Bell’s ‘Let’s Talk’ forges ahead (Updated)

More 'talk' and visibility in Quebec shows promise for mental health initiative

Matt Semansky February 13, 2012

More ‘talk’ and visibility in Quebec shows promise for mental health initiative

It’s often tough to draw a straight statistical line between a philanthropic program and positive developments. But Bell’s second annual Let’s Talk Day saw an increase in the number of Canadians who made calls, texts and tweets on their Bell phones, driving the company to increase the amount of money it pledged to mental health programs.

These numerical boosts suggest a program that is effective, and getting more so with each successive year.

On Let’s Talk Day, Feb. 8, Bell customers called, texted and retweeted 78.5 million times – an increase of 19% over the inaugural event last February. That activity prompted Bell to devote more than $3.9 million to mental health organizations and programs.

“Let’s Talk” is the big-ticket item in Bell’s broader support of mental health issues. In September 2010, it announced a $50 million, five-year commitment that includes financial support of organizations such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, as well as research funding at Canadian universities.

According to Loring Phinney, vice-president of corporate marketing at Bell, the company adopted mental health in part because the issue was a funding and awareness underdog.

“When we came out of the [Vancouver] Olympics, we were looking at our whole community investment platform and trying to figure out what makes sense in this marketplace and what doesn’t,” said Phinney. “There was an area of health care that was really underfunded and really deserved more support.

“We realized that one in five people suffers from, at some point in their life, a mental illness, which is quite a remarkable stat. And then you take into account that, in the world of health-care dollars, it’s 15% of the health care burden in our country but only receives 5.5% of the funding.”

Phinney said Bell, as a company that sells products that help people talk, was ideally positioned to speak up about mental health. After all, treatment of mental health problems usually involves talking, and those who suffer such problems are often afraid to do so.

“The biggest challenge we face is the stigma,” said Phinney. “My mother may have died of cancer and I can tell you that, but I’m probably less likely to tell you that someone in my family faced depression or committed suicide because of that stigma.”

Out of this insight, Let’s Talk Day was born. This year, the big day was publicized by a three-week media advertising campaign developed by Montreal agency LG2 with media duties handled by Media Experts. The campaign featured the smiling face of Clara Hughes (pictured), a multiple Olympic-medal winner and the spokesperson for Bell’s mental health initiative.

Hughes, who has spoken about her own battle with depression, was interviewed in publications such as The Globe and Mail, while Bell provided additional support by featuring mental health-related content across its network. This included a TSN special entitled Darkness, Depression, Sports and Me featuring host Michael Landsberg, who has also fought mental illness.

Throughout the year, Bell has made its brand visible at mental health events, but Let’s Talk Day is its main public program. And if one is willing to make a bit of a causation-correlation leap, there is some evidence that the program has been effective. Bell cites Decima research conducted prior to Let’s Talk Day 2012 in which 60% of survey respondents said they’d heard, seen and talked more about mental health in the past year. More than 70% of participants said they thought this increase in discussion would reduce stigma and help the mental health cause.

Phinney believes the effectiveness of this year’s campaign has benefited from the introduction of two Quebec-specific spokespeople – comedian Michel Mpambara and rocker Stefie Shock.

“One thing we realized from last year is that with Clara, while she does speak some French, we weren’t as strong in Quebec,” said Phinney. “Not that Clara isn’t very recognizable, but having [Mpambara and Shock] available to do media and having Quebeckers connect with people they’re aware of gives us a wonderful ability to reach out inside Quebec and strengthen that platform.”

Of course, these positive signs aren’t just a result of “Let’s Talk.” The work that mental health organizations and advocates do, collectively and individually, to promote discussion is obviously critical. But as Jeff Moat, vice-president at Partners for Mental Health Canada, says, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a major marketer and media player speaking out.

“If you look at what Bell’s investing in this particular initiative, it certainly raises the awareness of the stigma that exists with mental health,” said Moat. “We need the awareness and Bell is in an incredible position to really use their big megaphone to get the message out.”

Moat hastens to add, though, that in addition to awareness, the cause of mental health requires actual behaviour change from individual Canadians, governments and the private sector. He looks at “Let’s Talk” as an effective lead-in to PMHC’s own campaign, which will launch in April and ask people to pledge support for mental health issues. The “Not Myself Today” campaign, he said, will get into specifics such as encouraging Canadians to write elected representatives and ask for policy changes.

“Our role is to accelerate the movement at the national level and really get people to take action in order to effect change,” said Moat. “That, to me, in addition to the work that Bell’s doing from an awareness standpoint around stigma, is going to get us to realize new outcomes.”

Update (Feb. 13) – This story originally said Bell customers had retweeted 78,500 times on Let’s Talk Day. That number has been corrected to 78.5 million. Marketing regrets the error.