SickKids VS Limits: Q&A With Lori Davison, VP of Brand Strategy


SickKids VS Limits

A year ago we featured the SickKids VS campaign by the Hospital for Sick Children — aka SickKids — in Toronto, a bold brand platform by Canada’s leading pediatric hospital.

The superhero messaging, which featured real patients, families and staff: “At SickKids, we’re not on the sidelines—we’re on the front line, taking the fight to the greatest challenges in child health. And we are winning.”

The award-winning campaign has proved a game-changer for the brand, the SickKids community and supporters, the city of Toronto—not to mention Canada and Canadian brands, as the campaign’s latest accolade demonstrates.

Lori Davison - SickKids children's hospital, Toronto CanadaWe caught up with Lori Davison, Vice President, Brand Strategy and Communications for the SickKids Foundation, who was just named Canadian Marketer of the Year “for the success of the SickKids VS campaign to propel a compelling Canadian brand onto the global stage—and craft a strategic brand reinvention to represent the very best of Canadian marketing.”

It’s a well-deserved recognition—one that came just as the second phase of the campaign, SickKids VS Limits, which aims to fund the new SickKids with 5,000 new monthly donors, is rolling out and as SickKids celebrated its supporters on #GivingTuesday.

Lori, congratulations on the honor! It’s hard summing up the entire first year of #SickKidsVS but what would you say has been the overall impact of the campaign for the Sick Kids brand and for your fundraising goals?

The last year was all about launching this new platform into the world. We’ve really seen an impact right away in terms of the business side of things. We saw a very positive impact on our fundraising where we came in at the end of our fiscal (year), which is March, with our most successful year to date, with over $140 million dollars raised by the SickKids Foundation.

SickKids #SickKidsVS billboard signage

In terms of our (brand) tracking, we saw a lot of positive indications through our research that there was a strong connection between the new brand platform and the increase of dollars coming in the door. So it’s a very good news story all around. As I think about moving past the launch and the impact on fundraising, what we have seen over the last year is a couple things.

One is a new ability to leverage a unifying brand idea for tactical fundraising activities. After all the brand equity work that we did in the fall, we went back into market with some very specific activations around Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, where we attached our gift programs as a call to action to the Vs. platform, and saw a lot of success there.

It’s given us a boost across the board and for all of our fundraising initiatives because it does have voltage in the marketplace. It’s something that people noticed and it’s attracting attention, but also because it’s so flexible that it allows us to tell these very different stories in a relevant way. That’s one aspect of it.

The other thing that we’ve seen throughout the year is that I’m probably most excited about is the way our community has made it their own. We’re seeing the SickKids VS t-shirt flying off the shelves in the hospital gift shop. We sold thousands and thousands of them and it’s become a revenue stream for the hospital with all kinds of extended garments and mugs and you name it, so seeing that kind of interest in people attaching themselves to the brand has been gratifying. Within the hospital staff, the surgeons have ordered new scrubs that have the “SickKids VS” wordmark on them. That means a lot to me.

And then we saw it explode all over social media with people carving it into their pumpkins and all kinds of things. Probably the one that was the icing on the cake is not one but two social posts we’ve seen of different SickKids dads who have tattooed the SickKids VS logo onto their arms. I don’t recall ever working on another brand that saw those kind of results.

High praise, indeed. How did its success pave the way for phase two, which saw Toronto Mayor John Tory declare a SickKids VS Limits Day on October 27th as the kick-off to your new $1.3 billion fundraising campaign—the largest in Canadian healthcare history?

Yes, he named it with a proclamation, which only a Mayor can do. The CN Tower was lit blue for SickKids, the Toronto sign was lit blue and City Hall raised a SickKids VS Limits flag that was waving in the wind all week. The city has been a great partner and John Tory is personally very committed to SickKids so we’re very glad to have their support in rallying the city.

Our strategy was a two-phased approach. We intended to launch a platform idea that we thought would be newsworthy enough in itself to disrupt the marketplace, and that proved to be true for SickKids Vs. And then the second phase was once the platform was established to use it as a launching pad for the big new fundraising campaign which is really our purpose—the 1.3 billion-dollar goal that will allow us to build a new SickKids hospital.

It’s wrapped up in the idea of SickKids VS Limits, which is meant to express the ambition to tear down the limitations that are holding us back at the hospital. Our rallying cry is around the fact that 21st century medicine shouldn’t be held back by a 1949 building, which is exactly what is currently happening with this dated infrastructure that prevents very basic things like floors that aren’t strong enough to hold the latest treatment equipment, or ceiling levels that are too low to support the new robotics that hang from the ceiling in a state of the art operating room.

So very practical basic things that one of the leading children’s hospitals in the world should not have to worry about in order to do the kind of work that’s possible here and with the expertise that’s within our walls.

In addition to the physical plant and facilities, how will the SickKids customer experience, from a patient and family point of view, will transform too?

That’s actually the core of it; you’ve hit it on the head there. I’ll give you just a couple of examples. The family experience is fundamentally core to the redesign. So here are just a couple of examples. The philosophy around healthcare, even in the newest part of our hospital. was very different 30 years ago. Which was this idea of communal spaces as being better for healing. And so what that has done is create an environment where infection control is difficult. The neonatal unit is a communal space, which is a problem as we know now that infant brains develop in a quiet environment. So the only way we can moderate that noise level there is a little light that goes off if it’s getting too noisy, which is basically asking seven families to quiet down.

And then beyond things like that, there are the conversations—difficult, emotional conversations—that need to take place between staff and family that are currently done in a public way. Our only option is to ask other families to put on noise-canceling headphones. So it’s just archaic in so many ways, and the new design is all about creating the best possible experience for families—private spaces, lots of room for skin-to-skin contact where kids can heal—because the family is so much a part of that healing experience for children.

What’s on the wishlist in terms of technology and innovation that will help patients and also attract top-tier talent and skills from around the world? 

Definitely, the role of technology is growing and growing every day. And it’s interesting that the innovation story of SickKids, going way back, hasn’t changed much. We had one of the first iron lungs in the world to treat tuberculosis, which was built in the basement of SickKid by some of the doctors, who just took it upon themselves to solve this problem with their own two hands.

And in fact the same thing has happened recently with 3D printers, which are now used for surgeries where they can 3D-print a child in order to really fully understand the problem and to practice on ahead of the actual surgery. [Editor’s note: Pablum, a breakthrough in pediatric nutrition, was born at SickKids too.]

The innovative energy of this place cannot be contained by this old building. The staff here have always pushed beyond what would be expected and the ordinary. So for the hospital to do everything it can to keep up with the imagination and the ability of the staff is hugely important.

Along with the SickKids VS spots, which include Ryan Reynolds as a brand ambassador, how are you evolving the marketing of SickKids VS with this SickKids VS Limits in phase two?

The great thing about the platform is the content resonates really strongly and we’ve seen it amplified well beyond the borders of Toronto and Canada. People still engage with it and they share it, so we want to continue to develop the compelling content that SickKids VS really lent itself to, and keep that engagement going to keep ourselves top of mind.

But I also think the other piece of it now that we’ve we’ve really worked hard to establish awareness is to focus our energy on bringing in the dollars and closing the sale and monetizing the platform as much as possible to get to that big goal.

We put a TV spot in market last December called Milk and Cookies, which is the notion around Christmas time that we’re going to market with is SickKids VS Missing Home.

It’s really making the experience of being in hospital over the holidays feel as much like home as possible, and we got a huge engagement with that spot. People really love this idea of the hospital putting a giant cookie and a glass of milk on the helicopter pad for Santa to make sure he wouldn’t miss the kids in the hospital, because they genuinely do worry that Santa is not going to be able to find them.

We’re going to be rerunning that spot, but we’ve also created a activation around the city around milk and cookies. On December 5th, food trucks on the streets of Toronto will make key stops to offer people an opportunity to enjoy some milk and cookies and make a donation. We also have a number of restaurants that have signed on to offer milk and cookies in support of SickKids on the menu.

In terms of other innovative marketing this year, five walls around the city have been donated to us, so a combination of murals, projections, stencils and posters will help us spread the word with some beautiful graphic SickKids Vs. Limits murals and street art around the city.

SickKids VS has been something that people could clearly attach themselves to, that expressed how they felt about their experience with the hospital. And we can’t forget that these kids and families are going through extreme things, so it’s almost a badge of honor to be able to put on that (SickKids VS) shield that says ‘I’m doing this—and we’re in it to win.’

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