CMO deep dive: UNICEF USA’s Shelley Diamond on pivoting during a pandemic

While the children’s nonprofit is well recognized in the U.S., because most of its work is overseas not many Americans actually know what it does.

People in the U.S. know UNICEF, most likely from the orange boxes they took with them trick-or-treating to collect penny donations on Halloween.

But a surprising number don’t actually know the organization has 13,000 people working at a grassroots level in 196 countries to protect the rights and safety of children.

So when the pandemic hit and UNICEF USA began focusing more attention on domestic work, growing the organization’s relevance in the U.S. was critical. “You really suffer from relevance issues when you don’t work in your own backyard,” said Shelley Diamond, CMO  of UNICEF USA.

UNICEF worked with UK-based agency Community to reposition its brand and storytelling around its people working on the ground. The goal was to show how UNICEF is dealing with ongoing crises in other nations to persuade Americans there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.

“We can remember 2020 as a trifecta of horrific events, or we can remember it as a time when we came together,” Diamond said. “These videos are hopeful. They show there are solutions out there.”

Diamond spoke with Campaign US about the org’s brand refresh, its new creative platform and its focus during the crisis.

What was the strategy behind UNICEF’s brand refresh in the U.S.?

All organizations for children use images that grab you by the heart, but it's hard to differentiate on that. It's hard to show the tenacity, grittiness and innovation that sets us apart.

So we have to balance that story with our people. Their persistence, the things they do to get things where they need to go, their scale. Every story is more remarkable than the next. I called these our badass do-gooder stories.

What were the biggest challenges of repositioning a 70-year-old brand?

To have a voice people trust is huge today, so we don't want to give that up. People know we care for the world. But we wanted to show we're able to work with communities at a grassroots level to solve problems. We stay until there's a systemic change the local community can embrace.

We talk about how we're working to improve children’s education, mental health and safety, and how we're dealing with emergencies. We have to communicate all of that in a short period of time. So we did something crisp, clear, motivating and emotional, but that also has a real cerebral part to it.

How has your marketing strategy shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The biggest shift for us was starting with the audience. We have a lot to talk about, but we need to think about what the audience wants to hear.

So in March and April we gave parents information on how to deal with trauma from our experience with kids in refugee camps. We also began providing information with corporate partners on how to stay safe. We know from our days fighting Ebola just how important protection and prevention can be.

People are depressed, scared, frustrated and they don't know what to believe. Our opportunity is to elevate their spirits with stories of hope, tenacity, progress and solvability.

As a nonprofit, how do you decide where to invest your marketing dollars?

We have a very high bar for how we spend money. For every dollar, we look to get $2.50 to $3 back in donations. Everything we do has a call to action. We have to make sure we know exactly where that money is going and the impact it has.

How did you pivot to virtual fundraising this year for Halloween?

We are a child rights organization. It wasn't right to ask kids to go door to door collecting for UNICEF. So we created a virtual trick-or-treat box with a QR code, which kids could customize and send to friends and relatives. Teachers could sign up for their class, and partners like Johnson & Johnson and Key Club distributed the boxes to their employees.

Kids could decide how they wanted to spend their money. The donation could go to an N95 mask, a vaccine or a water purification tablet. And we’ll keep a dialogue going so they can see where their donations went.

What’s UNICEF’s big focus heading into 2021?

We will be the distribution partner for whoever makes the vaccine, so that will be our big focus. We launched a partnership with Facebook to educate Americans on the importance of vaccinations.

We are in a huge learning crisis now. Kids have no access to broadband in our own country. One of our big global initiatives is addressing the digital divide and training teachers how to teach online. Mental health will continue to be a big push.

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