Meet Neil McCarthy, Senior Director of Innovation and Product Development for UNICEF, a job that requires not just branding expertise, marketing acumen, and a creative sensibility—but a deep understanding of psychology and cross-cultural communication.
“People remember the last major event,” McCarthy explains when asked about the issues facing UNICEF. Whether it is war in the Middle East, a flood in South America, a famine in Africa, or a tsunami in Asia, UNICEF is there for the long haul solution. The rest of the world’s population, for better or worse, tends to invest their thoughts and money in the latest tragedy broadcast around the world on CNN.
That is why McCarthy feels it is so important to appeal to the “hearts and minds of consumers.” He knows that people want to help, but without a clear understanding of UNICEF’s brand and mission, customers can be blinded by the multitude of “good causes,” and are less likely to spend their money on UNICEF products. For McCarthy, reaching the consumers begins with living the brand internally.
His favorite part of the job is being surrounded by colleagues dedicated to UNICEF’s mission of providing “health, education, and a safe environment to children around the world.” His team consists of 30 people from 15 different countries, and even when the weather is beautiful on a Friday evening outside of their office in Geneva, Switzerland, McCarthy says you can find everyone on his team hard at work behind their desks. For many at UNICEF, the work is professional but the mission is personal. It’s been that way from the beginning.
UNICEF, McCarthy explains, began 60 years ago in response to the widespread anguish children endured following World War II. Since then UNICEF has grown organically, “like a sapling into a tree.” Yet, even today, many people think that UNICEF is a charity. It is not. Though part of the United Nations, UNICEF is not funded by it, and instead the organization works very diligently to secure funding from various private donors, governments, and the private sector. In fact, the UN spends money; UNICEF makes money. This is where McCarthy’s talents and vision are most utilized. He understands that the organization’s branding is strongly influenced by “how people initially discover UNICEF,” whether via the Internet, via direct marketing, as a recipient of UNICEF’s world-renowned cards and gifts, or as the direct result of a local or global fund raising campaign.
McCarthy explains that UNICEF never truly focused on its branding until seven years ago, when it reevaluated and repositioned its branding, finalizing how the organization hoped to be viewed by the eyes of the world. In today’s modern business climate, of course, effective branding and being able to compete is essential to survival. For UNICEF, and the 150 countries it assists in meeting the dire humanitarian needs of children, this is an important time of the year.
Its global collection of greeting cards and products continues to generate significant income, but just as significant is the unparalleled scale of public engagement connecting people with UNICEF and its work, allowing them to provide life saving medical assistance in times of crisis, and more importantly, the hope that comes with knowing that someone they’ve never met is thinking about them. Just one $10 pack of greeting cards can protect a whole family from malaria for an entire year. One pack of those same greeting cards will purify 2,000 metric liters of water, vital for life in flood stricken areas. Or, for the same amount of money, you can buy another fruitcake that will end up smashed next to an old bicycle tire in the back of a garbage truck.
We as people are defined by our challenges, and Neil McCarthy certainly has his to contend with. One of the biggest for McCarthy, strangely enough, is that UNICEF enjoys positive brand recognition. “The brand could manage itself,” he says, “but we can’t get complacent.”
It is difficult to maintain a sense of urgency everywhere, all the time, especially when trying to grow the UNICEF market within UN limitations. The UN, like all large bureaucracies, has a tangle of policies, rules, and regulations that must be followed for very important reasons ranging from local governmental requirements to broad security concerns. So McCarthy is proud that UNICEF has learned to become “flexible and efficient” when dealing with cultural and governmental obstacles in implementing its procedures.
McCarthy believes the world is at a pivotal point, especially for children. From deteriorating environmental conditions and increasing widespread natural disasters to broad scale violence resulting in displacement, starvation, and unquantifiable heartbreak, McCarthy says now is the time to focus on peoples’ willingness to help children. When he left a prominent job in Coca-Cola’s European Creative Services because he “wanted to do something different,” he did something even better, by doing something that makes a difference. But he is by no means a sappy idealist or self-serving bleeding heart.
When asked what general life advice he follows, McCarthy paused, and said into the phone, “Listen first before opening your mouth. See every side, but make solid and quick decisions. And I always agree with my wife. Even if she is wrong.”
A good example for children everywhere.