From Patients to Superheroes: Q&A With SickKids Foundation VP Lori Davison


SickKids children's hospital Toronto #SickKidsVS

Canada’s famed pediatric hospital, Toronto’s SickKids, is almost two weeks into the biggest transformation in its history. The #SickKidsVS campaign that debuted on Oct. 14th is transforming the perception of what it does, recasting patients and medical teams as warriors, superheroes and powerful foes of the range of diseases, conditions and other enemies at their door.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

As the SickKids Foundation stated at launch, “This battle began in 1875. We’ve been fighting it for the last 141 years. We are winning. The front lines are advancing. But we aren’t there yet. There are still enemies left to defeat. Join us.”

The campaign has attracted notice worldwide, generating stories, awareness and — most importantly — donations to its annual fundraising campaign.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

In addition to TV ads, billboards, signage and other touchpoints, local event marketing includes an out-of-home activation today that invites visitors to Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square to light up the neon “VS” sign that’s the centerpiece of the ads (added bonus: custom t-shirts and a photo booth).

To help celebrate the new SickKids VS campaign, join us for a special SickKids experience – “Light Bright in Yonge-Dundas Square: A SickKids Celebration Powered by You.” On October 26, 2016 between 4pm and 6pm, come by Yonge-Dundas Square to light up the SickKids VS sign. We hope to see you there!

But this is more than a campaign but a multi-year effort to shift its messaging, perspectives and brand positioning with creative that’s more akin to a performance brand such as Nike than a healthcare brand.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

For more on this major pivot and the campaign’s strategy and creative, Interbrand Canada VP of client services Rob Manne spoke with Lori Davison, VP of brand strategy and communications for SickKids Foundation.

Rob Manne: Congratulations, Lori! What has been the most gratifying response so far?

Lori Davison SickKidsLori Davison (right): It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Anytime you go out with something really different, you expect it to be polarizing to some degree, so I’m delighted by how overwhelmingly positive the response has been. In terms of the most gratifying things, it’s been the families of SickKids, the community, who has said it represents exactly how they feel about the struggles their children are overcoming. And then the hospital staff, of course. The former head of pediatrics said to me: “That is exactly why we get up every day.” That was really gratifying to hear.

Manne: How did you get to the insight about how to position the brand now?

Davison: It’s a dimension of the brand that has always been there, just not one that we have focused on in communications. SickKids is very much about warmth and compassion, but it’s also a highly competent leading institution, and finding the emotional resonance of that side of the story was something we saw as an opportunity.

And when we looked at the work that we’ve done in market, the research we’ve done, the tracking on it, we find that we’ve done a really good job of reinforcing what people already think and know about the brand. But we don’t necessarily shift perceptions. And so we realize that to get to a new level of giving and to attract new donors, we were not going to get there by reminding people of what they already know. We needed a different voice to tell a different side of the story.


Manne: Tell us about this shift, moving away from tugging at the heartstrings toward more of a performance brand or sports marketing style—and was there any brand that you looked at for inspiration?

Davison: That was exactly the shift we were looking at. We wanted to appropriate some of the visual and devices of that other category of sports performance. The brand that we looked at most closely as a parallel was Nike, because they go out with those very high-level performance metaphors and analogies, but they also do things that are intimate and moving, such as the (2012 “Find Your Greatness” spot) with the boy running.

The flexibility of Nike’s tone of voice is something we felt we could also get away with because we do have a lot of different topics that lend themselves to different kinds of emotions. Nike for me is the one that tries to span a range of emotions in the same way.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

Manne: Your campaign is interesting for the opponents featured, including cystic fibrosis and cancer. When you were looking at those opponents, was it hard to choose which ones to focus on? Or were there specific disorders you wanted to focus on to build a campaign around?

Davison: Yes, we did think about that and you’ll notice that mixed in are things that are big worries and living through the experience. We wanted to make sure people really got the construct so we picked ones like cancer to clarify what we’re trying to communicate—and that is folded in.

We also wanted to dial up things that we are real world leaders in, that people might not be aware of, such as cystic fibrosis and autism. We wanted a variety of things we offer but also something unexpected.

The other piece of it is there’s a lot more communication out there—like out-of-home and print—so one of our goals is to communicate on as many battlefronts as possible and tell a plethora of stories of different conditions that we’re fighting. Because one of the main objectives of this campaign is to really raise awareness of that in and of itself—SickKids is leading battles and fighting many different battles in child health.

SickKids children's hospital Toronto #SickKidsVS

Manne: The logistics of the campaign are also impressive, leading to more than 40 hours of footage. How did that work and what did you learn?

Davison: That really came from the tremendous generosity and commitment of Mark Zibert, who is the director from Skin and Bones who took this on. He’s an incredible artist and visionary—he was director and cinematographer for most of the shooting. We also did some work a few years ago with Mark, 45 commercials over 45 days. So he went into it with an understanding of wanting to capture as many moments as possible to bring the story for the launch and also give us additional content so we can continue to craft stories for several years. He knows that little gems come from unexpected things so he shoots with that in mind. There’s no storyboard.

SickKids VS ad campaign 2016

Manne: Tell us a little about the timing and the launch, kicking off as it did during a home opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs. What is timing for the next spots and the activations beyond this?

Davison: The Leafs opener was the debut of the broadcast. Part of the strategy with the campaign and the shift in voice is to try to attract new donors from a different demographic beyond our traditional core donor so that looks like more male and younger and so the strategy of launching through the Leafs game was very much a part of that.

Also building on that we have a longer-term partnership with MLSE (Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment) that includes a presence at the Air Canada Centre for the (Maple Leafs’ hockey) games, a dominant presence in centre itself and a spot on the perimeter board.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

The launch creative, because of our limited resources, really focuses on the Greater Toronto Area to get as much critical mass as possible. We also have a presence in Yonge-Dundas Square and the Toronto Eaton Centre. We’re in malls because there’s a conversion opportunity for us to have canvassers. And there are some PSAs doing a bit of home cover to keep the concept top of mind.

We’ve also had a number of our corporate donors donate their own out-of-home assets—a couple of billboards on the Gardiner (Expressway highway in Toronto) including a Samsung billboard. These big screens have a huge impact and the kind of visual presence that we’re going for.

Once we establish the concept of #VS,  we have a few other TV spots and a concept plan. The next spot is a 60-second spot that focuses on cancer, which airs on November 9. It actually tells the story of a little girl who didn’t make it. That’s the first time we’ve done that in a TV spot, but we felt it was an important part of the story because the truth is with pediatric cancer, while we have a survival rate up to 80%—which is way up from even 20 years ago, when it was 50/50—really the story is that there’s still 20% to go, and we never want to lose sight of the fact that there’s more work to be done and we can never be complacent. That’s just one example. Others will have a different tone.

SickKids children's hospital Toronto #SickKidsVS

Manne: You say that this could continue over the next couple of years because you have so much content to work with. Can you give us an idea of how you hope to keep this going across different platforms?

Davison: One of the things that we found so appealing about this idea was that it’s so flexible and we can tell a lot of different stories. We see it as a platform that can stay alive at least three to five years, we’re hoping. But we plan to reinvent it as we go and use it to disrupt and inject some energy into a lot of different stories.

Next fall, the foundation will be launching the biggest fundraising campaign in the history of Canadian healthcare—we need to raise $1.3 billion—and the platform is meant to set us up for that next communication.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

Manne: With that big of a financial target and the campaign going well beyond Toronto, is part of the strategy to broaden the base not just demographically but regionally in Canada and globally as well?

Davison: We know that we need to tap into new geographies to met our goals, but we’re very careful to not play in the backyards of other Canadian hospitals for children that are also fundraising, so there’s sort of a fine line there. But we do have a partnership with other Canadian hospitals, through CMN (the Children’s Miracle Network), for example, that we can use to raise funds nationally.

There are also certain topics that only SickKids has leadership in, like the kinds of cancers that are only treated at SickKids—even across North America. So there are certain topics where we can go out and speak nationally or internationally.

As for international activity, we already do work in global child health by training front-line nurses and doctors in third-world countries. We have an education initiative in South Africa, China and parts of Eastern Europe, so our international fundraising efforts tend to be more targeted.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

Manne: This campaign has put you on the world stage, not just trade publications, but it has captured attention worldwide. It’s a great way to get the brand out there and also to attract talent to think about coming to work for you.

Davison: Attracting talent is a huge priority at the hospital. We built a cutting-edge research tower a few years ago as part of a strategy to attract those researchers. The institution has a great reputation nationally but the brand isn’t well-known. I do think things like this help.

Last year, we have a piece of news that made its way to Fox News in the US, they were mocking the name of the organization, thinking it was made up. We know it so well, but getting the brand top of mind across the borders can only be a good thing.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

Manne: What else are you doing differently with this campaign?

Davison: There’s one activation that we haven’t talked about but that I hope will be a real driver of donations within the platform is in an area we haven’t really gotten into before from a marketing perspective. It’s more of a crowdfunding approach.

Toronto SickKids Foundation Hospital #SickKidsVS

We’re going to market on November 20th with a 30-day campaign: 100 monthly donors a day for 30 days. It will be “#SickKidsVS 100 a day,” and that amount translates into our ability to buy a new operating suite. It’s a very tactical, hard-working campaign that will include a radiothon on Dec. 20, where we hope to announce that we hit our goal.

SickKids Toronto hospital fundraising campaign 2016

Manne: Are you working with a crowdfunding site?

Davison: It will be on our own website. We’re working with Deloitte, they have a great experience where there will be a meter every day to show us where we’re at each day in terms of reaching the 100, and donors can see themselves impacting that meter.

#SickKidsVS Marcus ad campaign

Manne: Was there a website refresh or relaunch prior to the campaign?

Davison: We did it in concert with the campaign launch. I hadn’t really thought about the complexity before. To launch an entire new website and a campaign at the same time, you’re inviting the world and driving traffic to a new site that hasn’t really been tested. It took a lot of work and behind the scenes expertise from Deloitte to make sure we weren’t going to crash that first day.

SickKids #SickKidsVS Peyton

Manne: In terms of signage in the hospital (see below), have you done anything with some of the visual elements of the campaign—such as VS neon light, which is so dramatic—so you feel like you’re living and breathing it as well day to day?

Davison: The hospital is completely plastered with imagery of kids standing in front of the VS sign, all the elevators are wrapped, there’s a 30-foot banner of a patient in the open atrium area. So there’s a fantastic presence there.

We’re actually kicking off the Yonge-Dundas domination with an event (on Oct. 26th) where we’re inviting the donors down to light up the VS sign. It’s called Light Bright Yonge-Dundas Square with a sign made of Lite-Brite. Make a donation and you get to help light the lights.

SickKids #SickKidsVS hospital atrium banner

Manne: Obviously, donations are the big metric but how are you tracking other indicators such as awareness metrics?

Davison: We’ve been able to look through two areas to give us some ideas on that: website traffic and online donations. We are seeing a significant lift in male audiences, it is noticeable right away, which is encouraging. The second area that we’re seeing the biggest growth is 24 to 44, which is younger for us, we’re normally 45-plus, skewed female has been our core. So we seem to be striking a chord with people.

The other thing is social media, especially Twitter. It’s really obvious to us that we’re getting engagement from a much younger person than we’re used to getting. So there are lots of good indications, and we’ll see how that translates over time into donations. The great news is we’ve seen a lift in donations already.

Below, a look at how the campaign is coming to life at SickKids:

SickKids #SickKidsVS signage hospital

SickKids #SickKidsVS hospital elevator signage

SickKids #SickKidsVS campaign signage

SickKids #SickKidsVS billboard signage

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