Why SickKids chose “Bravery Beads” and Nirvana for latest fundraising campaign

Who: SickKids Foundation, with Cossette for creative, Citizen Relations for PR, Scouts Honour for production (directed by Mark Zibert and Brent Foster), and OMD for media.

What: “One Million Strong,” the latest ad in the Vs. campaign to support the hospital’s ambitious $1.5 billion fundraising effort (up from the original goal of $1.3 billion) to rebuild the world-renowned facility.

When & Where: The campaign launched late last week with media including TV, digital billboards and transit shelter ads, as well as special installations at a handful of locations around the GTA.

Why: The SickKids Foundation’s Vs. fall campaign has become an annual event since launching in 2017. High-impact, world-famous advertising put a spotlight on the heroic battles waged by young patients being treated at the hospital, and the need to build a new building to help them. The ads have won some of the biggest awards, both in Canada and internationally, while effectively raising money to fund a total rebuild of the hospital.

This year, of course, the parameters changed. A campaign idea was approved and planned for a summer shoot when the pandemic hit, forcing them to start over: targets were revisited, messaging updated and production appropriately scaled back to reflect the mood and to meet distancing and safety requirements.

“We also had reduced budgets and wanted to invest more in reach than in production,” said Kate Torrance, interim vice-president, brand strategy and communications, for SickKids Foundation. They had planned to bring back last year’s campaign (and they still are) when they uncovered a new possibility in the summer. “We had this realization: we’re going to hit a million donors [to the campaign] and we said ‘Hey, this could be a great moment in time to give us a little extra something this fall to help capture the attention of the marketplace,'” said Torrance.

They decided to shoot a new ad that would use reaching one million donors as a new short-term call to action.

How: As they considered ways to bring the million donor goal to life, they uncovered another reason why one million is symbolically important to SickKids. For 20 years, the hospital has been giving “Bravery Beads” to its young patients to mark accomplishments in their treatments. The hospital has now given away one million beads, and that became the hook for the new campaign.

The 60-second ad opens on the beads flowing and rolling across a hospital backdrop as a narrator reveals the true meaning. “Instead of looking like these kind of colourful, childlike things, we’re positioning them as really what they are to kids [treated at the hospital], which is a badge of honour, or a symbol of the strength [needed for what] they’ve gone through,” said Torrance.

“It starts off a little bit sombre and dark. But by the end of the spot, as the beads gather around the neck of Nora, our patient, you get this feeling of strength and power,” she said.

Strength and power have been a core focus of the campaign from day one. “We want to build affinity. We want people to feel like ‘Yeah, you guys are winning, you’re doing something amazing. I want to be a part of that.’”

(They are also bringing back “This is Why” from last year.)

Timing: The idea came together in late June, with script concept approval in late July and the shoot taking place in early August. Unlike in previous years’ ads that featured a number of patients, this year they have just one, and they had to shoot in a studio rather than in the hospital.

Aside from TV? A monument featuring Bravery Beads will be designed by artist Nico Williams and installed in the new SickKids. And five 10-foot Bravery Beads will temporarily appear throughout Toronto. The first giant bead was unveiled at the Toronto Eaton Centre, with others to follow at SickKids, Sherway Gardens, Union Station and Vaughan Mills. Earned media has always been important to the SickKids fundraising efforts, said Torrance. “The Bravery Beads are something that has allowed us to do some great storytelling and…something media’s been really interested in covering because it’s of human interest.”

Shout out to the PR: “Citizen relations was pivotal,” said Torrance. “They were our partner through this from when we recognized we had this million donor milestone. We saw such potential from an earned media standpoint, so they were at the table along with Cossette for the the development of this integrated approach.”

The song: A sombre piano cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” produced by Pirate Radio’s Mark Rajakovic. The lyrics to the original are, well, dark, admits Torrance. “But the spirit of the song, the sense that you’re keeping the important thing… you keep a record of important things in your life—even when sometimes those things are associated with pain or difficult times—that really represents what the Bravery Beads are.”

Significance of the beads: “There are, I think, just shy of 200 different kinds of beads,” said Torrance. “Each bead represents the accomplishment of the child against something specific. Everything from eating solid food for the first time in a while, to a needle, to an MRI. Or when you complete a certain type of treatment. If you lose your hair you get those little bald beads that are in the spot. Those are ones that children who go through chemo and lose their hair, they earn those beads.”

David Brown