Profile: Lynda Thomas and Hilary Cross, Macmillan

Why the cancer charity must spend on marketing to make a difference.

As one of the country’s best known charitable organisations, Macmillan Cancer Support was not only named The Marketing Society’s brand of the year in November 2014, but also consistently tops YouGov’s CharityIndex ranking based on consumer perceptions.

Its ultimate aim is to change how cancer care is provided in the UK,  and central to this mission is that it acts as a brand rather than a charity – a shift that rewrites the rulebook for operating a not-for-profit organisation.

Two of the women at the heart of that transformation are interim CEO Lynda Thomas, who moved up from director of fundraising last November, and director of marketing and communications Hilary Cross. Between them, they must smoothly navigate the line between investment in the brand and in frontline services, arguably one of the toughest jobs for any charity.

Thomas says: “We think corporately about what we want to achieve each year. If we want to help millions of people affected by cancer, we figure out how much money we need to spend in order to achieve that.”

Like any other brand, Macmillan is also aware of the importance of putting its customers – both beneficiaries and supporters – at the heart of everything it does.

Thomas says: “We are only going to survive as an organisation if we can become totally customer-centric. We do that all the time in fundraising; we think what it would be like to take part in an event [that we’re organising], and it’s the same with our beneficiaries. Clearly, the patient and their family and friends are absolutely critical to us.”

“I’m not making any excuses as to why I spend money on marketing and advertising. I do it because it is the only way we can help people affected by cancer.”

Hilary Cross, Macmillan

According to Cross, the charity does not see marketing as “separate to service development and delivery but a fundamental part of it”. She explains: “You can’t build a powerful brand unless you invest in it. Yes, we could put an extra £2m into a particular service, but if no-one knows about it and people don’t understand it, then it’s not necessarily a good investment.”

Cross believes a turning point for the organisation was the rebrand from Macmillan Cancer Relief to Macmillan Cancer Support in 2006. “We were largely unknown to the vast majority of the population,” she says. “We were half the size we are now and we had half the impact. We are now recognised as a brand.”

It is partly thanks to this step change and the efforts of Cross and Thomas, who both joined the organisation 13 years ago in a job share role as head of media, that Macmillan took The Marketing Society’s blue riband prize as top brand, voted for by marketers.

Achieving brand awareness

Today, Macmillan has a spontaneous awareness of 29%, its highest ever and significantly more than the 7-8% it was achieving prior to the rebrand. Much of that is because of its marketing and fundraising activity.

Cross says: “I’m not making any excuses as to why I spend money on marketing and advertising. I do it because it is the only way we can help people affected by cancer. It’s the only way we are going to reach them in the numbers that we need to.”

This week, Macmillan launches the next phase of its Not Alone campaign, which won a Marketing Week Engage Award along with agency VCCP in 2014, and is now in its third year.

“The idea that no-one should face cancer alone has massively resonated with people. It’s partly about people who are physically isolated, but even people who are surrounded by friends and family can feel lonely when they are diagnosed. We want to highlight that issue and show that there is help available,” explains Cross.

As part of the campaign Macmillan has launched a new website called The Source, which lets people share advice and tips.

“By encouraging people to have conversations with us – and through us, with each other – we are able to reach and inspire more people. There are 2.5 million people living with a cancer diagnosis; we can’t be there for each and every one of them at every point in their lives but we can give them a platform, so we can help them and they can help each other,” says Cross.

Indeed, social platforms now play a crucial role for Macmillan in its quest to interact more frequently with people affected by cancer. The brand has been determined to capitalise more on social media since the #NoMakeUpSelfie trend emerged last March, where women shared pictures of themselves without make-up, nominating friends to do the same and to give money to charity. It earned Cancer Research UK £8m but largely passed by Macmillan in fundraising terms.

Macmillan’s World Biggest Coffee Morning concept is one of its best known fundraising activities and raised over £22m in 2014

Unexpected backlash

However, its attempt to remedy this later in the year and get more involved in social media through the #IceBucketChallenge got it into hot water, as some felt it was inappropriate for the charity to latch on to a campaign already believed to be associated with another cause.

“It is unusual for a charity to get backlash in the way we did,” says Thomas, who defends the organisation’s decision to take up the #IceBucketChallenge gauntlet.

“I can understand that there was a bit of confusion around it and that some people felt very strongly that we shouldn’t have done it, but before we started marketing it there was no mention of the #IceBucketChallenge in the UK, so I think we did a good job at raising awareness, which resulted in other charities raising a lot of money.”

The challenge is most commonly linked with the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association in the US and the Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association in the UK, however Macmillan insists that its supporters first spotted the craze in New Zealand at a time when it was not attached to any one organisation.

“We are only going to survive as an organisation if we are truly customer-centric.”

Lynda Thomas, Macmillan

Macmillan raised £4.5m as a result of the effort while the ALS Association racked up $100m (£66m) from 3 million donors and the MND Association benefitted from a £7m cash injection.

The ALS Association did try to trademark ‘ice bucket challenge’, which could have stopped other charities using the term for fundraising, but later withdrew its application.

“I’m really glad that it encouraged so many people to give money to charity, and I’m really proud that people chose to do it on our behalf,” adds Cross.

She continues: “I don’t think there was a finite amount of money that everyone was fighting over. People threw a bucket of water over their head because it was a funny thing to do and as a result they also gave £3 to charity that they otherwise might not have given.”

She admits that social media is difficult to control, though, particularly as you cannot demand the right to reply.

“We learn a lot from each one of these social media events. We didn’t benefit in any way from the #NoMakeUpSelfie because we didn’t have the right processes in place. As a result, we changed how we do things and we now have a really good model for responding to social media stories,” Cross explains.

Macmillan is also using the power of social media to help make cancer care a priority ahead of the general election in May.

“A new government is a massive opportunity for any charity,” suggests Thomas. “In all likelihood it will be another coalition, so we need to get into every party’s manifesto so that when they get into government they are committed.”

To spread the word, Macmillan will be ramping up its Time To Choose campaign in the coming weeks and is urging people to take their picture holding a card featuring one of its three priorities: earlier diagnosis, maintaining the dignity of patients and giving them the right to choose where they die. So far, the charity has commitments from the three main parties that they will adopt at least some of its measures.

One of the marketing activities Macmillan is best known for is the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning concept, which Thomas transformed from a £7m initiative to one worth £20m annually in three years in her previous role as head of fundraising.

Overall in 2013, Macmillan increased fundraising income by 22% to £187m and was on track to reach its target of £209m in 2014 as it “maintained significant growth” throughout the year, although official figures will not be released until later in 2015.

“Most significantly,” says Thomas, “we spent 25% more on our services [in 2014 compared] to the previous year, which is the most important statistic for me.”

Informing donors

Letting donors know how their money is being spent is another critical aspect of the fundraising model.

“I firmly believe we are the custodians of donors’ money,” says Thomas. “Whether someone gives us £5, £10 or £1m, we have to be very clear about what we do with it. For some people it’s easy as they might want to fund a building in their local area, but for the people who make a donation each month it’s more difficult.”

To remedy this Macmillan has introduced an initiative called Today. All regular donors are asked to choose a date that means something to them and on that day each month they receive a text from the organisation explaining how their donation has been spent along with links to relevant content.

Three quarters of the people that donate to Macmillan have been affected by cancer in some way, which Cross says poses a challenge with regards to messaging.

“If there’s an earthquake in Pakistan, we can say look how awful this is, look at these people in an absolute world of devastation; we urgently need you to give us money,” she says. “But we can’t go to our audience and say cancer is horrible, we need your money. They know that and they don’t need us to remind them. We need to be reassuring and helpful but at the same time we need to make it very clear that cancer is an urgent issue. That for me is the biggest challenge.”

By the end of 2016, a thousand people will be diagnosed with cancer each day in the UK, which means Macmillan cannot take its foot off the accelerator when it comes to marketing and fundraising.

“How do you support 1,000 people a day?” asks Thomas. “That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and that’s what drives us to continue to do everything we can to make a difference.”

Corporate partnerships

One of the most effective ways Macmillan gets help to the people who need it most is through strategic corporate partnerships. Its longstanding arrangement with high street chemist Boots is one of the most admired tie-ups between companies and charities, according to a recent study by C&E Advisory.

Together, the two organisations have trained 2,000 pharmacists on how to provide cancer information so that people can get the help and advice they need in-store rather than having to go to hospital. It has also trained a troop of Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisors to boost the confidence of those living with cancer.

“The number of people surviving cancer is going up, which is good news, but it means people are not just being treated in hospitals, so Macmillan needs to be in a different space,” says Alix Wooding, head of corporate partnerships at Macmillan.

“Our partnership with Boots puts us and our services on the high street. It brings together the information, support and brand of Macmillan with the reach and expertise of Boots’ pharmacists,” she explains.

Macmillan has strategic partnerships across most sectors but is particularly keen to step up the support it offers through agreements with banks to help minimise the financial impact of cancer. This is because money is the second biggest concern for patients after health, explains Wooding.

In the past year, more than 250,000 people with cancer have struggled to pay their mortgage or rent, and one in four has been forced to sell their belongings to make ends meet.

“There are lots of hidden costs to cancer,” says Wooding. “People have a drop in income and a rise in outgoings. Many have to pay for transportation to their appointments, they might have to spend more on heating if they are at home more and they will have to buy new clothes if their weight changes. So we’re working with a number of banks to help make them a place of support rather than fear.”

In a similar move, Macmillan has been partnering with energy supplier npower for the past 10 years to provide customers living with cancer with a fuel management programme to ensure they do not fall into fuel poverty. So far, this initiative has provided more than £1m worth of support.

“It sounds a bit dry but for someone with cancer, knowing they can turn their heating on and run a hot bath without having to worry about the bill is amazing,” explains Wooding. “We couldn’t offer that kind of support without these kinds of partnerships.”

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