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Make-A-Wish CMO Janell Holas: “Think about the legacy you’ll leave on your brand and leave it better than you found it”

Think about the legacy you’ll leave on the brand. Treat the brand like you own it, add your own fingerprint to it and leave it better than you found it. As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Janell Holas, Chief Marketing Officer […]


Think about the legacy you’ll leave on the brand. Treat the brand like you own it, add your own fingerprint to it and leave it better than you found it.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Janell Holas, Chief Marketing Officer of Make-A-Wish® America. As a senior executive for one of the most well-respected nonprofit brands in the country, Janell is at the forefront of strategic planning and decision-making for the Make-A-Wish brand, enabling the organization to grant more life-changing wishes for children battling critical illnesses. Janell joined Make-A-Wish in 2017, with more than 15 years of U.S. and international marketing experience, building brands and driving business results. Since then, under Janell’s leadership, Make-A-Wish introduced a refreshed global brand showcasing the imagination, hope and strength at the center of the organization’s mission. In refreshing an already trusted and beloved brand, Janell and her team were challenged to create a look and feel that would capture the attention of new audiences, while still appealing to the hundreds of thousands of supporters gained since the organization’s founding in 1980. As a result, Make-A-Wish received HOW Logo Design’s 2019 Reader’s Choice Award for identity application as well as national recognition from Graphic Design USA for the new Make-A-Wish branding. Make-A-Wish also holds the Better Business Bureaus’ Wise Giving Alliance Seal and will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the wish that inspired the creation of the organization in 2020.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Before I joined Make-A-Wish, I had a colleague whose son’s wish was granted by the organization. I saw how his son’s diagnosis turned their entire family upside-down, and how Make-A-Wish offered his family something during that time that no one else could. His son’s wish gave everyone impacted by his illness inspiration, and most importantly, joy.

His wish became my first personal connection to Make-A-Wish — the first time I truly understood the life-changing impact of a child’s wish come true.

Three years later, I received a message from the talent acquisition team at Make-A-Wish America. When I opened it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Every day since then, I’ve had the opportunity to fuse my passion and marketing experience with giving back. There’s truly nowhere else I’d rather be.

Can you share a story about a marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Two months after starting at Make-A-Wish, I attended our Annual Leadership Conference, where all 60 Make-A-Wish chapters from across the country come together to set the tone for the future of the organization. Throughout the conference, various wish families are invited to share their stories in celebration of the immense impact the organization has had over the last year and the plethora of wishes that will come true in the year ahead.

Listening to their stories, I found myself in physical pain with my attempts to “keep it together,” to resist crying. On the last night, I cracked. As I went to grab a tissue, my eyes lifted to notice that my colleagues all around me were wiping their own tears.

For so many years, I had been taught not to cry in the workplace, at all costs. But in that moment, I realized that what Make-A-Wish does evokes a human level of emotion. If our stories don’t cause even those closest to our mission to reach for a tissue, then we aren’t showcasing the true impact a wish has in giving the children we serve the strength they need to fight, to get better — to grow up. Today, I can proudly say that at Make-A-Wish, I cry for so many incredible, inspirational reasons.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Make-A-Wish stands out because of our mission and our brand. There are very few brands so revered that when you tell a stranger where you work, they have a physical reaction. Oftentimes, the second I say “Make-A-Wish,” whomever I am speaking to repeats the brand back to me, radiating excitement, love and admiration — eager to share their unique connection to the organization.

Our brand — and the stories it inspires — is extremely powerful. It’s an honor to work on a brand that transforms the lives of all those touched by a wish and sparks pure joy from complete strangers.

Are you working on any exciting new projects? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! As an enterprise we’ve recently started tapping into the power of data to strategically drive our brand and unlock new revenue. For the first time in Make-A-Wish history, we completed a donor segmentation study and custom brand equity tracker, bringing a flood of insights to fruition.

As a result of this research, we now know who we should be targeting for financial contributions, as well as what attributes showcase our brand strengths and opportunities. We’ve also confirmed our hypothesis that the public isn’t unfamiliar with Make-A-Wish — they know who we are, but 44 percent of people inaccurately believe that to be eligible for a wish, a child must have a terminal diagnosis. This isn’t true. We grant wishes for children with critical illnesses — many of whom go on to reach adulthood, frequently citing their wish as a turning point in their recovery.

In recent years, the medical community has come to better understand how a wish can improve a patient’s quality of life and help produce better health outcomes. Today, doctors are using a wish as a key component of their patients’ medical treatment plans because a wish can be a game-changer.

Even though the public loves us now, we know they’ll love us even more, and hopefully donate, when they fully understand the true impact of wishes.

Ok let’s jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Brand marketing is investing in the reputation and beliefs about a brand, long-term, while product marketing is focused on a specific benefit or feature to drive short to mid-term goals.

With that said, the best advertising helps to build the brand and always ladders up to reinforce or move the needle on the public’s beliefs and opinions. Ideally, branding and advertising accomplish the same goal, to occupy space in people’s minds — and wallets.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Brand is everything because it represents trust.

At Make-A-Wish, if we didn’t have the trust of the parents of children with critical illnesses, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our mission. These families only allow us to come into their lives — and many times their homes — because they deeply trust the Make-A-Wish brand.

Donors, corporate partners, medical professionals, volunteers, employees and many more are the same way. Each of these essential stakeholders would not contribute their time, talents and dollars to our mission if they did not trust our brand.

Ultimately, the Make-A-Wish brand is the organization.

Can you share 5 strategies that a large company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

1. Know your audience. You truly have to live and breathe their world. Be a great listener — whether that be through focus groups or research — and pay attention to what they’re saying, as well as what they’re not saying.

2. Identify where you need to win and where you can win. Take the time to learn which attributes really matter that are unique to your brand. Focus your strengths by amplifying what makes you stand out.

3. Be authentic… Don’t move and change a brand to fit the trend of the moment. Building a brand can only be done over time.

4. …But stay relevant. Work to understand the DNA of your brand. Then, find a way to genuinely connect the brand’s heritage to today’s world.

5. Think about the legacy you’ll leave on the brand. Treat the brand like you own it, add your own fingerprint to it and leave it better than you found it.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Coming from the consumer-packaged goods sector, I’ve continuously been impressed with Unilever’s work on the Dove brand. Time and time again, they push boundaries and have diligently built and evolved the Dove brand over time.

In recent years, they’ve elevated the brand from focusing on functional to emotional benefits, innovating to now emphasize the societal benefits of their brand and generate social good. The Dove brand is an incredible example of being consistent and authentic, while also remaining relevant.

Companies can create a deeper connection with their customers — much like Dove — by contributing to positive social change in partnership with a respected and trusted nonprofit. Make-A-Wish is always looking for corporate partners eager to evolve from focusing on the physical value of a product to the social good they enable through granting life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.

The Make-A-Wish brand is an incredibly powerful asset. It is so powerful that many organizations that partner with Make-A-Wish see a boost in their bottom-line. In fact, through a recent joint equity study, we’ve learned that more than half of Americans would be more likely to purchase from a company if they found out that it supports Make-A-Wish, and 71 percent would be more likely to choose that company over other companies. Similar to Dove, we want to help companies shift to building their brands through social good, instead of simply function.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

At Make-A-Wish, we have one primary key performance indicator: Wishes granted.

We measure our success based off of every single transformative wish we grant. Every wish involves an individual, a family, an entire community — each allowing us to change their lives by trusting the Make-A-Wish brand and, in turn, helping to build and strengthen our brand.

At Make-A-Wish, brand building is continuing to invest in our reputation and relevance. Every 34 minutes, when we grant a wish, we’re building our brand. Every time a wish story is shared in the media or a celebrity shares their wish granting story on Instagram, we’re building our brand. Our brand is our biggest asset, and our number one tool. It directly drives results — in our case, more life-changing wishes.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Last year, Make-A-Wish granted more than 15,600 life-changing wishes. Each of these has a story of the incredible impact of a wish and the generosity of individual and corporate donors waiting to be told. Additionally, by nature of what children wish for, these stories naturally intersect with the things people are interested in — high-profile movie premieres, exotic travel destinations, major sporting events and more. Social media is one of our best opportunities to tell those stories.

Regularly sharing this content and investing in social media has led Make-A-Wish America to have nearly 1.6 million followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn, and become the largest children’s charity on YouTube.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

As a business leader, you’re only as strong as your team. The advice I would share is that if you surround yourself with passionate, talented people and set them up for success, your own efforts can multiply exponentially. Building and maintaining a high-performing team should be your number one priority.

To expand our team’s impact even further, Make-A-Wish is always seeking pro-bono agency support. We know there are others out there who are passionate about our brand, with a desire to contribute their talents to advancing our mission. Seeking out these individuals has led us to work with agencies like Team One, who provides us pro-bono brand and marketing support surrounding key high-visibility, national campaigns.

Without external support of this type over the last two years, our team wouldn’t have been able to accomplish consecutive record-breaking World Wish Day campaigns. As part of this annual celebration of the wish that inspired the organization, the 2018 “Wishes Take Muscle” campaign received Shorty’s 2018 Social Good Award for best Multi-Platform Campaign and the 2019 “Where there’s a wish, there’s a way” campaign generated more than $21 million of media value in the first 100 days. We’re grateful for the generosity of the agencies we’ve had the opportunity to work with and are always looking to add others to our team.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Great question! Make-A-Wish is a movement, one that has continued to grow and transform over the last 39 years. It’s a movement of hope, strength and joy — currently operating with the support of 1,200 employees and nearly 40,000 volunteers across the country.

But, today, we’re only reaching one out of every two children with a critical illness. This means currently there are more children than ever waiting for a wish, battling without everything they need to help them fight their illnesses. We believe every child with a critical illness deserves the hope and healing of a wish come true, but Make-A-Wish needs more financial resources to grant every eligible child’s wish.

In April 2020, we will be celebrating the 40-year anniversary of Make-A-Wish, marking four decades since the wish that inspired the movement was granted. Through celebrating this milestone, we’ll invite others to join the Make-A-Wish movement, calling them to donate their own resources to transform lives, one wish at a time. Next year, we plan to leverage our 40th anniversary to move us closer to accomplishing this vision.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One quote that resonates with me is that “a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” In and out of the workplace I try to have a continued awareness that the best things tend to happen outside of my comfort zone — even if it’s hard to get there.

This has been proven true throughout pivotal moments in my life, including saying yes to a three-year expat role in Germany without knowing a word of German and switching industries to apply my marketing experience in a new way, within the nonprofit sector.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If I could have lunch with anyone right now, I’d love to sit down with Trevor Noah. I recently read his memoir, “Born a Crime,” in which he speaks to the power of resilience and hope first-hand, as experienced throughout his upbringing in South Africa under apartheid.

In reading his story, I saw significant parallels between his life’s story and the strength and resilience we witness every day in Make-A-Wish kids as they fight critical illnesses.

Over lunch I’d love to talk to him about resilience, how he overcame struggle and the hope that led him to persist and ultimately now inspire a daily audience of more than a million people.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

To see and hear the stories of some of the more than 315,000 children across the country that have had wishes granted, follow Make-A-Wish on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn. Our content is guaranteed to make you smile, and maybe even reach for a tissue.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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