Red Thread

Is O2 suffering writer’s block?

At Redmandarin we love storytelling. We tell stories in the office and at home, we even write whole articles about it. It cuts to the heart of what a good campaign does – engaging your audience emotionally and taking them with you on a journey.

Stories capture the imagination. They create anchors in our minds; carefully crafted points of reference, illustrations of behaviour, memorable articulations of values/actions, and they make ideas stick.

We’ve found storytelling a great discipline for developing strong and impactful sponsorship campaigns. A good campaign will have a strong narrative flow that carries chapter to chapter and allows you to evolve and add nuance to your messaging over time.

And a good campaign, like a good novel, is always driving you forward.

We use the O2 as one of our best practice case studies, a lesson in how to reposition a brand and a key contributing factor in O2’s tremendous success over the past decade. It was a fantastic launch vehicle, it spawned Priority which reshaped the sector and led to a hundred copycat briefs from other brands wanting in, and it’s still one of the most widely recognised sponsorships in the UK.

It was brilliant, but it’s been 8 years now and the story hasn’t changed.

It hasn’t changed because the O2 story was never structured as a narrative; it never had a clear moment where the initial campaign came to a natural conclusion and allowed the story to move on. The problem with ‘added value’ offers like O2 Priority is that over time they stop being something special and unique and just become part of what you do. You find yourself constantly innovating, adding new offers, spending more money just to stay where you are and to deliver the same meaning you used to have.

That original campaign needed a defined end point; a target to reach, or an event to serve as its great climax. A clear indicator internally as much as externally that one chapter had completed and now was time to move on. That’s particularly important with naming rights deals where the length of the term can distract brands from the need to be continually adding value through the actual campaigns they run. The O2 was brilliant for its first few years but it’s now living on past glories.

Even the very best campaigns have a natural life expectancy. Orange Wednesdays was a brilliant offer (our work for Orange on their global film platform is still one of our proudest moments) but it worked only because the advertising managed to refresh it every single time. It costs a huge amount of money to keep producing funny and engaging creative work that maintained a sense of relevance. Mother did an excellent job of playing and twisting the format – as soon as they were replaced and the quality of that creative dipped the campaign started a slow decline.

As an industry we tend to focus so much and expend so much effort on the launch of a new idea that we often don’t consider the whole life cycle. Consider Ford Maddox Ford’s page 99 test – continuously delivering something worth reading not just a snappy launch or ending. Whether it’s through setting specific goals, developing characters, evolving audiences, or seamlessly linking to the next instalment, your audience wants to know that they are going somewhere. Or they’ll follow a more interesting story elsewhere.

For every campaign we create we set ourselves a challenge. How is this business, this audience, or this community going to be different in 3 years time? It provides a focus for the campaign narrative that ensures you have a clear narrative in place and you never run the risk of a campaign drifting off and slowly petering out.

Red Thread

The holy grail of standard evaluation

The debate about standard evaluation metrics has crawled around for years.

There are two typical responses to the question of course.

One is a Borges-like, labyrinthine exercise in homogenising and framing assessment criteria, and multi-variable plotting, with an inevitably large dose of rounding and subjectivity. This approach generally emerges from a desire to appropriate a methodology: either small research agencies wanting to differentiate, or large agencies wanting another ‘bespoke tool based on the largest benchmarking and analysis exercise ever conducted’ to reassure clients and provide a substitute for actually thinking. It suffers from the classic research mistake – data without insight.

The other response is laughter of course.

After all, we haven’t even been able to standardise visibility metrics successfully. To argue that the difference between TV exposure and local print is simply a difference in rate card value completely sidesteps the whole question of channel planning and forgets the old maxim: the medium is (a big part of) the message.

The bane of the standardised solution is that it presupposes the big broad world of business would agree, or even see the sense in agreeing, on a common vision of brand – what it is, how it works, and then, how you measure it? Brands appeal in completely different ways. They sell completely different products through completely different channels to completely different people.

Standardised solutions – obviously – don’t work. And yet the idea still appeals. Because we’re all looking for certainty, re-assurance, some tangible way of knowing whether what we’re doing is working.

But maybe we’re asking ourselves the wrong question.

What if, instead of entertaining the thought of standardised evaluation, we could instead find an audience and a metric that might act as a lead indicator, or offer some predictive value. Something that’s easy to measure and without which you are almost guaranteed to fail. For us, that metric would have to be: do employees feel proud of this sponsorship? A few conditions:

  • the employee sample needs to be drawn from different levels and functions of an organisation, from top to bottom
  • the stimulus would consist simply of a business case, articulated in writing in one page, accompanied by a full budget, and activation plan…. why and how, in other words
  • the metric would be very simple, along the lines of – ‘is this a good way for us to do business?’, ‘does it make you feel proud in any way?’ and ‘how does it make you feel proud?’

Why pride?

Very simple.

Pride, in the positive sense, is associated with a fulfilled sense of belonging – engagement. It has also been shown, according to researchers, to enhance creativity, productivity, and altruism – performance. Not that we need research to tell us that – we have all experienced it personally. It’s also strongly linked to the concept of social identity: how we feel those around us view us, so it’s inevitably an unconscious assessment of external approval ratings.

On a more human level, when we feel proud of our employer – not just in the context of sponsorship or CR, but more broadly in the context of corporate performance and reputation – we are better able to integrate our personal and our work life, more likely to become an advocate for the brand and more likely to enjoy our work. Ask anyone in the banking sector the impact on social identity. As ‘reputation as a good corporate citizen is increasingly recognised as a real driver of brand’ (Tom Murphy, Microsoft), the reaction of employees is an incredibly sensitive barometer.

Many factors affect our happiness at work: the level of fulfilment it offers, a sense of direction – both individual and collective, our working conditions, the quality of our relationships, confidence in our ‘leaders’ and many more. Many of these areas sponsorship can’t touch – but many it can.

When we interviewed him for Working the Olympics, Tom Shepard, formerly Executive Vice President of International Marketing, Partnerships and Sponsorship at Visa International, told us: “I remember HR coming in and saying: ‘You know, one of the big reasons that people join Visa is because we’re an Olympic sponsor’. And I remember thinking, shouldn’t it be the job description, or the compensation package, or the opportunities?” It’s easy to treat the Olympics as an exception because it is such a powerful property – but many sponsorships have the potential to make employees proud if they’re managed right.

Lead indicator is over-stating the case. And we’re not seriously suggesting that employee pride is the determinant of sponsorship success. But what we are clear about is that, unless employees are proud, your sponsorship is under-performing.