March of Dimes Raises Prematurity Awareness Post-Rebrand

Marketing Senior VP Doug Staples Overcomes Nonprofit's Challenges by Leveraging Credibility

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NEW YORK ( -- So here's a question: How do you, as a marketer, simultaneously shake consumers' long-held view of you and get them to buy into your message? That's what March of Dimes Foundation Senior VP-Strategic Marketing and Communications Doug Staples is charged with doing.

The 23-year veteran of the organization originally established to eradicate polio is overseeing a new push to educate the public about the seriousness of premature births. To get there, the nonprofit has had to work to debunk an assumption that it exists primarily to help parents of babies born with birth defects. That was the objective of a 2008 rebranding effort. "Moms expecting to have a normal pregnancy would say, 'I'm glad they're there for someone else.' So we really wanted to let people know we are there for all babies," Mr. Staples said. "[The rebranding] was designed to present ourselves in a more contemporary way, a more positive way, a friendlier way, but really appeal to the broad audience of moms who have had healthy babies," he said.

The latest TV, radio and social-media campaign, from Barkley, Kansas City, Mo., which launched earlier this month, is designed to bring attention to the issue of premature birth. "It's been kind of publicly under the radar," Mr. Staples said. "We want to tell people that this is a serious issue."

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In an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Staples, who had no marketing experience prior to joining March of Dimes in 1987 as a writer, talked about the latest campaign, for which he had a $300,000 production budget but no media-buying budget; how he measures the ROI of outreach efforts; and what challenges, as well as opportunities, he has that for-profit CMOs might not.

Ad Age: Who would you say is your target audience?

Mr. Staples: In the work we did with Barkley we really found in research that moms were the people most receptive to March of Dimes as the [organization] that is there for babies. In terms of speaking about babies' health, we need to focus in more tightly on moms. All moms. And the next larger audience would be women of childbearing age. We found they're not too tuned in. We do need to reach them, too. But that's challenging. And there's this segment of women who are actively trying to get pregnant, and you can get them interested; they're seeking information about how to have a healthy pregnancy. But preconception care is not fully established in our culture. A lot of people are still in the mindset of, once you get pregnant, then you need to go to the doctor.

Ad Age: How are you reaching them?

Mr. Staples: We don't have a paid advertising budget to speak of, so we are relying on public service. We are relying on TV, radio, outdoor, print, in English and Spanish, and we're very active online with blogs and social media and reaching people that way. November is the month we focus on prematurity. We've had a huge uptake of that with Bloggers Unite. There are a lot of moms who blog out there, and they're interested in our subject.

Ad Age: So you have a Facebook page? How are you using it?

Mr. Staples: Really we're using it to let people know about an initiative that we're starting or offers from sponsors. We put the commercials out there to ask people what they thought of them.

Doug Staples
Doug Staples
We've also had a community within where it's mostly people who have been through that experience of having a child [born prematurely] who had been in the NICU. About 30,000 or 40,000 people are on that now. We're in the process of updating our website, taking it from a library-type website to one that's more interactive. Maybe we can build a community of moms who are interested in talking about their pregnancies, [for example]. The technology will help us build that out as well.

Ad Age: How do you measure the ROI of your efforts?

Mr. Staples: We do a Gallup survey every month. And we're looking at sort of top-of-mind, pure name recognition -- do people know what we do? [And] we are looking at prematurity -- do people know about it or don't they?

The economy just started squeezing out people's interest in a lot of issues, health issues and environmental issues. We're trying to remind people that we're still trying to address this issue.

Ad Age: As head of marketing at a not-for-profit, what standards are you held to and assessed by?

Mr. Staples: Those Gallup numbers are part of my assessment, the website and online engagement, growth of our Facebook page, online donations, and then of course [our] fundraising events. Our March for Babies generates half our revenue.

Ad Age: What challenges as well as opportunities do you think you have that CMOs of for-profit companies don't have?

Mr. Staples: One of the biggest challenges is small budgets and not having a budget for paid advertising in any big way. I'm sure people in for-profit never think they have enough money in their budget either. I also think we have some advantages, in terms of credibility. The editorial coverage is a little easier to come by. People are just a little more skeptical of for-profit pitches than they would be of not-for-profit. And one of the things that we do is corporate partnerships with companies that we think are doing the right thing. We have a partnerships with Sanofi, which develops the Pertussis vaccine. Kmart is our No. 1 fund-raiser. They do their dollar-at-check-out [program]. They raised $10.5 million last year. Farmers Insurance is our No. 2 in terms of corporate donations: They're at $4.5 million to $5 million. Banking has been really hard hit. We've always had tremendous support from Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citi. They're still big supporters and still in the top 10, but they might be half of what they used to be because they've gone through tremendous downsizing, and during the recession a lot of companies have had to retrench and really focus on their businesses.

Ad Age: How has previous career experience and your tenure at March of Dimes informed your current role?

Mr. Staples: Pretty completely. I did not go to marketing school. I went to journalism school and came in as a writer and have been in this job now for about eight years. I've really had to learn along the way about ROI and about focus groups and survey research, and it's been a wonderful opportunity to do that.

Ad Age: What do you think CMOs of for-profit companies can learn from you?

Mr. Staples: A lot of for-profit companies are thinking about moms as a target audience. They are looking to connect with customers in an emotional way, more than just a product-value kind of way. March of Dimes offers, through partnering with us, a great opportunity to connect with moms. Breast cancer has been a way to reach women and moms, but it's become kind of crowded, and babies is another way to emotionally connect with moms.

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