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When Corporate Sponsors Tackle Mental Health

When Corporate Sponsors Tackle Mental Health

5 minute read

  • As one the first major brands to prominently address mental health within their overall communication efforts, Bell earned several first-mover advantages
  • Despite the benefits, first-movers like Bell face disadvantages including the risk of criticism
  • Other brands who have invested in mental health have developed their own strategies in this spac

Every January, as part of Bell Let’s Talk, millions of Canadians talk, text, and tweet to help raise awareness and financial support for mental health. Originating in 2010, Bell Let’s Talk was seen as one of the first significant investments from a major brand to help raise awareness and battle the stigma surrounding mental health.  

Bell’s investment in this space represents a rare case study in marketing where a brand both simultaneously created and removed barriers to entry. Although this investment has helped to remove the stigma of mental health within corporate philanthropy and cause marketing activity, making it a more attractive investment opportunity for others brands, their sustained, mass communication effort and ownership of the cause made it difficult for others to receive attribution for their efforts.

While brands beyond Bell who are looking to invest in mental health may not receive the same level of attribution, they can learn from the telecom giant, and experience many second-mover advantages. This week, MKTG examines what sponsorship activity in the mental health space has meant for both first and second movers. 

First-Mover Advantages

While some brands have supported one-off events within mental health, until recently, few had made mental health a leading narrative within overall communication efforts. 

Seen as a driver of the movement

Until recently, mental health had not been given the kind of attention or corporate support that a lot of other issues had received. Although as many as one in five Canadians suffer from mental illness, and despite the cost of mental health issues in the workplace, there was no leader or best practice in the space. As a result, an investment and emphasis on mental health represented an uncharted territory. As an underserved issue, early entrants within the mental health space gained a first-mover advantage, and became a driving force behind taking the issue of mental health from taboo to mainstream. 

Authentically linked to cause

By supporting mental health early on, and strategically aligning the cause to their business, brands can build an authentic association to mental health awareness. More than just raising money, brands have a unique opportunity to lead by example, developing and integrating best practices related to mental health in the workplace throughout their own organization. As a telecommunications company, Bell created awareness through communication - an inherent execution core to a telecom’s purpose.

Built barriers to entry for other brands

First-movers have made it difficult for a newcomer in mental health to build awareness for their efforts – and may have even discouraged activity. While there are some brands like RBC and BMO who have managed to build meaningful programs raising money for mental health organizations, they have not generated the same degree or level of awareness as Bell. 

The Risks of First Mover Status

Despite the first mover benefits, early entrants of mental health have been susceptible to criticism. For example, some critics have stated that the Bell Let’s Talk Day campaign oversimplifies a complicated issue. This year, Bell promoted the campaign with out of home advertising, which read: “On January 27, let’s turn (sad face emoji) into (happy face emoji).” While the posters feature a catchy slogan, they do simplify the complexities of mental illness. Similar to Bell’s approach to communicating mental illness, critics also claim that some brands have failed to look at the bigger picture, citing the exclusion of diversity and poverty within their messaging – topics with strong ties to mental health.

Part of being a first-mover is the increased vulnerability to criticism. Other brands can glean insights from the successes and shortcomings of early adapters within the mental health space. Successful brands within this space have seen success in their ability to spread awareness and back up their storytelling with meaningful investment. Where brands typically have faced criticism is where they appear to be oversimplifying or downplaying the issue through tongue-in-cheek creative. 

Second-Movers in Mental Health 

Although only 7% of Canadian companies identify mental health as one of their top five priority areas of focus, it is becoming more and more mainstream. In fact, mental health has become one of the top four causes that Canadians feel companies should be supporting. While the following brands may not have the level of equity as Bell, they have learned and developed their own strategies and approach to mental health. 


Walgreens drugstore has recently joined forces with Mental Health America, a non-profit organization, and changed its website to include a portal offering services to those struggling with mental health. Included on the website are articles and questionnaires to help customers understand whether or not they need to seek help, as well as resources and guides to do so. The website can also connect customers with a therapist through a video-chat feature. By partnering with Mental Health America, Walgreens is able to build a communication platform and provide easy-access to resources for those affected by a mental health issue. 

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC)

RBC’s Youth Mental Health Project provides funding to organizations committed to providing kids and their families the programming and resources they need. Through the program, RBC has chosen to focus its funding on organizations offering navigation programming and technology-based solutions - areas of which RBC believes it can make the biggest impact. In addition to RBC’s funding efforts, RBC helps raise funds for Sunnybrook Hospital's youth psychiatry program through the RBC Run for the Kids, located within the Sunnybrook neighbourhood. Although children’s mental health is just one pillar of RBC’s sponsorship strategy, through their larger sponsorship platform, RBC has leveraged existing sponsorship partners like RBC Olympians Jennifer Botterill, Mikael Kingsbury, Greg Westlake, and Kevin Rempel to create awareness and enhance the onsite presence for their charity event. 

The intersection of sponsorships and cause has become an effectiveforum for brands to demonstrate their values to stakeholders. In a time when more and more Canadians feel companies should be supporting mental health, major institutions are increasingly turning to cause marketing as a way to boost loyalty among their consumers. Early adopters have done an unprecedented job of getting the conversation started and breaking down the stigma associated with mental health. However, as mental health continues to become an increasingly important topic, and consumer expectations continue to rise, look for previously silent brands to become vocal on the issue.

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