British Heart Foundation marketing chief unveils 3-year brand strategy overhaul


By Jennifer Faull | Deputy Editor

February 6, 2015 | 6 min read

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is targeting YouTube for the first time in a drive to get people more emotionally connected with the charity as part of a three-year strategy overhaul.

The new direction kicked off four months ago with the appointment of Carolan Davidge to director of marketing and engagement. Her title signals the first time ‘engagement’ has been recognised as a key part of the remit.

Speaking to The Drum about why the subtle change has marked a huge shift in the organisation’s thinking, Davidge said it is a recognition that raising awareness of heart diseases through above-the-line (ATL) campaigns, as it has done traditionally, is as important as using digital channels to drive conversation.

“What is increasingly wanted from our stakeholders is a sense of dialogue. I guess that’s the importance of the word engagement. It’s saying that dialogue is as valued as traditional broadcast. We need to be responsive and not just driven by the messages we want to communicate,” she said.

Davidge, a former brand director at Cancer Research and before that head of PR at McMillan Cancer Support, adds that the British Heart Foundation has to do this on a number of levels, where other charities perhaps don’t.

“We are a complex organisation. Take the cancer charities for example, Cancer Research is doing the research work and you’ve got McMillian doing the care work. For BHF we have to cover all of that.

“So we have multiple sets of stakeholders and want to find new ways of being able to listen to what they want and for us to adapt accordingly. It’s about becoming audience led and not about what we as an organisation want to do but what our audiences want from us.”

Brand tone

The most obvious change so far in the brand's marketing is a shift in its ATL work.

Where past campaigns – for example its adverts starring Vinnie Jones, spots showing in graphic detail the damage smoking can do to the heart, or its campaign with a real-life mum showing her unborn baby’s deadly heart defect – have been extremely hard hitting with a life or death message.

“We have to be aware of things like charity fatigue,” says Davidge on shock-advertising. “If there are too many shocking adverts people will almost switch off from it.”

Signalling the new direction, its first campaign of the year, from ad agency DLKW Lowe, sees primary-school children struggle to pronounce or even remember the names of their heart diseases.

“It didn’t have to be shocking, but it makes you feel something. It’s about presenting an essential truth of what it is like to live with a heart disease,” adds Davidge.

She says that the challenge also remains in changing the perceptions that heart disease affects a stereotype.

“If you compare heart disease to something like cancer, or alzheimers, people are extraordinarily fearful about them. They tend to worry less about heart disease and feel that it is something that happens to somebody else because of a lifestyle.”

Digital First

Davidge' admits that digitally BHF has ben "behind the curve”. However, since Christmas, its website has been mobile optimised and it has been monitoring how people use it to ensure it can continue to iterate.

BHF’s social media channels feed heavily into this and Davidge wants to focus more on establishing a presence on platforms including Instagram and Pinterest to encourage a more efficient dialogue with its audience.

“It would be unfair to say the organisation has previously used social media for advertising, but there will be a subtle repositioning to have more of a conversation and less of just pumping a message out.”

Inspired by the likes of ATL’s #IceBucketChallenege this year it embarked on a social push ahead of its third annual Wear Red Day (6 February) asking people to don red lipstick and take a selfie. Countless celebrities have pledged support and this year saw a 60 per cent year-on-year increase of people signing up to take part.

Meanwhile, on YouTube, Davidge admits it is completely unchartered territory but it has begun looking at the search terms people use to find content on heart diseases.

Soon, she wants to target YouTubers to help develop content, eyeing the likes of Michael Steven on his channel Vsauce.

“He broadcasts on science in a way that makes it interesting. Clearly as a research organisation something like that would be important for us to explore.”

But it is making steps in the right direction. An online-only film has been released called 'Dechox’ encouraging people to go on a chocolate detox. But it has eschewed serious, lecturing messages about why chocolate is unhealthy and instead injected a bit of humour with a spoof scene from Breaking Bad.

Commenting on the retail arm of the organisation, Davidge has prioritised its eBay and online stores as areas to develop but will also look at how mobile technology can be brought into the offline environment.

Beacons technology to alert people when they are near a BHF store are a good example of what Davidge will potentially explore. "It's all part of becoming digital-first", she adds.

Government backing

With a general election on the horizon, a vital time for any charity, Davidge's time is also being spent engaging with each political party to help influence the manifestos.

BHF has already successfully canvassed for a vote to ban branding on cigarettes. But it's not stopping there. It has also launched a campaign to relegate junk food advertising to after the 9pm watershed, a call supported by Labour, and is and now asking for all school children to learn CPR as a mandatory part of the school curriculum.


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