Saving hearts and capturing minds: Heart Foundation CMO on his purpose-driven marketing plan

Not-for-profit's marketing leader responds to the latest backlash against the Heartless Words campaign and shares his ongoing plans to put heart disease back on the national agenda

Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor

The Heart Foundation found itself in the eye of a storm last week after its campaign to raise awareness about heart disease, the single biggest killer of Australians, attracted a swift, vocal barrage of criticism.

The not-for-profit has since apologised and pulled the ads, although its CMO defends the need for strong messaging on what's a life and death issue.

“When you’re talking about public health and a problem that has existed for a long time where people have become complacent, we stand behind the need to be confrontational in our messaging," general manager of marketing, media and communication, Chris Taylor told CMO. "That can open us up for criticism. But we are here to save lives and the campaign was designed for people to get a heart health check. And for the majority of time, heart disease is largely preventable."

Critics said the ‘Heartless Words’ campaign, which debuted last week, was seen as insensitive to people touched by the killer disease. Several alleged it blamed victims by suggesting people suffering from heart diseases didn’t care enough about loved ones to look after themselves.

The Heart Foundation, after first editing TV ads to remove several scenes, later pulled the campaign and the organisation issue an apology on 31 May.

Speaking to CMO, Taylor, said the aim was to get people to go to their GP for a heart health check and was intended to be take a hard hitting, emotive approach the not-for-profit had used with success in its ‘Serial Killer’ campaign earlier this year.

“This time we focused on the family tragedy side of things and we were surprised by the emotional response from a section of the community. It was not our intention to upset people," he said. "We’re about saving lives and looking after people impacted by heart disease. It highlights that heart disease does touch so many people. It hit too close to home."

Taylor said the team was always planning to transition the creative from brand ad to retail-style ad, and use messaging to focus Australians on hard hitting stats around heart disease.

"For a relatively small organisation like ours to receive that sort of feedback over a short period of time made us consider that we overstepped the mark slightly," Taylor continued. "And we needed to apologise to show that we’re an authentic organisation that really does care about what we do and it was unintentional. But we’re certainly not backing away from the fact that we need to do things differently.

"This has developed and it’s got Australia talking about heart disease. We have examples of people going and getting a health check and we’ve had feedback from GPs with more people asking about heart checks.”

The 'Serial Killers' campaign, which debuted in February and was produced in partnership with News Corp’s newsamp division, was the first phase of the new brand strategy. Creative positioned heart disease as the ‘criminal’ of the story, and the campaign incorporated a print newspaper wrap across News Corp’s Sunday metro newspapers, as well as takeover of the ‘True Crime’ Australia site. The Heart Foundation also used TV and radio advertising, and produced education videos about heart disease focused on identifying warning signs of a heart attack and with an emphasis on women.

The campaign was the first bold step in putting heart disease and the risk factors back on the agenda. It included an online risk assessment tool for individuals and also to remind and inform doctors about what’s involved in a complete heart health check.

“When we did Serial Killer, we were very prepared for people being upset and we didn’t get much negative feedback in that area," Taylor commented. "People were taken in by aligning heart disease with the true crime genre. And because of that we were confident with the next step.

"But we listen to feedback, we listen to Australians, and going forward it’s important we take that feedback into account. We’re still determined to be bold in the way we get our message out there. As an organisation with few resources, if we don’t have an impact with the dollars we have, then those dollars are wasted.”

In the case of Serial Killers, the additional focus was on government advocacy with a firm, tangible goal in mind: Funding heart checks. The bold play worked, much quicker than the organisation had hoped for. Within a week, the Government announced it would give the GP heart health check a Medicare item number, meaning it’s funded, when it previously wasn’t.

“In seven days [with that campaign] we were able to achieve something the Heart Foundation had been trying unsuccessfully to do for the last 10 years,” Taylor added.

CMO remit: One year on

It's been 12 months since Taylor was recruited to the National Heart Foundation and given the remit to carve out a new consolidated marketing and brand strategy. The move was part of a transformational structural change from nine separate entities into a single national body. 

At the time, Taylor told CMO the aim was to develop a single focus for the national body with an overarching brand strategy for the first time.

“It’s a structural transformation unusual in charity and not-for-profit. This is a significant change as the Heart Foundation seeks to focus resources to achieve our vision of an Australia free of heart disease,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s first order of business was to build a high performing, commercially focused marketing team to meet the not-for-profit’s objectives of its three-year 'One Heart’ strategic plan. This work has included evaluating the team’s existing skills, fitting skills and people into the new structure and adding people with the specialist skills needed.

“We’ve achieved a lot in just over 12 months”, Taylor said, although he conceded it was a lot of work and cited challenges fleshing out a fully formed, high performance marketing team.

“You’ve got to consider a lot of different elements in building the new team. The brand, campaign development, digital team, marketing insights, PR, media team and a lot of those are very diverse skills," he said. "Previously, many people had a broad marketing role and wore many hats in doing different marketing functions. What I needed to do was build a team of specialists, much like in a digital team, where you have search experts and they’re not broad marketing skills. That’s the challenge.”

In some cases, this shift entailed supporting existing staff on the Heart Foundation’s transformation journey with training and upskilling, where needed, to match what’s usually a deep passion for the cause with the skills for the role and hiring new people. It's also seen Taylor bring on new team members.

“I’ve been able to attract talent from all sorts of industries including FMCG, retail and financial services," he said. "They’re all very keen to look at the Heart Foundation, not just as a cause-related organisation, but as one of Australia’s leading brands.”

The other area of focus for the CMO was getting a new agency on board to help set the brand strategy for the next couple of years. This has also meant developing a brand purpose, although the Heart Foundation already had a mission statement and vision.

“For us, that was particularly important. We developed the brand purpose, which is ‘leading the fight to save Australian hearts’," Taylor said. "In addition to that, this year is our 60-year anniversary, so we’ve developed a lot of assets to highlight the organisation’s achievements over its 60-year history.”

Heart disease was something that the Australian public had all but forgotten about, Taylor said. "We’ve had good tracking on sentiment and understanding that heart disease is Australia’s number one killer for many years and a lot of those indicators were at very low levels," he said.

"That’s a bit of a disaster, because if people have forgotten it’s an issue, they’re not going to act to manage their own risks. The strategy was to put heart disease back on the agenda and also to understand our role, which is to raise awareness, provide support and care to those affected by heart disease and specific benefits for the at-risk population.”

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