How Macmillan Cancer Support helps compassionate warriors, with Brand & Comms Director Emma Guise - #BehindTheBrand

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We are always touched by the strength and extent of the personal stories that lie beyond the foundation of an established charity. It was the case for Born Free a few weeks ago. Macmillan Cancer Support is no different.

The organisation was founded in the early 20th century by Douglas Macmillan, after the man watched his own father die of cancer. The then Society for the Prevention and Relief of Cancer has been showing support to what they recently defined "compassionate warriors" ever since, working at the heart of the NHS, making sure that patients get all the care and support they need.

Like all those moved by good causes, Macmillan Cancer Support has a strong identity and a powerful brand spirit. Today, we are getting Behind the Brand after a quick, insightful and incredibly inspiring chat with Emma Guise, Director of Brand and Communications at the organisation. A story and strength worth learning about, to be read from top to bottom.


How was your brand born and what does it do?

In 1911, a young man named Douglas Macmillan watched his father die of cancer. His father's pain and suffering moved Douglas so much, he founded the Society for the Prevention and Relief of Cancer. Douglas wanted advice and information to be provided to all people with cancer, for people to get help with basics like food and coal to keep warm and voluntary nurses to attend to patients in their own homes.

Today that legacy lives on in Macmillan Cancer Support. We are the leading cancer support charity in the UK giving people with cancer everything we’ve got. We offer emotional, physical and financial support from the moment people are diagnosed. We have a range of services including thousands of nurses, doctors and other health professionals in the NHS supporting people living with cancer. 

Essentially there is nothing we won’t try and do to ensure people with cancer can live their live to the full. 

What is one unique aspect of your brand?

Macmillan Cancer Support is one of the most trusted charity brands in the UK. This is a huge privilege but also a massive responsibility. Expectations of us and what we deliver to the public are rightly high. So it’s critical we ensure every interaction with Macmillan meets those high expectations and deliver a brilliant experiences. 

And that links perfectly to another unique aspect of our brand which is our people. Macmillan is a collection of brilliant, passionate people literally doing whatever it takes for people with cancer. And there are lots of them – nurses, cancer support professionals, volunteers and fundraisers. We are a movement as much as a charity and large part of revitalising the brand has been making sure that human story gets told in the most powerful way. 

Can you describe your brand’s personality in one sentence?

We are Compassionate Warriors.

What was the biggest challenge for the growth of your brand?

Like many organisations, the biggest challenge we face is staying relevant. Whilst cancer affects 1 in 2 of us, the condition alone isn’t enough to ensure people feel connected to us and what we do. We have to remain relevant in a world where attitudes to traditional charitable giving are shifting massively and consumers can have far more ethical impact and affect change through the choices they make every day. 


Which was the first huge success that you can remember?

In 2006 we changed our name to Macmillan Cancer Support following a merger with another charity called Cancer Backup. This also gave birth to our iconic green font. It’s fair to say that those decisions, in particular the brand work that went alongside the renaming of the charity, really propelled us an organisation into the number one charity brand that we are now. This was a bit before my time but it’s such a huge and transformational part of Macmillan folklore that I feel like I was there!

Whilst we only released our new Whatever It Takes campaign with AMV last week, so we are yet to see the full data and metrics in terms of impact, its hard not to believe - based on the feedback and cut through with our audiences so far - that we haven’t created something really quite special. It will make a huge difference to us at a time when the support we provide has never been more urgently needed. 

What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your brand in the next year?

It goes without saying that 2020 was an incredibly difficult year. But one of the things I do believe it will change for good is how much we appreciate of our wonderful key workers, like nurses and doctors, in society.  We’ve understood their critical role in helping us live our lives like never before. And Macmillan is part of that incredible workforce. We work in the heart of the NHS, making sure people living cancer get the care and support they need. I think we have a unique opportunity to tap into that passion and connect even more people to our organisation in a way that we haven’t done before.  

Do you work with an in-house creative team, an agency or both?

We work with both agencies and an in-house creative team. There is such a range of content and creative needs in Macmillan – from big brand work, through to information booklets or new fundraising products – that it’s important we maintain a mix of creative support to do this in the best possible way. 


What do you look for in a creative agency?

Last year we appointed AMV as our lead creative agency. There were many reasons we went for AMV including creativity, strategic thinking and the sheer breadth and depth of what they can do. But the most important thing they brought to the table was real and meaningful challenge. It was certainly tough to hear at times but I think asking your agency to really challenge you is critical to giving you transformational creative work. We simply wouldn’t have ended up with the latest Whatever It Takes campaign without it. And after a challenging year we needed something that would help our people to also feel positive about the future too as well as resonating with the broader public and people living with cancer. 

What is one tip you would give to other brands looking to grow?

I think the brands that will really thrive and grow in the future are the ones that have an authentic purpose and story to tell. Storytelling, and how you make people feel about your brand by doing this consistently and in the most compelling way, has never been more important. Get that right and growth should follow. 


What is your current role about? Any ‘typical’ day?

As Director of Brand and Communications, my job is to make sure everything we do builds the Macmillan brand. This could be working closely with our creative agency on how we bring that to life through our latest campaign, right through to ensuring every press release or statement we make in the public effectively builds that brand and voice. It’s a wonderful job where no two days are the same. 

What’s your one big hope for the future of branding?

It’s hard not to sound extremely earnest when I say this. But I genuinely think, when you look back on the extraordinary events of this last 12 months, that brands and leaders in brand have a huge responsibility in helping to create and support a fair and equal society for everyone. There is so much power in the hands of well-known brands. Not just financial but in terms of influence and voice. I just hope that we all hold on to even the smallest part we may play in helping to create that. 

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

I recently read Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. What struck me so much in that book is how ideas about gender, race and identity are changing rapidly, especially amongst younger people.  If audiences are changing how they see themselves, that will definitely affect how they see long-standing, trusted brands. Its seems to me the brands that get left behind are the ones that fail to understand this seismic shift.  


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