Anatomy of a Control: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
One of the truly inspiring stories of the past century is that of a Lebanese boy named Muzyad Yahkoob. Born in 1914 in Detroit, he grew up to become legendary comedian and television star Danny Thomas, as well as the founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
As the St. Jude Web site tells it:
“It was more than 50 years ago that Danny Thomas, then a struggling young entertainer with seven dollars in his pocket, got down on his knees in a Detroit church before a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus. … Danny Thomas asked the saint to ‘show me my way in life.’”
St. Jude, by the way, is the patron saint of lost causes. I know him well, because he enabled me to graduate from Andover in 1953.
After that, Thomas moved his family to Chicago, where his acting career got its start.
The entertainer repaid St. Jude mightily by enlisting the help of some Memphis businessmen and raising money to found St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which is devoted to curing catastrophic illnesses in children.
Aside from crisscrossing the country to raise money and bringing scores of his colleagues from the entertainment world to Memphis, Thomas turned to fellow Arab Americans to persuade them that they “as a group, should thank the United States for the gifts of freedom given their parents.”
In 1957, 100 representatives of the Arab-American community met in Chicago to form the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities to raise funds to support the hospital.
The group, which has its national headquarters in Memphis and regional offices throughout the United States, handles all the hospital’s fundraising efforts and brings in millions of dollars annually.
Today, ALSAC is the fourth-largest nonprofit, health-related fundraising organization in the United States and is supported by the efforts of more than a million volunteers nationwide.
The hospital opened its doors in 1963 and has since treated more than 20,000 children from all over the United States and 60 foreign countries. The criterion for admission is referral by a physician of a child with a newly diagnosed disease that had been under research at St. Jude. All costs are covered by the ALSAC.
Today, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has operating costs of nearly $1 million a day and an endowment approaching $1.5 billion. Let’s hear it for the good guys.
A highly efficient DM effort
I have monitored the direct mail efforts of this extraordinary institution for years. No glitz. No glamour. The mailing is made up of just four elements: (1) a black-and-white 4-inch-by-71⁄2-inch outer envelope; (2) a five-paragraph 7-inch-by-7-inch letter that doubles as an order form and is signed by Thomas’ daughter, Marlo; (3) a business reply envelope; and (4) a sheet of nonpersonalized stamps that feature artwork drawn by St. Jude patients.
According to Lori O’Brien, senior director of direct marketing cultivation at St. Jude, personalized stamps with children’s art have been used for the past two years.
As well as its simplicity, this effort is set apart by the use of old-fashioned, borax typefaces. The corner card on the outer envelope looks like something off an old mimeograph machine. Marlo’s letter is in a cruddy Courier font that nobody uses anymore, since the computer displaced the typewriter.
What’s going on?
“A letter should look like a letter,” the late copywriter Dick Benson said.
Prior to 1870, personal letters were written by hand with a pencil or a quill pen that was dipped in ink. In 1868 Christopher Latham Shoals received a patent for the first practical modern typewriter.
For nearly a century, the typical typewriter used a Courier or Elite font, which became the standard look for hand-created letters, reports, transcripts or manuscripts.
This little note from Marlo looks for all the world like the writer had two-fingered it on her old Remington or Royal; signed it (in blue); inserted it into a plain-Jane window envelope along with the BRE and stamp sheet; licked the flap; and stuck it in the mail.
Here, Canadian writer/designer Ted Kikoler’s advice bears repeating: “Anything you can do to a mailing that makes it look like a human hand has touched it should help response.”
This great mailing — or versions of it — has been in the mail for as long as I can remember.
Which means it must be working. Which means that St. Jude is doing something very right.
Contributing editor Denny Hatch is a consultant, freelance copywriter and author of the books “Priceline.com: A Layman’s Guide to Manipulating the Media”; “Method Marketing”; “Million Dollar Mailings”; and “2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success” (co-author). Anatomy of a Control highlights successful direct marketing mailings. E-mail email@example.com.