2021 Brand of the Year: The MCHF’s rebel mindset

How the children's hospital has overcome barriers charities have faced by embracing its bratty side.

BOY logoThis week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2021 Brands of the Year. Check back throughout the week to see the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, including Harry Rosen, Telus, Sephora and AritziaThis story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy.

Charitable fundraising is tough during the best of years. But when you’re a predominantly English-facing children’s hospital foundation operating in Quebec during a pandemic that’s perceived as being a bigger threat to seniors, tough begins to verge on the impossible.

That’s the situation the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation (MCHF) found itself in 2020, one year after having launched its first solo fundraiser in 28 years – the most ambitious campaign for a pediatric hospital in Quebec’s history.

The 115-year-old institution’s affiliation with McGill University had led many Quebecers to believe that it primarily served the province’s English-speaking population. Its reputation as a leading children’s hospital across Canada and abroad somehow did not resonate as strongly with French speakers in its home province.

Raising $200 million over seven years would be nothing short of a miracle. It would require capturing the hearts of a group accustomed to supporting institutions with closer ties to the French community, including Quebec’s other major pediatric hospital, Sainte-Justine University Hospital Centre. And it would demand a convention-busting cause marketing approach à la SickKids.

“We couldn’t rely on our existing pool of donors,” says Renée Vézina, the foundation’s president. “We had to bring in new people; we had to build a recognizable campaign cabinet.” A staple of the charitable sector, cabinets consist of business and community leaders that help drive fundraising efforts; MCHF’s 41-person team includes the likes of Yves Fortier, former Canadian ambassador to the U.N., and Bank of Montreal CEO Darryl White.

To bring new donors in, the charity first had to transform its image. That work started a year earlier with the decision to develop a new brand identity with Cossette.
“Our previous logo looked like something that should be at the top of an accountant’s form letter,” says Kim Fraser, VP of marketing and communications at MCHF. “We needed something a bit more modern.”

The team spoke to patients, parents, hospital staff, donors and volunteers to better understand what makes MCHF unique – time and again, Fraser says it heard it’s the bond hospital staff form with their patients and families.

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So the new brand identity revolved around a universal health symbol – a bandage – displayed three different ways: alone, it represents healing; folded at an angle into a heart, it represents love; and crossed with another bandage, it resembles a person or a hug, illustrating the bond between the hospital and those it serves. The design was deliberately simple, fun, colourful and came with endless potential applications.

Conceptually, it aimed to capture the idea of giving a voice back to children, notes Cossette CD Richard Bélanger. “That’s the backbone of everything in the brand.”
More than that, it spoke to the hospital’s ability to speak the language of children, Bélanger says, an idea that came sharply into focus via one of the charity’s early awareness campaigns with Cossette.

In April 2020, the foundation launched “We Speak Children,” a spot that brought attention to its ability to serve patients in 47 different languages, even during a global health crisis.

With copy that switched seamlessly between English and French, the video – which garnered some 400,000 views – challenged the misconception that the hospital only serves English patients, says Fraser.

It also served as a reminder that in the face of severe illness, only one language is important, says Vézina. “The message was: we speak French, we speak English, but it doesn’t really matter, because we speak children.”

Over the years, the charity had worked with Cossette on a few smaller initiatives that were no less important in advancing its goals.

In 2018, a “L’Halloween, c’est malade!” campaign called for preserving the childhood of children who are sick. Elementary students from Montreal swapped their costumes for branded hospital gowns and travelled door-to-door, collecting donations used to throw a Halloween party at the hospital – with Cossette documenting the experience on film.

And in August the next year, MCHF launched “Lullabies,” an influencer-led effort featuring four Quebec artists, including internationally renowned singer Charlotte Cardin, singing gentle reinterpretations of popular songs to children in hospital beds. The recordings were released across social channels in Quebec.

But the foundation’s biggest push wouldn’t come until November 2020, with the launch of “Long Live Little Brats.”

Set to a cover of The Clash’s punk anthem “I Fought the Law,” the video celebrates children’s rambunctious (read: bratty) nature. A little girl causes mischief that her parents clearly don’t appreciate – until it’s gone. While in hospital, the girl’s energy vanishes as she undergoes a series of tests and procedures. But following treatment, she is back to her old ways, turning surgical gloves into water balloons at the hospital sink while smiling ear to ear.

“We wanted something that would strike the imagination, that people would remember and that was universal,” Vézina says. “Who doesn’t know a bratty kid?”

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Cossette CSO Michel-Alex Lessard says the campaign’s uplifting tone was meant to combat compassion fatigue, which has plagued the cause marketing sector for many years. “We thought, ‘What if we look at it the opposite way and explore what defines a healthy child, instead of exploiting the usual territory?’”

“Long Live Little Brats” generated over half a million views and led to a 69% year-over-year jump in online donations – an especially positive result considering it came at a time when COVID brought more attention to geriatric care and forced the cancellation of many in-person events, notes Fraser.

Beyond individual donations, the campaign served as the “wind beneath the wings” of the charity’s major gifts drive, resulting in the most successful fundraising year in its history. When accounting for donation pledges, revenue was up 4.7% over the previous non-COVID year, according to Fraser.

And, importantly, the campaign struck a chord with French-speaking Quebecers, adds Lessard. Engagement was five-times higher among French speakers than English-speakers in the province. “In the past, the dynamic was completely the opposite,” he says. “It was crucial for them to make that step, which we did.”

In its willingness to break cause marketing conventions, “Long Live Little Brats” is reminiscent of SickKids’ “VS” platform, also by Cossette, and that’s no accident. Vézina says SickKids’ success opened the door to more ambitious thinking in the space. That ambition was embedded into Cossette’s assignment: MCHF wanted a message that would resonate with Quebecers for years to come, Vézina says.

It’s an approach the foundation intends to continue building on through 2026 in pursuit of its $200 million goal. “We feel that we have a strong insight that can be as good for the branding as it is for tactical things,” says Anne-Claude Chénier, VP of creative advertising at Cossette. “We really think that this rebel mindset will be very strong, and we can work on this for a few years.”