When Revenue Flatlined, St. Jude Turned it Around with Research

Posted on by Patty Odell

This is the tale of a comeback. Seven years ago, one of the most well known brands across the globe, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was in trouble. The firm relies on 75 percent of its revenue from generous donors and supporters and that revenue was flagging. Its marketing was inconsistent and fractured and wasn’t delivering a clear message.

Emily Callahan
Emily Callahan, CMO, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, ALSAC.

“It’s not a surprise that our messages and our story was not breaking through and our revenue had flatlined,” said Emily Callahan, CMO at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, ALSAC, its fundraising arm. “We have a life saving mission and that means our brand has to break through. In our world we have to engage everyone, which I know is against all the rules in marketing and our job is to understand how to make our story everyone’s story.”

The plan was to move St. Jude from a strong brand to iconic status.

“That’s our vision. We want to be an iconic brand with the vision that no child should die in the dawn of life,” she said at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference. “We needed a bold vision to rally all of our people to believe in this. We had all the ingredients to be an iconic brand, we just had to figure out why we weren’t breaking through.”

Work began with three—sometime painful—lessons.

Lesson 1: Start with research

The St. Jude research that had been ongoing was used to validate what it had already done, but didn’t pinpoint opportunities and challenges.

“We had to figure out why we weren’t breaking through,” Callahan said. “We had to ask the right questions like, what do people really think of St. Jude? And what people and where? What were we missing? In order to be an iconic brand and have breakthrough storytelling, you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to measure in order to know that you’ve arrived.”

A proprietary brand scorecard was built to aggregate and understand the data and to track the journey to becoming an iconic brand.

“Frankly, it was the best investment we’ve ever made,” she said.

The attributes that rose to define the journey were authenticity, brand relevancy and presence in the marketplace. Despite its all-important Netpromoter score averaging around 90 in that first year of research, there were also some “ugly truths.”

“We found out that to know us is to love us but those people didn’t understand us,” she said. “They knew we did some good things for children, but why were we different. We found a little insight in that research: our authenticity was off the charts. When people saw a beautiful child undergoing treatment at St. Jude; that was the key for us. The stories are sitting right there and we just had to figure out a way to get it right.”

Lesson 2: Take the time to get your story right
When it initially pushed out messages showing the children under treatment, the response was lukewarm.

“When we tested [those messages] you know what people gave us in research? A golf clap,” Callahan said. “That was just the emotional side, and that wouldn’t be enough. It wasn’t until we added the what and the why that we truly broke through.”

That was the missing piece of the marketing message for St. Jude; that it pays for all travel, food, and housing for its patients and families and it follows their care through life.

The strategy was to reach people’s emotional and rational minds. During extensive testing, two messages resonated: the first, that families never receive a bill from St. Jude and second, it’s in the business of saving children’s lives.

“It’s important to phrase it this way because the fact that St. Jude covers all the expenses doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Callahan said. “Those two messages were a game changer for us.”

Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to 80 percent since it was opened more than 50 years ago by Danny Thomas, she said.

Lesson 3: Inspire, enable and empower everyone to be accountable to the brand

Every employee at ALSAC was made accountable for the success of the brand from the receptionist to the CEO and that accountability was tied to annual merit performance increases.

“What we found is that when our employees started sharing the same message something magical happened,” she said.

Even so, another impactful change was needed.

“We needed to turn on the camera and capture these authentic moments,” Callahan said. “No storyboards or scripts. We just let the children and families be themselves. We just let them be the faces and voices of our brand and that’s what people responded to.”

Lesson 4: Know your audience. And reach them in every way you can

“We use every tool in the marketing tool kit, from partnerships to content marketing to personalization to investing in data—all of it—because we have to. There are lives that are depending on us to do so. We’re not changing our message, we just change how we say it depending on the medium. We have to do it in the most authentic way possible and then scale those stories to reach people and break through.”

Did it work?

Four out of five Americans now recognize the St. Jude brand and it is the No.1 brand in overall quality in the Harris Poll Equitrend Study five years in a row. Revenue is growing and St. Jude can show its corporate partners that it can drive sales and business results.

“The messages we started with were very different than the ones we ended up with because we stopped pushing what we wanted to say and understood what people needed to hear,” Callahan said.

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