Good News From Bad: Salvation Army’s holiday victory
December 17, 2012 | Jeromy Lloyd | Comments
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Marketing
What happens when a real-life Grinch jeopardizes a charity’s holiday message?
The Salvation Army and its iconic hanging kettles are as big a part of North American Christmases as Burl Ives and Festive Specials. This year the charity launched a national holiday campaign of strong creative and excellent production values to cut through very loud competition from other charitable organizations.
So when bad press put scrutiny on the Salvation Army just as the campaign was starting, it faced a decision whether to keep its message of selfless giving on the air or pull it back to address the headlines with a PR push, losing crucial time to get its message out.
The December holidays are crunch time for most charitable groups that load the bulk of their media and creative spending into campaigns designed to tap into the season of giving. Competition between charities is more good natured than that of for-profit marketers, but still fierce as they face business obstacles the same as any packaged good maker: a strategy horse race, ebbs in consumer confidence and side-by-side brand comparisons.
Children’s Wish Foundation is in-market with an animated video asking for donations because, it says, requests for its aid have gone up 24% in the last three years. Covenant House has launched a disturbing radio campaign to raise awareness that, in one spot, portrays the illegal sex trade with chilling audio meant to evoke sympathy in the listener and, in turn, drive donations.
“Every charity is on the airwaves,” says Michelle Clausius, associate director for Covenant House. “We knew that we had to do something that would stand out and make an impact.”
The Salvation Army’s television and radio buy includes ads from its agency of record, Grey Canada, that bear the tagline “No dream is too small when you’re in need.” The centrepiece of the campaign is an animated video illustrating a girl’s dreams of warm meals, nice clothes and a safe home while she shivers on a subway bench. It’s pointed without being jarring, and is a well-crafted, beautiful film that stands out from other spots on TV.
But just after it began airing, news organizations reported that a Salvation Army executive had been allegedly responsible for $2 million in toy thefts from the charity’s holiday gift drives. Another executive in Ottawa was also alleged to have stolen at least $240,000.
“We talked about [pulling the campaign], but it wasn’t something we wanted to do,” says Andrew Burditt, public relations director for the organization. “Despite the actions of one individual, a group of individuals or whatever it turns out to be, there are still things that need to be done and people who need our support. We need to communicate to the public that that’s the case and hope that they continue to trust we manage things well.”
It’s hard to know how the public might react overall to news of the thefts. While some people balk at donating to causes with reputations for inefficiency and poor management, the Salvation Army appears to be a victim of a crime not lax standards or lazy leadership.
Jim Diorio, chief idea officer at Manifest Communications (a cause marketing agency that works predominantly with non-profits), believes the charity will survive this crisis. He says there are far more opportunities than obstacles in the fallout from the thefts.
“There probably are those people who think the organization doesn’t have its act together and are concerned, but I’m sure there are more people who are rising up to say ‘Let’s do something,’” Diorio says.
Burditt confirmed that corporations have expressed an increased interest in donating following news of the thefts. “Spin Master donated $100,000 worth of toys right away,” he says. This is likely due to the organization’s transparency with the press, openly discussing the theft and handling the issue from its Toronto branch, says Diorio, who believes the charity will find itself with more friends after the holidays.
“Not to be opportunistic about it, but there is an opportunity to keep the public up to speed with what’s going on through the campaign, let them know how they work… and what they do at Christmas,” he says.
Producing The Salvation Army’s “Dreams”
• Created by Grey Canada and Nexus Productions, the same U.K. production house behind Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” and “The Tale of Three Brothers” from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
•Music composed by Giles Lamb, who penned the haunting piano and violin track for the award-winning Dead Island trailer
• Production began Aug. 20 and was “condensed” according to Grey creative director Patrick Scissons, to make the holiday deadline. Final animations were ready Oct. 30.
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