Thanks and Giving: St Judes Brands A Holiday

January 15, 2005       Craig Causer      

In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, nobody gets more media play than the old man in the red suit. This past holiday season, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital gave Santa a good run with its inaugural A Day of Thanks & Giving campaign.

The multi-marketing channel campaign ran from mid-November through Christmas with the goal of increasing awareness of the Memphis-based nonprofit. It included television spots, a print media campaign, retail marketing, clothing products and multi-media items. A powerful board and advisers crafted the media explosion by reaching out to business partners and decision-makers.

St. Jude’s board wanted to organize a campaign around a family holiday that did not have a religious connotation, so it selected Thanksgiving, according to Marlo Thomas, national outreach director and spokesperson for the organization since her father and hospital founder, Danny Thomas’ death in 1991. After consulting its corporate partners, who decided that it was far more difficult to gear up for one day, it was determined that a seasonal approach was best.

“We have to raise $1 million per day,” Thomas said of the organization that amassed $450.8 million in total revenue — $308 million of that in public support — for fiscal year 2003. “St. Jude is really a family hospital. The parents are in their 20s and the grandparents are in their 40s, so we’re talking about young people. You’re engaged with families and the Thanksgiving season was the perfect kickoff to appeal to families.”

The idea of owning the winter holiday season began to germinate at the nonprofit’s Shower of Stars event in 2003, said Tony Thomas, member of St. Jude’s board and son of Danny Thomas. After consulting corporate America to help provide input, the organization found that partners were impressed with the hospital’s research arm and thought that St. Jude needed to better get the word out on its programs and facilities. That began the thinking of having a national event to spread its message across the country.

“We needed a way to launch it. Thanksgiving is a family holiday and St. Jude’s is all about the family,” said Tony Thomas. “It just made sense since during Thanksgiving families are together even more often than Christmas. That was the time to do it.”

Owning Thanksgiving is no small feat and St. Jude’s allocated approximately $14 million for the campaign budget — $4 million of which was provided by its fundraising arm, American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC). The idea was presented to the board in 2003 and the campaign was approved.

The ultimate goal is to increase awareness with the hope that people will come to identify Thanksgiving with St. Jude, said Joyce Aboussie, vice chairwoman of the nonprofit’s board.

“Any type of campaign or fundraising task is daunting and I would think that we would be naïve to think that it is not,” Aboussie explained. “I don’t know if it was our ambition to take over all of the holiday season, per se. What we wanted to do is make sure that people around the country knew a little more about St. Jude’s than they already do. I’m hopeful that we might have accomplished that. We’re still cautiously optimistic.”

The significant undertaking of staking a claim to Thanksgiving, is not an endeavor that is easily accomplished by any nonprofit organization. St. Jude leveraged its celebrity, specifically the Thomas family, to raise its public profile through corporate partnerships and an integrated marketing campaign to promote Thanks & Giving during the fourth quarter of 2004.

The Thomas family and St. Jude’s board were deeply involved in the campaign. Tony Thomas and the board amassed a roster of high profile corporate partners. Marlo Thomas recruited celebrities for high profile television spots, helped to land the front page of Parade magazine through a relationship with the publication’s CEO and even authored a book, Thanks & Giving All Year Long, along with friends including Ray Romano, Paul Newman and Mel Brooks.

“I thought the book and the CD would capture that spirit of Thanks & Giving,” Marlo Thomas said. “I wanted it to make people think of St. Jude in terms of how to be grateful. It’s good not to take things for granted and to give back. I’m glad the celebrities were able to take part.”

The organization decided to go with its traditional annual Christmas appeal rather than adding a separate Thanks & Giving direct mail campaign. What was not in mailboxes, however, was more than apparent on television screens.

“I think people saw us on TV a lot,” said Greg John of Kelley Habib John Integrated Marketing, who headed up St. Jude’s creative side of the campaign. “The people saw the fruits of our P.R. efforts, whether it was the Today show or if it was in print. We had a tremendous presence on the Internet, as well. We integrated everything with the existing programs that were going on at St. Jude’s during this time.”

The key was crystallizing St. Jude’s brand and getting it out to all age ranges and audiences via a variety of media outlets, John added. Enter Robin Williams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Will Smith and a celebrity packed lineup of television commercials.

The celebrities participated in five individual commercials, with Antonio Banderas contributing English and Spanish language versions of his spot. The spots were a combination of donated and purchased time, although the organization did not provide a detailed breakdown. Each of the celebrities donated their time, some visited the hospital and all were familiar with the work of St. Jude’s before filming the spots.

“We have a lot of Hispanic children at St. Jude’s, as well as a large program in Latin America so I really felt we needed Antonio Banderas’ involvement with the campaign,” Marlo Thomas said. “As far as the message on TV and in print, you never heard me ask for money. The campaign is about awareness.”

In addition to the television commericals, a movie trailer featuring Queen Latifah was produced. Many theaters placed the Thanks & Giving spot in “prime time” slots directly preceding the airing of the film, John said.

“The message we tried to get across in TV, email and across the board was that it was more than about giving money,” John added. “We wanted people to reflect and give thanks for the healthy kids in their life and to give to help those who haven’t been as fortunate. We wanted to give people the opportunity to put meaning back into the holiday season and I think people really wanted to do that.”

St. Jude’s was also able to reach those who enjoy getting their news from the solitude of the Sunday paper. The Thanks & Giving campaign was featured on the Nov. 21, 2004 cover of Parade magazine, which at 36 million copies is the largest circulation magazine in the world. Parade has historically been involved with institutions that support scientific research, supported St. Jude’s events in the past and was excited about the campaign, said Walter Anderson, chairman and chief executive officer at Parade.

“We have an entire marketing and promotion department and so we would include (Thanks & Giving) in some of our own promotions,” Anderson said, “everything from placing ads as PSAs to supporting it in the November issue. Most important was the decision by the editor that it was worthy of the cover of Parade. A cover is not a reward. It has to generate news or be news. A lot of people want the cover and ask for our support but it has to be significant, national and credible and that is St. Jude’s.What is this exposure worth to St. Jude’s? I don’t know. I hope it’s worth $1 more than is necessary to save a life,” said Anderson.

The magazine’s editor will sit down and discuss future opportunities beyond the 2004 campaign and while Anderson said he is not a part of those talks, he does “strongly suspect” that Parade is going to continue its support of Thanks & Giving.

Face lift

With Danny and Marlo Thomas fronting St. Jude campaigns for decades, it has certainly utilized its star power. But the initiative to own the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday season is a campaign built around the calendar rather than a face, with the aim to appeal to the next generation of supporters.

“The Thomas family will always be recognized along with the organization but this type of campaign sets up the organization well for 20 and 30 years down the line,” explained Richard Shadyac, chief executive officer at ALSAC. “That the idea for A Day of Thanks & Giving came from the Thomas family only proves that the children and the research are first and foremost in their minds.”

Board members were not concerned about concentrating on a specific time period. St. Jude’s isn’t identified with the face of Marlo or the Thomas family or any one entity, said Aboussie. It’s identified by the fact that it is working hard to cure the sickest of children. The organization continues to introduce St. Jude into households and make sure that they are aware of its abilities and all that it learns and shares with hospitals around the country, she added.

“St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is bigger than my father and my family,” Marlo Thomas said. “It’s the depth of the science — the laboratories and research and treatment centers — and the collaboration between doctors and scientists that truly matter.”

The organization’s work may be bigger than one family but St. Jude’s board continues to be stocked with intergenerational Thomases and descendants of original board members. That board has been instrumental in signing on heavyweight corporate partners such as American Express, the St. Louis Rams football team, Target and Yahoo! (see sidebar on page 6).

One of the reasons that St. Jude can attempt such an extensive campaign is that its board members have been vital volunteers, said Tony Thomas. “You couldn’t afford us — no company could afford us. But we are committed and devoted. Many are second-generation members of the board who are helping to make this work by talking with potential partners.”

St. Jude’s will not have hard statistical results on the Thanks & Giving campaign before February but until then, the organization is taking a pragmatic approach.

“You have to look at it as a new business — my good friend (media mogul and InterActive Corp. CEO) Barry Diller said,” Marlo Thomas explained. “No new business goes into the black the first year. When you’re thinking of new ways to bring funds into the institution, that’s something that is going to take some time.”