Heart Foundation CMO: Last week was the most challenging of my career

Chris Taylor, the chief marketing officer of the Heart Foundation, has spoken out about the toll the Heartless Words campaign has taken, and said pressure from donors and other health groups ultimately led to its axing.

The campaign copped backlash for featuring a dying mother telling her child “every time I told you I loved you, I was lying”.

Speaking at Mumbrella360 on the charity’s previous, and wildly successful, Serial Killer campaign it executed in partnership with News Corp, Taylor said the charity’s numerous obstacles – apathy, inspiring donations, lack of awareness and just how preventable heart disease could be – meant it had to “bring back the fear of heart disease”.

Its campaigns need to put heart disease back on the agenda, and remind Australians it’s the number one killer, he said.

On its Serial Killer campaign, he said: “We needed a big idea, and we were very willing to take a risk to bring that to life. In fact, we wanted to shock Australia into action.”

He said the charity cannot afford to go “soft” on the issue, as it simply doesn’t cut through. The brand needs to take risks, and shock, surprise and scare people.

On the back of the success of Serial Killer, it went down the path of Heartless Words.

Heartless Words, however, which hit TV screens last week, did not go to plan.

“I talked about Serial Killer being one of the most exciting of my working career, and I think that the last week has probably been one of the most challenging,” he said, noting the campaign came from a place of good will, with the intent of making people use the new Medicare item number to get a heart health check.

“Now what has happened is that we’ve got a lot of feedback particularly from people who have lost someone, that they found the ad incredibly challenging, and a lot of that feedback came through social media. And through the week we had obviously defended the ad – the purpose and the intention of the ad was to do good – but also acknowledged that it may have hurt people along the way. And for that, we are profusely sorry. That was never the intention. The intention was to cut through,” he said.

Taylor was not the only one to suffer as a result of the campaign, with frontline staff struggling as result as well.

Taylor addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ at Mumbrella360

“We didn’t also appreciate the impact that it did have on our staff, because they are the front line, and they’re dealing with people everyday who have got heart disease. And as an organisation, whose purpose is to look after those people, they felt that it was very challenging,” he said.

Ultimately, despite testing the message in market and believing the ad would be effective, Taylor acknowledged the brand had to ditch the ad to protect its revenue base.

“Within an organisation like us, we’ve got very limited funds to get the message out there. And if we don’t spend that money in the most impactful way, we’re wasting our money, and we’re wasting the money of our generous donors,” he said.

“So we had made a decision as an organisation to continue along the lines of Serial Killer, and create a campaign that was impactful. But we have acknowledged and we have stopped the campaign due to a lot of the feedback that we got.

“An organisation like the Heart Foundation does rely on the goodwill of donors, but also the goodwill of other organisations within the health industry. And that pressure from those groups had led to the decision to stop the campaign.”

Despite the furore, Taylor said the brand will not be shying away from future hard-hitting campaigns in a bid to save lives.

“We’re not giving up, we’re continuing. You’ll see new campaigns and messaging out there very shortly,” he said.

Marketing academic Professor Mark Ritson praised Taylor’s bravery throughout the campaign’s ideation, execution and axing, and said it was a shame the campaign hadn’t stood the test of time on the airwaves.

“There’s a lesson here, right? Let’s take it away from heart disease for a second. Most marketers play it too safe. Most marketers don’t achieve salience. Most consumers never notice or digest the message, because we don’t push whatever the position might be far enough,” he said.

“If there’s one thing you see across successful campaigns, back to this bravery point, you have to push it up to the line, and maybe sometimes over the line – not intentionally, but the attention and effectiveness depends upon it. And I think for me it’s one of the great shames, if this is one of the great campaigns of the last five or 10 years in Australia, one of the great disappointments, though it’s understandable, is it’s been pulled.”

Ritson concluded: “We’re not talking about something that can’t be prevented in the vast majority of cases [heart disease]. I’m not an ethicist. I have no idea about healthcare, but from a marketing point of view, I think this is a shame, because it was continuing a very successful campaign to the next stage.”


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