People with breathing difficulties come together in harmony

The Philips Breathless Choir is an inspirational story of adversity and triumph

Last September, 18 people came together to sing in a choir. That’s hardly remarkable until you discover that they all suffer from chronic respiratory conditions, including severe asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis.

When breathing is so difficult and life itself hangs in the balance, singing must seem like the impossible dream. And yet, with the help of choirmaster Gareth Malone, this diverse group of men and women, ranging in ages from 12 to 92, were filmed over the course of one week as they undertook a journey that transformed their expectations of themselves.

From seriously struggling to sing Twinkle Twinkle (one found the effort so great she spent much of one session lying on the floor wheezing), they end up belting out The Police track Every breath you take to a packed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. It’s a human story that resonates – one of triumph over adversity, made all the more touching by the very real people it features.

There’s firefighter Lawrence Reiss and police officer Carol Paukner who were first responders after the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers, and whose lungs were permanently and seriously damaged by the toxic fumes.

Or 18-year-old Claire Wineland who has cystic fibrosis, meaning that she has to endure three to four breathing treatments a day and 75 medications at the last count. She has spent a quarter of her life in hospital, her childhood love of singing and performing long forgotten.

All have their own intensely moving tales to tell in what is an inspirational story. And yet this forms only part of the picture. For this is the Philips Breathless Choir, a campaign brought together by the company’s marketing team and agency Ogilvy to change the way people perceive the Philips’ brand.

‘When people think of Philips, they often think of consumer electronics products like televisions and stereos,’ says Gerry Human, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather London. ‘The reality is that Philips is on the forefront of ground-breaking healthcare technology.’

‘The choir is just one of many initiatives we are launching to change perceptions of the Philips brand around the world,’ says Evie Barrett, global head of brand communications at Philips.

Other steps include also being the exclusive health partner to the New York Times online.  ‘We want the world to know we are an innovative, global health-tech brand,’ she says.

By 2025, Philips aims to have positively improved the lives of three billion people a year. ‘The Breathless Choir is one of numerous projects that is bringing that commitment to life,’ says Barrett.

To see the campaign, comprising a main short film, accompanied by four other films highlighting different aspects of the choir’s journey, you’d be hard-pressed to notice a brand strategy. 

Yes, Philips is right there in the choir’s name. But its presence is often so subtle as to be easily overlooked. There is just one film that goes into any detail about the Philips technology innovation behind the choir – the SimplyGo Mini, a lightweight oxygen cylinder not much bigger or more cumbersome than a handbag. And that’s despite the fact that the technology tells its own interesting tale.

‘For many years, patients with COPD and other respiratory diseases had few options,’ says Barrett. ‘If they needed oxygen, they often had no choice but to cart heavy cylinders of oxygen behind them – or stay at home. Back then, devices that concentrated/extracted oxygen from regular air weighed more than 70 pounds and had limited battery life.’

All that has changed.

‘The devices are now more portable, enabling patients to be much more mobile and last year Philips began the launch of the Philips SimplyGo Mini in certain countries with further roll out to continue later this year,’ she says. ‘Doctors also can now monitor patients more closely as devices become increasingly connected and networked.’

The message is clear: with the SimplyGo Mini, members of the Breathless Choir don’t just get to sing – they gain their freedom.

Certainly, each film includes a shot of the device. At one point a choir member is seen carrying what looks like a small case onto the stage and putting it down next to her before starting to sing. Another shot shows a member crossing the road with one slung over her shoulder.

But there’s not much more. Even the film that touches on the technology is balanced against an interview with Sairam Parthasarathy, a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona, who focuses more on the medical benefits of singing on weak respiratory muscles. It’s as soft a technology sell as you can possibly get.

The push doesn’t get much harder on the dedicated Breathless Choir page of the Philips website, which opens with the words Can people with severe breathing problems lead a more fulfilling life? Philips believes they can.

Sure there are links to finding out more about the medical solutions that Philips offers – including noninvasive ventilators and oxygen concentrators – but you have to scroll down for it. The choir’s journey and their personal stories take all the prime spots.

But then this is all about letting the human angle tell the tale. It’s not about the technology per se, but the impact it has on people’s lives as demonstrated through their experiences.

‘The choir journey has been an emotional one for the members,’ says Barrett. ‘Many of them stopped singing following their diagnosis and as they found their voices again the films illustrate how the participants are not defined by their illnesses. What shines through is their determination to share their story of strength and hope in song.’

It is content marketing at its best: communicating with audiences without selling and engaging through the human angle.

‘When it comes to technology, there will always be a race to make the fastest, sharpest, brightest, lightest version of a product,’ says Human. ‘If you communicate in this way you may be on top, but not for long. Emotional stories about people are lasting.

‘Their power to delight and entertain connects on a much deeper level. It may be challenging to come up with a human angle on a product, but we think it’s worthwhile and results in stories worth telling.’

At the end of each film, up comes the line There’s always a way to make life better, followed by Innovation and you and the Philips logo. And because there’s no strong sell anywhere else, it arguably has more impact.

Whether people link through to specific product information is perhaps irrelevant. Philips has succeeded in tying itself to something far more memorable. Philips will continue working with the choir in the months ahead and is planning to have it perform at a number of Philips events this year.

‘The Breathless Choir has had a profound effect on everyone involved, and it has radically improved their lives,’ says Barrett. ‘We hope that it will also help to raise awareness and understanding of COPD and other chronic respiratory conditions, so that patients around the world can lead a healthier and more active life.’

There is a point in one of the films when choir member Lawrence Reiss, who has lost about one third of his lung function, describes the journey in magical terms.

‘Gareth saw something in us we never knew was there,’ he says. There is a sense that this experience has genuinely changed them.

For Philips too, there is power yet in this truly heart-warming tale.