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Adapting your marketing strategy when challenging times hit

25 June 2021

An effective marketing strategy lies at the heart of achieving your wider charity goals. Whether conducting a review or trying to stay on track, we need to be prepared for an unexpected crisis – like an almighty pandemic to throw a spanner in the works.

For smaller charities, adapting amongst this change is even more challenging – that beautifully laid out document of plans presented at the start of the year can struggle to make it off the paper when you are a small team and challenging times hit.

So how have we at Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust adapted our marketing strategy in the face of COVID?

How COVID hit us

We are a national charity that inspires young people aged 8-24 to believe in a brighter future through sailing and outdoor activity. We support young people after their cancer treatment has ended and our trips help them to feel valued, accepted, optimistic and independent as they start to re-establish their place in the world.   

Although it’s a full-on 12-month operation, our year has traditionally been split into seasons – trip season (June-September) and off-season (October-May). Our marketing strategy has reflected this – trip season for awareness raising and content gathering, off-season for campaigns and planning.

But, when COVID cancelled all our 2020 trips and rendered our seasonal marketing plan effectively useless, we leant on four pillars that meant we could quickly evolve our marketing strategy, in principle if not in writing, to meet the new challenges.

Pillar 1 – Your purpose doesn’t change

What you do might have to adapt but why you’re doing it doesn’t.

One month before lockdown, we hosted a gala event at the Royal Society of Medicine, London to launch ‘Better Connections, Bigger Impact – Our Ambitions for 2020-2022’. This detailed our three-year business plan to build stronger relationships with and make a greater long-term difference to more young people living through and beyond cancer.

The three key elements of ‘Our Ambitions’ were 1) making meaningful connections with more young people, 2) securing a diverse and robust income stream, and 3) improving the impact of our work. Our marketing strategy naturally mirrored these.

‘Our Ambitions’ was written with our trips in mind. But every one of these things could be achieved in a different way. Like many charities, we moved to an on/offline support programme we called ‘Virtual Summer’ and fundraising went virtual too. Yet, our marketing strategy remained embedded in achieving our Ambitions, we just had to achieve them in a way we never imagined. In many ways everything was different, yet nothing had changed.

Pillar 2 – Impact matters

Communicating the difference we make, not what we do, has always sat at the heart of our marketing strategy. That mattered and continues to matter, arguably more than ever.

Recreating human connection was everything in 2020. As we continued to try to make meaningful connections with more young people and secure a diverse and robust income stream, the power of young people’s stories came into their own.

Whether they were talking about how the Trust was supporting them through COVID, or how we’ve made a difference to them over a longer period, these impact stories have helped us engage potential new beneficiaries and supporters, funders, and donors.

Pillar 3 – Having fingers in lots of pies helps

One of the beauties of working for a small charity is you wear multiple hats. My job title is ‘Communications Manager’, but I’m part of our senior leadership team too. During 2020 and 2021, I have spent as much time, if not more, feeding into our wider operational and fundraising strategies and plans as on comms and marketing.

Being so involved in the key organisational decisions almost makes the comms needs obvious. A good example was when we announced our course for 2021 – Ready to get back on the water – in April. I was involved in every aspect of this plan since we started discussing it last autumn. Most importantly, so was our CEO, Operations and Fundraising managers.

By the time it came to announcing, there was not only total understanding from the rest of the leadership team on key messaging, who we needed to include in the conversation and what channels we were going to use to do that, but the leadership team had had as much say in that as me! Not so much ‘buy-in’ as comms being integrated from the outset.

Constantly having that wider organisational understanding means adapting your marketing strategy is a natural evolution rather than a radical overhaul.

Pillar 4 – Stay detached

It sounds counter-intuitive working for a charity, but not getting emotionally involved in the big decisions has enabled me to think more clearly, respond more quickly and look ahead more effectively. It is possible to care while keeping a distance.

Keeping sight of the wider situation matters right now, and that isn’t possible if you’re getting swept up in the disappointment of setbacks or frustration of unexpected curveballs. Again, this is where ‘Our Ambitions’ has been vital in providing a consistent focus.

It’s not always easy in the upheaval of a global pandemic, when you, your family, friends, and colleagues are riding the ultimate emotional rollercoaster. But the mantra of Olympians has long been ‘Control the controllables’. In an uncertain world, it is a great mantra to have.

For more marketing tips lookout for our next blog on how to diversify your digital marketing – coming next week!

If you liked this you may also like – Beyond the organogram – The rise of agile in charity marketing and comms

Image: Athena on Pexels

Karenza Morton

communications manager, Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust

Karenza has been involved with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust since 2005, having been introduced to the charity whilst working as a Features Writer at the Southern Daily Echo. She moved from newspapers to a communications role with the RYA/British Sailing Team, including working on three Olympics before going freelance (copywriting/comms) in 2009. Karenza joined the Trust full-time in September 2020.