Skip to main content

Seamus O’Farrell wants to get inside your head

18 August 2012

Seamus O'Farrell wants to get inside your head.

More specifically, he wants to tap into the 95% of your subconscious that, psychological marketing theory states, shapes and structures all your conscious thought.

Seamus is the director of comms at the recently rebranded Prostate Cancer UK, formerly The Prostate Cancer Charity. According to the theory he espouses, most consumer decision-making and brand choice happens beneath the level of consciousness, and is prompted by small impulses triggered by emotional memories linked to a brand.

The problem with The Prostate Cancer Charity, Seamus discovered when he joined in May 2011, was that its name just wasn’t registering with the public. Despite being the top result in a Google search of "prostate cancer", people searching the term went straight past the charity’s link. Prostate cancer itself is still a mystery to many people, despite 40,000 men being diagnosed each year. It simply isn’t an issue in the way breast cancer is: even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, called it "prostrate cancer" twice at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Seamus doesn’t hang about. Having joined in May, by September the same year he had a rebrand plan in front of the board of trustees for approval. One of his key proposals was to tackle the taboo word in the organisation’s name; not ‘cancer’ but ‘charity’.

"'Charity' is a bad word for an organisation providing medically-specialist support for, and research into, cancer," he says. "The public perceives charities as where well-intentioned amateurs work. If you've just been diagnosed with prostate cancer, you don't want to turn to a ‘charity’. You want expert advice, specialist knowledge and clever people in white coats using Petri dishes. Well – that's what The Prostate Cancer Charity offered, but there was no perception of that from the public. We wanted to be seen as authoritative and a source of expertise."

Losing the ‘charity’ tag and becoming Prostate Cancer UK was just one part of the rebrand. And while the name change may not on the surface seem like a big step, to Seamus that's the point. The way humans interact with brands isn't on the surface: it's deep down in our subconscious. Building awareness of prostate cancer into the public's subconscious, and attaching the recognition of Prostate Cancer UK as the authoritative source of information, support and research was an intellectual challenge Seamus couldn't resist. He moved from big agency ad land (he’s ex-Abbott Mead Vickers, BBH, main board of Leo Burnett) because, he says, "I got bored, really bored." The prostate cancer role was something of a marketer's dream come true.

"It's building both a category in the consumer's mind and a brand from scratch. It's like creating the category 'cola' and the brand 'Coke' at the same time."

"Of the 40,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year, only 5% call our helpline. We want to get that up to at least 20%. Our ambition is to get to a breast cancer level of 'hotness' so we can help tons more men survive and enjoy a good quality of life."

While the speed of the Prostate Cancer UK rebrand is impressive, Seamus doesn't take all the credit. He says things happen more quickly in the third sector, which came as a surprise, "the process is much faster compared to the commercial world." He believes it’s important to act with pace, "if you deliberate over a snooker shot, it won’t go in. Well planned stuff done at pace is often more accurate than people might anticipate."

Getting the right talent together was also crucial to the project, an aspect of marketing and communications that Seamus thinks charities sometimes shy away from over cost concerns. “Don’t do pro bono,” he urges. “Get professional services. I made sure that the team putting the rebrand together was the best team we could afford."

Another difference Seamus has spotted between the commercial and charity worlds is the intensity of debate – “it’s surprisingly passionate, more heated and less polite than I’d expected – and there’s a high level of (often secret) competitiveness between organisations.” He believes charities need “to think more aggressively about mergers and acquisitions, to get critical mass”.

He says he finds his new home inspiring, “charities couldn’t survive and thrive if they weren’t staffed by very professional people who are truly committed. I’m inspired by the people I work with and their real desire to do something new and different that will help us reach out to more blokes. Because when it comes to prostate cancer, blokes deserve better.”

Interview by Vicky Browning

Vicky Browning


Vicky became CEO of ACEVO, the charity and social leaders’ network, in January 2017, helping to empower our inspiring sector leaders to make the biggest difference they can to their beneficiaries, their organisation and to society. Vicky was previously CharityComms’ director for nearly seven years.