For some years now, Bell (a communications giant here in Canada) has carried out a huge campaign called "Bell Let's Talk." For 24 hours, Bell promises to donate 5 cents to mental health programs for every tweet using #BellLetsTalk and Facebook share of the campaign page. The company also promised to give the same amount for every text & long distance call by its homephone and mobile customers.

In 2013, in the months leading up to the event date, Bell unleashed from the stable its considerable collection of advertising and media properties, and BellLet'sTalk rode a glitzy chariot of promotion across the country, touring the highways and subways, from TV to shining city billboard.  We can't think of a time (since the last BellLet'sTalk campaign) when so many media outlets spread the message to encourage people to talk about important social issues. It really is unprecedented.

In many ways, this campaign pushed discussion about mental health issues to the main stream. It helped our families and friends, many of whom silently suffer with depression or other mental illnesses. It likely opened (and may continue to open) good conversations around kitchen tables across the country which help people to feel less alone. All of these are valuable and positive impacts on society resulting from Bell's (free) choice to unleash a whole lot of its capacity for a worthy and socially important cause.

Almost an afterthought to the benefits just listed, the ubiquitous 2013 campaign also raised close to $5 million for Bell's chosen mental health program partners. Money that can take their work a long way.

Yet some were quick to question Bell's intent with this campaign. And the critics made a number of very good points.

Astute reviewers familiar with Mental Health awareness efforts noted that Bell's campaign could (should?) have have taken place on October 10 - World Mental Health Day. Or it could have at least coincided with the Canada Mental Health Association's "Mental Health Week" in early May. Such collaboration would have likely increased impact, and formed greater partnerships grouped around the cause of mental health. But instead of these dates, Bell chose a rather inconspicuous Tuesday in February. Why was that?

This, of course, led many to suggest that at its the heart the whole campaign was more about Bell's image than about mental health. After all, the Bell brand was most certainly thrust to the front of the campaign. For instance, tweets in support of the cause only counted for the $.05 donation if they read exactly "#BellLetsTalk" or "@Bell_LetsTalk" which meant that clearer references to mental health such as, "#Let'sTalkAboutDepression" were not eligible. Furthermore, what about spotlights on the organizations the money was eventually going to support? Information about Mental Health? Even simple conversation starters to encourage discussion about mental health? All could only be found with some significant digging...

Others noted that the small donation for texts and long distance calls was offered on a service that Bell charges for, so the company directly profited from each of those customer activities related to the campaign. Not to mention the millions upon millions of positive brand impressions generated by all the social media activity, which was the half of the campaign that was actually free to take part in.

As one article in the Globe and Mail (in which Bell owns a 15% stake, ironically) put it,

Bell – whose parent company BCE Inc. is one of the country’s largest companies with vast telecom and media holdings – thrust itself into conversations across the country for an entire day, all for slightly more than U.S. advertisers ponied up this year for just 30 seconds in the Super Bowl broadcast.

Add to that number the thousands more Twitter followers and Facebook friends who saw those messages (views that in advertising-buying language are known as “impressions”) and it adds up to a very cost-effective marketing campaign for Bell – especially considering the goodwill attached to such a worthy cause.

Yes, it's hard to question the evidence that says the campaign is very much about Bell and the Bell brand. So, is Bell simply abusing a social cause for its own selfish gains?

In a word, "no."

Let's look at the bigger picture for a second. We don't believe for a minute that Bell execs and a marketing team sat around and brainstormed causes the brand could exploit for a little image polishing. In fact, just the opposite. We're pretty confident that at the heart of the idea were some people at Bell who truly believe that mental health is a societal issue that we must tackle. Talking about mental health openly is a critical step toward addressing the issue, they believed, and recognizing that their employer gave them a unique platform to help spark that conversation, they showed leadership and creativity to make it happen.

Mary Deacon, who runs the initiative, explained in the same Globe and Mail article, “As somebody who has been involved in mental health for 15 years and had both brothers die by suicide, I can say this is an absolute godsend for mental health services. But it’s also helped people see Bell in a different, more positive light and made them think about giving Bell a second chance.”

That about captures it.

Which leads us to our main point:

Yes, there are some things we think Bell should have done differently - related in particular to the critical perspectives outlined above.  And extending beyond those gripes, we also think Bell should have displayed simple honesty and transparency (authenticity) regarding its goals, along with being less, well... cleverly self-centered. For all we know, they might agree and make changes for the next time around. But despite all this, we still think this (somewhat vilified) campaign from a company (even one with a rather spotty record in the land of customer satisfaction) was a good, positive campaign.  Furthermore, we should celebrate, not criticize, the fact that Bell is driving positive social change AND creating increased brand and (theoretically) shareholder value through its efforts.

Here's why. We believe that "Bell Let's Talk" is actually a great example of a company focusing on and taking action around a Purpose that's meaningful to both customers and employees. In many ways, through this campaign Bell is actually leading with Purpose and creativity. Sure, there are a laundry list of ways Bell could have done better, but on the other hand, who of its telecom or other corporate peers has taken such great interest in and generated discussion around an important social topic? Perhaps Bell is ahead of the curve after all?

How do you think Bell could build on this type of initiative toward (as outlined by campaign leader Mary Deacon above) both main goals of the campaign - positive impact for those affected by mental health issues AND building Bell's brand or image?

In what ways could Bell have been more Authentic with this campaign?

What would it look like for Bell to take this (or any other) somewhat segregated CSR campaign focusing on a relevant societal issue and actually integrate it into the core identity and activities of the company? What sort of impact might this have?

 

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