How do you market a taboo?

Redah’s friends, it turns out, were lying. She was not being followed – no one was forcing her to stay in her room. In fact, Redah’s friends themselves were lies. They didn’t exist. But she didn’t know that.

Her family in sprawling city of Karachi, Pakistan assumed she’d been possessed by spirits – “jinns”. They did not know of any other explanation and tried all sorts of spiritual treatments. Her troubles were kept hidden from family. It took a long process of doctors, therapy and counselling to diagnose and treat Redah’s Schizophrenia.

Millions of people in Pakistan suffer from various mental illnesses – illnesses that are seldom understood and in the worst of cases are considered a shameful taboo. In the context of illnesses that are not understood and are by their very nature invisible – how do you convince a society to accept and help your cause? How do you convince a charitable nation faced with “visible” ailments every day such as poverty and broken limbs – to divert some of its funds to a misunderstood cause?

How do you market a Taboo?

The Nature of Giving in Pakistan

Pakistan is a country that depends widely on multiple charitable institutes to plug the gap the government has not been able to fill. From the largest cancer hospital to the largest network of ambulances; from good quality schools to housing orphans: all are run by the donations of Pakistanis abroad and at home. In “business-world” terms, your revenue source is “donations” and the “market” is very competitive.

How has CareForHealth (CFH), the Mental health charity in Karachi, Pakistan managed to survive and grow over the past 3 years? The below points are not exhaustive and certainly do not stand alone – they feed into and off each other to create a greater synergy that enables CFH to continue to help sufferers.

    1. Trust Building
      For charities, especially in the developing world, it is paramount to build trust. Trust can only be built by actions. And for a charity that is starting up, actions are only possible if there’s money in the bank.Initially, CFH leveraged the trust of its team’s existing network – friends and families, to enable the work to get off the ground. CFH also leveraged the trust in the co-founder’s professional networks to get a foothold with major hospitals – so patients could be referred to them for rehabilitation. Within a year, the actions had started bringing in real change to people’s lives. These actions – helping rehabilitate a few patients in its first years, set CFH on the course to be able to showcase its work.
    2. Storytelling
      For an organization dealing in the “unseen”. This is the most powerful tool available to CFH. We follow simple rules of storytelling to create compelling narratives.

      • Rule A: Magic-Tool
        It is necessary with any good story-telling that your “service” or “product” is the Magic-Tool that helps the hero get the job done. A wheelchair you donate or the rehab session you enabled is never the hero – the people using them are the heroes, as they truly are in real life. The rehab CFH provides is only the tool. Much like Harry Potter (the hero) and his wand (the tool).
      • Rule B: The A-B-D-C-E Framework
        Any story we send to our donors or to our video producers, follows the simple framework that all stories should start with an Action followed by Background – Development – Climax and an Ending. This helps draw the reader in and explains our premise.It is necessary that our patient’s stories are conveyed (anonymously but with their permission) to our donors – to help them understand the issues they are helping with. To not only build trust but also a long-term relationship of annual donations.
    3. Network
      In the fight against a common cause – there are no “competitors”. CFH has leveraged the network of various mental health organizations, charities and institutes to ensure that awareness on Mental Health issues continues to grow. CFH leverages its network of mental health practitioners and conducts seminars with what we call “sister-organizations”.
    4. Trust-Building (Again)
      The first “trust building” focused on initial startup phases. At its current phase, it is necessary to build donor trust by reporting on our achievements and allowing donors who wish to visit our premises and understand the work we do.Several other tools are employed for building trust at this phase, such as providing audited accounts upon request, providing newsletters and seminars to our donor’s workplaces or neighbourhoods if requested. We want to convert one-time donors to long-time donors and that takes a LOT of work.
    5. Raising Public Awareness
      A big part of marketing a “Taboo” subject is to raise awareness of it in general. CFH conducts Seminars at work places on Emotional Hygiene and Mental Health along with collaborating with Sister-Organizations to give workshops in neighbourhoods as well. Raising Public Awareness plays an important part of our Marketing, as essentially, we are educating a society about a need they do not know they have. We keep costs of these seminars low by ensuring partnerships.

The five points above interplay and create a sum that is bigger than its parts – allowing CFH to find donors, build partnerships and survive in a market that mostly does not understand the value of the product we are offering.

As for Redah? That’s not her real name – but the job she now has teaching is very real. She is living her life to its potential again and her parents couldn’t be happier or prouder.

Article written by: Sarmad Ahmad

Sarmad has worked with P&G for 10 years and heads the Growth Strategy for CareForHealth, a growing mental-health charity. He has a passion for marketing, storytelling and helping the less fortunate.

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