Lessons from Toronto Sick Kids Hospital and the Canadian Down Syndrome Society

In 2017 Canada won a record 44 Lions at the Cannes Lions Festival. Two-thirds of those awards were for public service or non-profit campaigns. It was a breakthrough year for marketing with a social message.

Leading the parade to the Cannes podium in 2017 were the remarkably brave and determined Toronto Sick Kids Hospital and the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS).

In both cases, the brands were confronting the paralyzing dilemma of increased public awareness, but decreased compliance. In other words, people knew a lot about Sick Kids and Down Syndrome, but were not donating, volunteering or learning more about the causes.

So, they both turned their communications on its head.

Sick Kids VS.

After decades of fighting for their share of donor wallets by using pull-at-the-heartstring campaigns, Toronto Sick Kids came out of the corner swinging with the purpose-minded VS campaign Child patients were portrayed for who they truly are – warriors battling their illness with a vengeance. And donors were challenged to fund the fight. It was entirely about empowerment and had nothing to do with pity.

Canadian Marketer of the Year, Lori Davidson sums up the campaign best. “At Sick Kids, we’re not on the sidelines – we’re on the front line, taking the fight to the greatest challenges in child’s health. And we are winning.”

Down Syndrome Answers

The CDSS was battling a different kind of complacency:  expecting parents were resigned to the idea of abortion should their amniocentesis results show the potential for Down syndrome.

Once again, the organization went on the offense, instead of defense, and addressed the issue head on. They used technology to speak one-on-one with their audience by tracking Google searches on questions regarding the condition. And they used humanity to respond to  their audience by producing 40 videos featuring actual Down individuals answering those questions and quelling common misconceptions.

“Most prospective parents know very little about Down syndrome,” says Kirk Crowther, national executive director at the CDSS. “Doctors do their best, and there are lots of websites offering the medical perspective, but they typically use very clinical terms that don’t capture the emotional and human side of the Down syndrome story. We wanted to change that.”  

Now, cynics would argue that winning awards for charities and PSAs is a little like playing tennis without a net – there’s a lower degree of difficulty.

But the opposite is true.  

Convincing Ontarians to donate $140 million to Toronto Sick Kids in just a few months (during a recession hungover economy) or creating 519 million impressions and providing 240,000 answers to questions on a subject as niche as Down syndrome?

Think about that a minute. If more consumer brands define their purpose in the same way these non-profits have and develop a compelling purpose-driven marketing strategy to communicate it, some of them might have shiny Cannes Lions on their mantles. Even better, society would benefit as well.

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