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5 Lessons from SickKids VS

Published:  12/20/2017
Adapted from a presentation at the 2017 AHP Annual International Conference by Lori Davison, MIA, VP of Brand Strategy & Communications, SickKids Foundation and Sandra Chiovitti, Director of Public Relations, SickKids Foundation

“In the fall of 2016, SickKids launched a new brand platform that caught the attention of media and charitable organizations all over the world. SickKids VS is a category changing marketing campaign that jolted the community, ignited conversation and fueled record breaking results for SickKids Foundation.” –SickKids


Here’s what we took away from the campaign:

1. Think like a luxury brand

In the marketing world, charities are most closely aligned with luxury brands. With an aspirational brand, such a high-end car, you don’t need the product. To buy it, you have to want it.

Charity is not something that people need, it’s something they have to want to do. Your communications team should make giving to your organization an aspirational goal. And to do that, a donor has to want to connect with your organization in order to make that extra investment. That’s how SickKids turned their charity brand into a performance brand.

2. Tap into untapped audiences

When you have an established donor base like SickKids did prior to the VS campaign, why would you want to change your tactics? “Brands like Nike don’t tell you the same story over and over. So we started telling new stories in different ways,” the team says.

For SickKids, a new campaign was set to fulfill new donor goals. They were interested in attracting new audiences and giving other people a reason to donate.

When they shifted from thinking like a charity brand to performance brand, they asked new audiences “not to help us but to join us.”

The Undeniable campaign was meant to “jolt potential donors on the sidelines” and to tap into audiences not yet reached. They saw increased conversion rates donations, attracted new audiences (younger and more male), and yet did not alienate traditional base. People who liked the campaign the most, in fact, were their core donors: women aged 45 or older.

To see exactly how SickKids jolted new audiences into action, check out http://www.sickkidsfoundation.com/.

3. Build your army of support & stay the course

Not all coverage of and social commentary on the SickKids VS campaign was positive. “We anticipated that a bold conversation would prompt conversation and be uncomfortable,” the team said. There was a negative reaction to the warrior, battle, and winning language. “People didn’t like that we were pitting patients against each other into winners and losers.” Some also claimed the videos did not show enough perspectives, such as people with different arrays of mobility.

However, SickKids had made sure to get buy-in from their community beforehand. “We decided not to respond and watched as our community came to our defense and advocated [for us.]” And the result was that the social media audit was 10,000:1 positive to negative comments—truly proof that building your community first is helpful.

4. Do it differently

“As marketers, what we are most proud of is that we really changed the conversation in the category, and that is how to be a leader,” the team said. “The brands that do something really well are the ones who do it differently.”

A somewhat unique aspect of the campaign was its flexibility. Like Nike’s “Just do it” campaign, the “VS” campaign is extraordinarily versatile. “Our strategy was to establish the message and later on have the campaign for the hospital,” the team explained. Because the VS campaign is so flexible, they believe they can continue to use it year after year, taking different positions and exploring different emotions.

5. Scale others’ success to your shop

You may not have a budget the size of SickKids’—but then again, SickKids doesn’t have a budget the size of most companies planning a massive marketing campaign.

The team shared advice for what to do with a tight budget. Your most important asset, they reinforced, is your relationship with the families and the patients at your organization. The team commented that is

“authentic content you can’t beat and you can’t pay for it.” Invest time in building those relationships, mining the stories, and eventually asking them to speak for your organization.

Relationships with outside stakeholders are also important. SickKids offers exclusives because media companies are so competitive. “Identify someone and let them in, give them raw, wide open access after developing a relationship with few parameters to tell your story,” the team says. “So much is donated, we get 3:1 value of all of our media. Our agency works pro bono, and our production partners have donated everything that was a unit cost.” With a strong brand, you will be able to leverage more relationships to benefit your organization.

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