Listening is Our Superpower: Using an Inclusive Rebranding Process to Connect People to Behavioral Health Services

By Mary Warlow Bushel, Senior Director

Even before COVID-19 shut down businesses and services in March, many people in Baltimore had difficulty navigating the city’s behavioral health system. For Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB), the nonprofit tasked by Baltimore with managing the city’s system of care that addresses emotional health and well-being by providing services for individuals with substance use and mental health disorders, the pandemic created more urgency to address existing service gaps.

Core to BHSB’s mission is improving access to services that promote behavioral health and wellness. One of the activities that BHSB funds as part of that mission is a crisis hotline – originally called the Crisis, Information, and Referral Line – to serve as a single point of access. Despite handling more than 40,000 calls a year, BHSB believed the crisis line was underutilized compared to the needs in the community.

BHSB’s challenge: uncover why more people weren’t calling the line. Though many people had theories, we knew we needed to ask the people who mattered most what was really going on. In the fall of 2019, Hatcher worked with BHSB and our research partner to figure it out. We conducted two focus groups, and, most importantly, we listened. The long hotline name didn’t work, but not just because it wasn’t catchy: shortening the name to “Crisis Line” actually made people even less receptive. The focus group participants struggled with determining what could be considered a “crisis” if they were experiencing constant stress.

As expected, racism and stigma were also significant barriers to seeking help. While the concern of being judged unfairly was pervasive, the issues raised by the participants were ultimately more practical. What made this hotline different from their other experiences trying to find help? Would they just get the runaround, or would the assistance be meaningful? Would they be in control of the next step? Only in listening did we understand that not only did the crisis line need a new name, it needed new messaging to manage expectations and build trust with the people the line was meant to serve.

With these findings as our foundation, we worked with BHSB to rebrand the crisis line and develop new messaging throughout the spring of 2020. The process involved engaging a group of stakeholders that included people with lived experiences who had valuable perspectives around what worked and what didn’t in real life. The peer support specialists in the group echoed what we heard in the focus groups – people were looking for a friendly, supportive conversation, even if they were talking to a stranger about something they wouldn’t tell a friend.

After several virtual brainstorming sessions internally and with the client, BHSB endorsed a new name, the Here2Help Hotline; a new tagline, “24/7 access to confidential advice & emotional support”; and new marketing messages. Hatcher then developed a new visual identity for the Here2Help Hotline and graphics for a social media campaign that were inviting, energetic, and hopeful.

The original project plan would have completed the rebrand in June to launch the new brand for National Recovery Month in September. But by when the rebranding process was underway, COVID-19 had arrived and the ensuing shutdown and social distancing measures brought new urgency to promoting the Here2Help Hotline. People were at home, often isolated and anxious, and unsure how to access mental health and substance use services in the middle of the pandemic.

Just two weeks after the rebrand was complete, we launched a digital ad campaign to promote the hotline. In the first month of the campaign, the digital ads received nearly 1.7 million impressions and drove more than 19,000 clicks to the website. Calls to the hotline also increased 100% from the previous month, as highlighted in a recent Baltimore Sun article. The campaign expanded in September for National Recovery Month, with transit ads that will run through October and other outreach materials that will be used throughout 2020 and 2021.

The inclusive discovery process set us up for success. Not only did BHSB’s internal and external stakeholders enthusiastically adopt the new branding, we were able to develop compelling creative outputs that resonated with the audience and helped more Baltimoreans to access the behavioral health services they need and deserve.

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