was devoted to the new brand and included a pull-out poster.

Youthography, a Toronto-based youth research and Web site development company is currently reviewing content for the partially revised site,

The results

Census information won’t be in until January, but there is already evidence that GGC is on the right track.

Piecemeal information trickling in from the regions show merchandising is up, and the number of calls made to the 1-800 number has as much as doubled over last year.

The unprecedented volume of print materials has already run out, prompting a reorder. Girls are saving the pieces and treating them as collectibles, says Wilkinson, a sure sign the promotion is working.

As part of the strategic planning process, GGC is now reviewing every aspect of guiding – recruiting, training, uniforms, fundraising and program delivery – so that every contact point conveys the message. Building on this success, an electronic media campaign with major corporate sponsorships is planned for 2004.

‘It has re-energized the whole organization,’ says Guy. ‘It has been transformational.’