NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- St. Jude's Children's Hospital was about as ubiquitous as Santa this winter. It was in a PSA featuring Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger of Hudson River heroics, in the press box on the lapel pins of Fox Sports announcers (they also wore them during this month's Super Bowl), in holiday gift cards, Facebook news feeds, the checkout at Target , when ordering a Domino's pizza and on air with "American Chopper" on the Discovery Channel.
St. Jude's is such a powerhouse among charitable organizations that industry experts compare it to the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It ranks 18th on Cone's Power 100 Nonprofit list; a significant feat for a singular hospital. And this past holiday season 18% of Americans said they planned to support St. Jude's Thanks and Giving program, according to strategy agency Cone.
"They've done a fabulous job of sharing their message in a compelling way, focusing on their cause and creating a succinct message around that," said Erica Vogelei, director-cause branding and nonprofit marketing at Cone.
St. Jude's beginnings were humble, created by the late actor Danny Thomas as a tribute to the patron saint of lost causes. Its mission -- to treat catastrophically ill kids without regard for ability to pay -- was novel in an era when cancer was almost always a death sentence. Over its 49-year history St. Jude has used celebrity star power and connections, smart marketing decisions and programs to appeal to a broad cross-section of consumers and businesses. The result is a pervasive brand that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year -- $692 million in fiscal 2010 alone -- from preschoolers and professionals, eighth graders and 80-year-olds.
"We intentionally cultivate people and have programs to cultivate them at every cycle of their life," said Emily Callahan, the organization's first-ever chief marketing officer. "That's really set us apart. A lot of times a nonprofit will hang their hat on one key fundraiser or one area of marketing."
Instead, St. Jude's fundraising efforts span from Trike-a-thon to Math-a-thon, and Up 'Til Dawn to the Dream Home Giveaway. It's developing donors when they're still hanging out on the playground—well before other charities are vying for their attention. "We want those people that are in pre-school now to be with us when they get to be 70 or 80 years old and are ready to make that Legacy gift," said CEO Richard Shadyac Jr., whose father Richard Shadyac Sr. was CEO from 1992 to 2005.
The organization, dubbed the most-trusted charity in the nation by Harris Interactive, serves, on average, 5,700 patients each year and is the nation's top children's cancer hospital, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Its celebrity connections date back to its founding, when luminaries such as Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr. supported fellow entertainer Mr. Thomas' cause. Today, Mr. Thomas' children Marlo, Tony and Terre continue to be involved, and St. Jude boasts a star-studded roster of supporters such as Jennifer Aniston, Robin Williams and Antonio Banderas.
The Thomas clan has opened plenty of doors over the years. An NBA partnership is in the works, and the 22nd annual Country Cares radiothon just kicked off. St. Jude takes advantage of each connection and carefully evaluates every prospect.
"We don't take any opportunity for granted," said Ms. Callahan. "We could have looked at [Fox Sports' decision to name St. Jude its charity partner for the 2010 NFL Season] and said, 'Great, here's our standard PSA.'" Instead, St. Jude's execs began brainstorming ways to make the most of it. On-air talent were invited to Memphis to meet with patient families. PSAs featuring Fox Sports personalities were created, along with Game Day Give Back, which encouraged consumers to host or participate in football- viewing parties to benefit St. Jude. Markell, a St. Jude patient, even went head to head with "Fox NFL Sunday" co-host Terry Bradshaw, picking the week's winners throughout the season and participating in Fox Sports' Super Bowl pre-game show.
"When people set foot on this campus, it forever changes their lives, and they want to do more," Ms. Callahan said. "I can speak with authority, because I've been a part of other charities that have had the opportunity with Fox and didn't get near this exposure."
Media properties are key to the nonprofit, given its small budget of roughly $8 million to $10 million annually. Much of the media St. Jude uses is donated or discounted, and it relies on cost-effective marketing vehicles such as PR, social media and its own website. Given St. Jude's daily operating budget of $1.6 million, it's critical that the organization spends its funds wisely. Nearly 72% of St. Jude's budget is covered by donations, with the average individual donation just $30. More than 5 million donors are on the books, as well as 1 million volunteers. Regional field offices around the U.S. drum up support and create locally relevant events.
St. Jude's counts Target , Domino's, Williams-Sonoma, Regal Cinemas and Expedia among the more than 50 partners that participate in its Thanks and Giving campaign. The annual campaign asks consumers to "give thanks for the healthy kids in your life, and give to those who are not." Companies ask for dollar add-ons at the register, donate a portion of sales during specified times or promote specific products that benefit St. Jude. "This was an opportunity to break out into the corporate world in a broader way," Mr. Shadyac said. The commitment to St. Jude begins in the c-suite, and executives are encouraged to visit the campus and meet the patients. Often those same executives are asked to serve in an advisory capacity or a board leadership position. And many decide to incentivize their employees, with the person raising the most for St. Jude winning a trip to visit the campus.
But St. Jude's thinks it can do more, which is why Mr. Shadyac brought in Ms. Callahan as its first CMO. She had been senior VP-global marketing and networks at Susan G. Komen. "I wanted to bring in someone of Emily's caliber to take a critical look at our brand and to help me protect and steward this brand going forward," Mr. Shadyac said. "We do a great job of fundraising, but I thought we could do a better job of creating awareness and buzz."
In the past three months, Ms. Callahan has consolidated various marketing-related elements and personnel into one division. Next, she plans to conduct research around brand recognition and brand perception. "We've always looked for ways to stand out from the crowd," said Mr. Shadyac.