Hello! We've recently rebranded to nfpResearch. Please visit our new website at nfpresearch.com

Comic Relief: How the brand connected with Millennials and Generation Z

Comic Relief has acknowledged the challenge of keeping 16-24 year olds (Millenials and Generation Z) 'emotionally connected'. It met this challenge in a way which reflects a growing trend.
Hannah Bennett

Comic Relief has traditionally had a strong presence in schools; from own-clothes days to bake sales, the brand offers a master class in how to engage children of all ages in a single cause through fundraising that is fun, practical and immediately recognisable as belonging to a particular cause. However, within the charity there has been a growing acknowledgement that keeping 16 to 24 year olds “emotionally connected” means developing the brand “outside the school context”[1].   In line with this, Comic Relief announced on February 17th that they would be partnering with the story telling platform Wattpad, which formed part of a wider digital strategy that included collaborations with YouTube stars and a Snap Chat Live story on Red Nose Day itself.  

What makes Comic Relief’s digital strategy (and their partnership with Wattpad specifically) so interesting is that it forms part of a broader trend of cross-platform brand tie-ups.  It is indicative of a shift in focus which can be observed among both profit and non-profit organisations (other examples including Tinder and Budweiser, Tinder and Calvin Klein, Spotify and Sainsbury’s and Happn and Plan UK). 

What is Wattpad?                                                                         

Wattpad is a site that allows writers to submit stories that can then be read by other users.  Designed to turn storytelling into “a social, on-the-go experience”[2], users can follow, send messages to and receive messages from their favourite writers, as well as taking part in forum-style conversations with other users.  90% of uses, including story writing, take place on mobile devices (to the extent that over half of Wattpad’s writers have written a story on their phones)[3]

The site has a growing international audience, 1.5 million monthly logins and 13,000 sign ups a day.  Crucially for Comic Relief’s goal of targeting 16 to 24 year olds, it also claims to “have the Millennials attention”; 85% of global users can be classified as Millennials or Generation Z, whilst three quarters of British readers are under the age of 24[4].

Comic Relief’s partnership with the site took the form of a branded profile , two featured non-fiction stories, and a commissioned story by one of the sites most popular writers.  Of these, it was the charity’s collaboration with the 21 year old Wattpadd writer Leigh Ansell that was perhaps their most innovative marketing strategy. With 10.5 million recorded reads of her most popular work, Leigh Ansell’s “built-in fan base”[5] served as a readymade audience for Comic Relief’s message.  

A perfect match?

Of course corporate partnerships and celebrity endorsements are not new, but are instead long established ways for charities to raise their awareness among the established consumers of well-known brands.  One of the most obvious benefits of brand-tie ups between organisations and digital platforms over traditional partnerships is their potential for reaching audiences on a vast scale

However brand-tie ups are not just about reaching large audiences en-masse, they are often established on an understanding that digital technologies present unique ways of increasing the relevance of their messages for individuals. This could mean harnessing the customer insights and contextual data - such as lifestyle, taste and location - afforded by partnerships with apps such as Spotify or Happn.  Or it could simply mean organisations identifying where interactions among their audiences are taking place and learning more about their needs and interests by communicating with them directly.

In the case of Comic Relief, despite record low viewing figures for their BBC programme with an average of 6.3 million[6] tuning in to BBC1, these rates still dwarf the numbers reached by their Wattpad profile (which peaked at 9.7 thousand followers).  Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Wattpad formed just one part of Comic Relief’s wider marketing strategy; its purpose was to create content that was specifically tailored to engage a particular demographic using a form which they were already invested in.

Given David Lammy’s painting of Comic Relief as proliferator of worn stereotypes of destitution in Africa[7], the platform also affords numerous opportunities for creating new narratives.  This includes giving the audience a chance to create content themselves, whilst the global reach of the platform means that it is not outside the realms of possibility to allow beneficiaries to tell their stories in their own words, rather than through intermediaries.  Creating a dynamic in which organisations, audiences and beneficiaries become co-creators and co-marketers, such platforms call for a revision of the traditional idea of audiences as the passive recipients of brand messages.

Observations: what do charities stand to gain?

Comic Relief’s profile on Wattpad was initiated with the intention of creating “something bespoke”[8] for a very specific audience.  Wattpad is suited to this purpose as it enables the charity to participate in its audience’s interests and facilitates a dialogue between the charity and potential supporters through the site’s conversation and private message functions, as well as through the option of posting comments within the stories themselves. 

An important part of conversing with new audiences through digital platforms is being unobtrusive.  As the Tinder president Sean Rad observed of his company’s own brand tie-ups, the key is finding a way for brands to communicate with users in an “accretive way” that does not “disrupt the users’ experience”[9].  When it comes to Comic Relief’s tie-up, the charity achieves this by opting to partner with a platform that puts the user in control of raising the charity’s profile on the site.  Thus, it is through users’ interactions with the charity that its prominence on the site increases, as the numbers of reads its stories receive improve its rankings and overall visibility.  As such, Comic Relief’s Wattpad partnership is a prime example of what the advertising agency iris calls “participation branding”: a brand using “their market to do their marketing” on the understanding that “brands no longer influence people. People do”[10]

The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment), and how this is to be quantified in the case of Comic Relief’s partnership with Wattpad remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, Comic Relief’s efforts to encourage emotional engagement among 16 to 24 year olds is an interesting example of how charities’ diversification into cross-platform brand tie-ups can raise awareness of a cause among key demographics whilst also inspiring them to become engaged in raising awareness amongst themselves.

Please share your thoughts and comments on this topic in the comments section located underneath the social sharing buttons.


[1] “Comic Relief shifts focus from schools to social media to boost appeal among young people”,  Marketing  Week, https://www.marketingweek.com/2017/02/17/comic-relief-evolves-strategy/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “RATINGS! Comic Relief sees lowest viewing figures in at least 20 years”, Tellymix, http://www.tellymix.co.uk/ratings/305747-ratings-comic-relief-sees-lowes...

[7] “Africa deserves better from Comic Relief”, David Lammy, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/24/africa-comic-relief

[8] “Comic Relief shifts focus from schools to social media to boost appeal among young people”,  Marketing  Week, https://www.marketingweek.com/2017/02/17/comic-relief-evolves-strategy/ 

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Participation pays: Study from Iris reveals how major brands are harnessing ‘people power’”, The Drum, http://www.thedrum.com/news/2017/02/07/participation-pays-study-iris-reveals-how-major-brands-are-harnessing-people-power


Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the next one first!