Introducing the ‘compassionate warriors’: Macmillan’s marketing chief on its pursuit of relevance

After seeing donations tail off post-pandemic, Macmillan Cancer Support has been working to boost relevance, with its latest marketing activity – a three-part documentary series in partnership with Channel 4 – firmly focused on storytelling.

Source: Wonderhood Studios

You might think a brand offering the services Macmillan Cancer Support does would not need to focus on increasing its relevance. The emotional connection with the people and families of those suffering from cancer runs deep. But in wake of a drop in income post-pandemic, Macmillan has ramped up efforts to explain what it offers and who it’s for.

“We know that when people see us as relevant to them, they are more likely to donate, and importantly, more likely to use our services as well,” Macmillan’s brand and marketing director, Anthony Newman, tells Marketing Week.

It has been a bruising few years for Macmillan. Income dropped steeply in wake of the pandemic, down to £194.9m in 2020 from £232.8m a year earlier as fundraising activities were prohibited. This against the background of a sector-wide decline in the number of people donating, a situation that is unlikely to be reversed as the cost of living crisis worsens.

Newman, a former Cancer Research UK marketing director, joined Macmillan in April 2020 from Merlin Entertainment and has set about defining the charity’s persona through the actions and attitudes of its staff.

Creation of the brand platform ‘Whatever it Takes’, in partnership with AMV BBDO, introduced what Newman describes as the charity’s “compassionate warriors”.

From information about treatment to helping families access benefits due, the depth and breadth of what the charity’s staff do has been shown in several films, as has the consideration they offer to distinguish it from research-only cancer charities and NHS care.

The campaign sprung from insight gauged from those that have used their services, Newman adds.

“People see us as caring. But when people have experienced our services, they don’t see it as just caring. They see us as dynamic and caring,” he explains. “It goes from somebody mopping your brow and saying nice things to an organisation who’s really active in helping you deal with your cancer situation in a wide variety of ways.”

By having lots of different stories, it allows us to show different communities in a much more realistic way.

Anthony Newman, Macmillan Cancer Support

The latest activity aimed at bolstering relevance launched earlier this month in the form of a partnership with Channel 4 and Wonderhood Studios. A three-part documentary series, Super Surgeons: A Chance at Life, features the work of oncologists at Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and aims to show how cancer impacts people’s lives. Branded idents using the Whatever it Takes platform run around the series.

For Newman, the partnership allows “a far deeper level of storytelling than traditional advertising allows”.

“Life for cancer patients is challenging and complex, and everyone has a unique experience. By linking Macmillan to these incredible stories, we are showing that we support people in a myriad of ways at a deeply personal level,” he adds.

Widening appeal

The charity also wants to appeal to a greater breadth of potential donors. This means widening its targeting efforts, and the range of stories it tells.

Newman says: “We have a really core audience that we’re very successful with, which essentially is a bit older, white, middle class – sort of middle England, if you like – and one additional objective for us was to really broaden out that audience and to be able to have relevance around other audiences as well.”

One of the ways it is looking to achieve this is by being “explicitly diverse” in its campaigns.

“If you look across our campaigns that we’ve done in the last couple of years, you’ll see this same kind of format played out. Instead of just telling one story, we tell a lot of stories,” he explains. “When you just tell one story, you are really restricted, obviously in terms of the characters, actors or real people, you’re really restricted in terms of the character trying to show diversity within that… By having lots of different stories, it allows us to show different communities in a much more realistic way.”

Whatever it Takes is part of a charity-wide reappraisal of its purpose, which also led to the publication of a new set of organisational values, committing to operating with “heart, strength and ambition”. Although he is “super proud “ of the advertising, it is the 360-degree approach that will have the biggest impact, he adds.

“I’m even more proud that we’ve got something which is absolutely internal and external… it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the organisation does.”



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