A look at Bell’s Let’s Talk program

At around 4 p.m. on Dec. 9, a friend of more than 20 years casually informed her family that she was going to the mall for a couple of hours to pick up some Christmas gifts. I’ll be home by 8 p.m., she told them. With darkness falling and a chill in the air, she […]

At around 4 p.m. on Dec. 9, a friend of more than 20 years casually informed her family that she was going to the mall for a couple of hours to pick up some Christmas gifts. I’ll be home by 8 p.m., she told them.

With darkness falling and a chill in the air, she walked past smiling Christmas shoppers, welcoming storefronts and brightly decorated houses to a bridge a couple of kilometres from her house, and jumped.

It would be her final stand in a long, frequently debilitating battle with depression. She left no note, leaving bewildered family and friends trying to recall every recent conversation, poring over every tweet or Facebook post in a futile attempt to determine what led to her fateful decision.

The Stakes

There were 3,890 suicides in Canada in 2009 according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, yet they are only the most tragic manifestation of a mental illness crisis that will directly impact one in five Canadians during their lifetime.

While corporate Canada has helped raise millions of dollars for research into diseases, environmental and social-justice causes, mental illness – couched in breezily dismissive language like “nuts” and “cuckoo”– had failed to attract significant interest until the advent of Bell’s “Let’s Talk Day” in 2010.

Today, the five-year, $50 million “Let’s Talk” program is Canada’s biggest corporate social responsibility initiative around mental health, and Bell has become inextricably linked with the “cause” of mental illness.

The Strategy

“I think if you mention mental health issues for the average Canadian, Bell would come to their mind sooner if not later,” said Ken Wong, a marketing professor at the Queen’s School of Business in Kingston. “Because they had the wisdom to go big, they’re all over this, it would be very hard for someone else to stake a claim on mental health.”

Jim Diorio, creative director with Toronto based cause-marketing agency Manifest, called the program an “absolutely classic example” of how to do cause-marketing correctly.

Manifest’s operating theory is that social marketing can be accomplished using traditional marketing techniques, said Diorio, and  “Let’s Talk” is a perfect example of that approach.

“It’s easy to get behind stuff that everybody is comfortable talking about, but this is the number-one disability in the country,” he said. “If it wasn’t mental health, people would be all over themselves to get behind the number one issue in the country. Unfortunately, this one has a stigma, and the only way you attack a stigma is by doing it in a huge way.”

For Diorio, that means using the same media weight, celebrity spokespeople and tone as a company would in any campaign intended to sell product.

Bell met that challenge on all fronts, incorporating celebrity spokespeople including Olympian Clara Hughes and CTV National News correspondent Seamus O’Regan in a series of ads featuring the same airy, blue and white visual style as Bell’s consumer marketing efforts, and using its full array of media assets to promote the initiative.

“Strategically they’re saying it doesn’t have to be treated with special kid gloves because it affects so many people,” said Diorio. “They’re saying ‘We’re a telecommunications company, not mental health experts, but we have resources, networks, customers and broadcast channels. We can bring everything we have to bear on this.’”

The Scope

Tuesday’s third annual “Let’s Talk Day,” for example, was prominently featured on Bell-owned CTV’s flagship morning show Canada A.M., CTV News at Noon and on Bell’s 24-hour news station CP 24, and garnered coverage from media outlets across the country.

In addition to extensive pre-promotion on Bell’s own properties such as CTV and TSN, numerous other media entities including Astral Media, CBS Outdoor Canada, CBC Television, Gesca, Astral Media and The Globe and Mail all donated media time and space to promote the initiative.

“Let’s Talk” is intended to raise funds for mental health programs and research. For every text and long distance call made by Bell and Aliant customers, every Facebook share of the Let’s Talk image and every tweet using the hashtag #BellLetsTalkBell, the telecommunications giant donated 5 cents to Canadian mental health programs.

Bell reported Wednesday that it had set a new Bell Let’s Talk day record with more than 96 million texts and calls, raising more than $4.8 million for mental health programs. That represented a 23% increase over last year’s totals.

The #BellLetsTalk hashtag garnered more than 1.5 million tweets and retweets from numerous high-profile Canadians including Justin Bieber, William Shatner, newly appointed leader of the Ontario liberal party Kathleen Wynne, Happy Endings star Elisha Cuthbert and CBC personality George Stroumboulopoulos.

Even Bell’s arch-rival Rogers joined in, tweeting “Some things are more important than business. #ImportantCause #BellLetsTalk.”

And it can’t be a coincidence that Queen’s Park chose yesterday to announce $4 million in funding for the At Home/Chez Soi program, which works to find shelter for homeless people, many of whom live with mental illness.

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) CEO Peter Coleridge told Marketing that Let’s Talk – in combination with other programs – has had a discernible impact on raising both public and government awareness of a problem that causes as many as 500,000 Canadians to miss work on any given day and costs the Canadian economy an estimated $50 billion a year in lost productivity.

“Ten years ago, we wouldn’t be having the dialogue we’re having today with the Bell campaign,” he said. “They have really been leaders in the corporate sector in terms of support for an issue that has been in the shadows for so long. Bell and others are to be thanked for that.”

Some in the blogosphere said that the day was as much about promoting Bell’s array of services as it was about a genuine desire to put a spotlight on mental illness.

“Make no mistake – Bell Let’s Talk is first about promoting Bell, and secondarily about raising money for or awareness about mental illness,” wrote Darren Barefoot, a partner at Capulet and a Vancouver marketing blogger. “If my experience with similar projects is an indicator, Bell has a fixed amount of money to give, and they’re going to donate that money whether or not they generate an adequate number of tweets, texts and calls.

“I’ve worked on projects similar to this, and am familiar with the tensions between corporate interests and charitable activities. Compromises are made, and strings are attached. But, if this is the way forward for corporate philanthropy, then we must play by the rules that the corporations set.”

But Wong said such criticism misses the point.

“Any time a company does something like this, you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Wong. “If you choose a bad campaign you’re damned for wasting your marketing dollars. And if you choose a good campaign, people are questioning if you’re being altruistic or being corporate.

“The reality is you have to be corporate no matter what. It goes without saying that a company does things because it is in its best interests. They really have to do that because otherwise they’re defaulting on their responsibility to their shareholders. I don’t buy shares so you can make charitable contributions on my behalf.”

Yes, said Wong, the program can help distinguish Bell as a company that cares when competing for customers in a sector that features little differentiation. “The customer still has to make a choice, and if they have no functional basis on which to make that choice, and if prices are more or less equivalent, they give the business to a friend.”

What are your thoughts on “Let’s Talk?” Is it an effective awareness campaign? Does it benefit Bell’s brand in a meaningful way? Post your thoughts in our comment section.

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