ADVERTISING WEEK 2020: THE MISSION OF PURPOSE-DRIVEN BRANDS DURING COVID-19

Quigley-Simpson in Conversation:
Purpose-Driven Brands Effecting Change During COVID-19

As part of Advertising Week 2020, Quigley-Simpson Co-President Duryea Ruffins sat down with nonprofit leaders to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their operations and marketing plans. Kendra Davenport, Chief Development Officer at Operation Smile, Kerry Peterson, Vice President of Advancement at Mercy Ships, and Alan Hall, Partner at our media partner Full Hearts, spoke with Duryea about how they’re adjusting their brand strategy and meeting consumers’ new needs in this challenging moment.

[The following dialogue has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

The nonprofit sector has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. According to a recent survey by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, approximately 73% of nonprofits reported a decline in revenue. Among those who continued to give charitably, much of the giving was within the context of direct impact to the pandemic, such as local food banks.

Operation Smile and Mercy Ships, two organizations focused on addressing the inequalities of healthcare in developing nations, have actually seen improved results. Today, we’ll talk about how our teams have addressed these brands’ current challenges while seeking new opportunities to support their core missions and drive fundraising success during these challenging times.

Q: How have the events of 2020 impacted your organization, and what are the primary challenges that you’ve had to address to overcome them?

Kendra Davenport, Operation Smile: We are not a disaster-response organization. When COVID hit, we had to cease missions. We work with about 6,000 medical volunteers from all over the world in approximately 33 countries currently, and to protect them, to ensure their safety, as well as the safety of our patients, we ceased doing our regular work around the world. We pivoted quickly and determined in a number of countries how we could help best, whether it was through partnering with other organizations, other NGOs, to deliver PPE, or whether it was more basic needs, like in India, where we quickly acted to provide food to 700 families.

I’m happy to say we are doing surgery now in three countries—Morocco, Italy and Vietnam—and we hope that will continue to expand. But as we all are impacted by COVID, and you see numbers go up and down in different areas, so too is the rest of the world, so you have to really play it by ear day by day.

Kerry Peterson, Mercy Ships: We’re very similar in our organizational structure and mission. We are not a direct crisis-response organization. We work to build healthcare infrastructure through training and medical projects as well as direct surgeries.

Like Operation Smile, we too were impacted greatly when the pandemic began. With our volunteers unable to travel with all of the travel restrictions, we had to stop surgery because we couldn’t do it safely anymore. The ship was shut down, and a lot of the volunteers returned home, and in the meantime, through some of our partners, we distributed PPE throughout sub-Saharan Africa to some of the countries where we serve. While we are working to figure out how to get back in service, we’re making modifications to the ships’ ventilation systems in order to get our volunteers back in service.

Q: How did the pandemic affect your marketing efforts?

Davenport: [Pulling back on our missions due to COVID] creates a challenge, certainly on the fundraising side, because it gets at our content. The messaging we push out via mass market and every other revenue-generating channel we have is largely tied to our work in the field, so it really required that we pivot quickly and that we continue working very closely with our mass-market partners to make sure our messages were on point.

Peterson: While today’s immediate program services have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, the awareness of the disruption in health care delivery—unequal access to health care, racial inequality—has also created the opportunity to highlight the need not only for our services, but for so many others in the charitable sector that are stepping up to fill these gaps.

During this time, we’ve actually expanded our message regarding health care delivery, highlighting the volunteers who continue to give of themselves, showing people of all races working together to go outside themselves to show compassion to others. I think that in today’s uncertain world, it’s a message that people really want to hear and that they’ve responded to in ways that we couldn’t have imagined when the crisis started at the beginning of the year. Helping other people has always been relevant, and it always will be relevant, and that’s been our message for years and years. It’s a matter of getting that message out.

Davenport: Our donor loyalty has carried us. I think that is a testament to the relationship we do have with our donors, to our authenticity and the authenticity of our messages, and to the way we distribute and deliver those messages.

Q: We’re seeing strong results for both Operation Smile and Mercy Ships. In this COVID pivot, the reality on the ground today is that overall media consumption is up. Can you talk about the gains you’re seeing?

Peterson: I think the changes in media consumption have created some real opportunities for us. We had people stay at home, spend more time in front of their screens than ever. We had a lot of the commercial advertisers step out of the market, which created excess inventory that was then available to us at a cost we just wouldn’t have been able to afford in the past. That gave us a lot of opportunity.

Since April, we increased our digital budget by 25%. In April alone, we had a 50% year-over-year increase in our digital results. In May, it was 100% increase in our digital year-over-year results. And in July and August, it was 150%. So, I think it’s not just the budget—it’s the message, and it’s the technology that we’re using. We’re doing a lot of look-alike modeling, we’re looking at the donors that we have, our best donors, we’re going out and using the models to find more people who look just like them, and people are responding to the message of positivity.

Davenport: We have not seen a downturn, and while we’re cautiously optimistic about the future and what COVID will bring, we’ve been very pleased that our revenue has held strong. We actually finished the fiscal year June 30th ahead of our projected revenue, which is terrific, and then we braced ourselves for July, which is typically, in the nonprofit industry, the hardest month of the year, and we ended up being about 7% ahead of last year, in spite of really decreasing our projections this year based on what COVID would bring.

Q: What advice would you give nonprofits as they navigate their own COVID response?

Alan Hall, Full Hearts: So many nonprofit organizations pull back when they experience uncertainty and volatility in the marketplace. They simply stop asking for gifts. That approach is almost always a decision that organizations regret. People keep giving, even in downturns. They want to make a difference, and they want to help those who are less fortunate than they are. They especially give to organizations that meet basic human needs.

The key for organizations—and this is in pandemics and not in pandemics, in times of volatility and not in times of volatility—is to always be working to develop relationships with your donors and supporters to be their charity of choice. If in tough times people do decide to pull back on their giving, they usually cut back on the number of charities they give to, but people almost always stick with their favorites. So, my advice to people in times of disruption, in times of uncertainty, in times of volatility, is to double down on your mission, to double down on compassion and humanity, and to stay the course.

Peterson: I think that the other thing that we had working in our favor is our organizational structure. We have a very flat approval structure, so as opportunities present themselves, we don’t have a lot of approval structures that we have to go through. We were just able to make the decisions, to move the media, to move the budget and to execute, and we’ve had phenomenal results.

Hall: Both of these organizations are able to adjust quickly. They simply are agile enough to be able to do that, and it makes it a pleasure to work with them. It gives us the opportunity to take advantage of situations quickly.

I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofit organizations that have much more bureaucracy than these ones. If your structure limits quick moves, I just have a couple of suggestions for you. The first is to have a marketing playbook for emergencies. Although pandemics aren’t going to happen every day and hopefully never again for hundreds of years, we’re living in times when the unexpected does happen. Market volatility can happen, and you want to be able to adjust your plan for that. The second thing is to give your agency partners what we like to call latitude within limits. It’s about setting out those limits, the kind of budgets, the kind of decisions that can be made on the fly, so that we can adjust to new opportunities and take advantage of some unexpected upsides in real time. That makes Operation Smile and Mercy Ships great clients for us, and it really does let us make adjustments to act on their behalf in ways that bring the very best value to them.

Peterson: I think the thing that’s made this all work so well together is having the right partners. Not just partners that have the technical capabilities to run the model or place the ads, but I think it’s about finding those partners that really understand your mission, really understand your motivation, and they can engage on your behalf. I think that has made all the difference.

Davenport: We were 33% above projected revenue for the month of May, and that’s due largely to the fact that we were able to invest quickly in the available space Kerry mentioned. You definitely need trusted partners, and when you have that trust with partners like Full Hearts and Quigley-Simpson, you can act quickly.

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