‘Don’t forget us’: How the British Heart Foundation is staying relevant amid Covid-19

The charity has seen donations plummet even as demand for its services increase, forcing it to find new ways to raise money and look to a more digital future.

The British Heart Foundation experienced a tenfold increase in calls to its nurse helpline as Covid-19 worsened

“Almost overnight” the British Heart Foundation experienced a huge increase in demand for its services. While it is primarily a medical research charity, it offers patient services such as a nurse helpline that had a tenfold increase in calls, while more than 1 million people have visited its website looking for information about Covid-19.

Yet the BHF estimates it is losing around £10m a month during the pandemic. It has faced the twin impacts of its network of 750 stores being shut and physical fundraising events cancelled. Regular contributors are still donating but as the impact of the coronavirus recession is increasingly felt, this source of money is likely to decline too.

One of the challenges, according to director of marketing and engagement Carolan Davidge, is that many people didn’t see the BHF as relevant during coronavirus. This despite the fact that people with heart disease, who have had a stroke or have an underlying risk factor – such as diabetes – are more at risk of developing a more serious form of coronavirus.

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“The BHF is a very well-known and well-loved charity but we are not top of mind at the moment,” she tells Marketing Week. “We want to make sure we remain top of mind and relevant at this time because we are. We are here for the 7 million people with heart and circulatory diseases and they probably need us now more than ever.

“[There has been a focus on NHS charities] which is great – we work in close partnership with the NHS. We just want to make sure people don’t forget about us too at this time.”

The charity’s initial reaction to the pandemic was to ensure its services reached as many people as possible. It ramped up its nurse helpline – extending its hours and bringing in more nurses – and turned its customer service centre into a triage system so it could manage the volume of calls.

It also created a coronavirus support hub for people looking online for information.

Having got those changes in place, it then wanted to communicate they were available to people who might need them because “we are not reaching them all”, and boost donations both for its services and its medical research. And so the BHF launched a marketing campaign aiming to address those two needs.

The campaign, ‘Coronavirus on their minds’, follows a number of people taking part in hobbies such as baking, playing a video game and doing a crossword that while providing a distraction don’t stop them worrying about Covid-19. Created by MullenLowe, it ends with a voiceover explaining how those in need can contact BHF’s helpline while those who want to support the charity can donate.

“That was part of the brief – it had to be about helping patients but also reminding people that during this time charities like us need funding,” explains Davidge.

She adds: “Our reason for wanting to get back out there with an ad campaign was in part to reach more of those patients and ensure they know the BHF is here for them at this time. But also, the charity sector has been massively hit financially.”

Like any marketing director I have a strategy but a strategy has to adapt to the need and this was the need right now.

Carolan Davidge, BHF

Rather than using user-generated content as many brands have done, the BHF brought in director Simon Rattigan to film the campaign. And instead of having a crew, he shot the whole ad himself following social distancing guidelines and wearing PPE with members of his household and his neighbours playing the parts of people in the ad.

Davidge admits the process of creating the campaign was very different to normal, with some parts of the process “truncated down to literally days”. It also told a very different story to BHF’s more recent marketing campaigns, which have focused on why the charity believes research is so important.

“We had literally just finished [our ‘traditional’ campaign] and hadn’t been planning to go out again until the autumn. But we felt we had to do something at this time,” she says.

“We certainly haven’t got more budget, we are repurposing budget, feeling it was the right thing to do. Like any marketing director I have a strategy but a strategy has to adapt to the need and this was the need right now. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”

The BHF is also using the pandemic to think about how to make itself fit for the future. Moving more of its retail sales online will be key, as will finding ways to raise money through virtual events.

As an example of that, the BHF has launched ‘My marathon’ that has called on people to challenge themselves online and get sponsored for example by doing 10 runs of 2.6 miles.

It is also thinking about how it can deliver some of its services online, for example its cardiac rehabilitation programme which is now available digitally for people to do in their homes rather than having to attended classes in-person.

“The lesson here is if we can’t be such a physical charity, how can we be more of a virtual one and that is going to be the challenge going forward but one that we are embracing with product development in fundraising and retail.. and the patient piece,” says Davidge.