Nick Higham: Duncan adjusts the focus to sell the BBC as a brand

Marketing director Andy Duncan is leading a campaign to sell the BBC as a single, mass-market brand – a concept bound to offend traditionalists, says Nick Higham

You must have read about it. The BBC is planning to spend up to &£20m of your money and mine in the next 12 months on advertising in other media. The cash will mainly go on promoting the eight (possibly nine) new digital TV and radio services it’s launching this year. The first, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, starts on 2 February, followed by the two children’s TV channels, CBBC and CBeebies, on 11 February. The Beeb is also threatening us with exposure to about 100 on-screen trailers for the new channels this year.

By any standards it adds up to a formidable campaign (the budget would be more formidable still if the BBC didn’t have the advantage of free access to its own airtime). The corporation’s new director of marketing and communications, Andy Duncan, is understandably chuffed at his success in persuading a sceptical director-general, Greg Dyke, to deliver such a ringing endorsement of the marketing function.

Duncan’s spending plans have been widely reported. But behind them lie some fundamental changes in the BBC’s approach to marketing in general and to itself as a brand.

For a start, Duncan has won two significant internal battles: the first, to establish the importance of marketing even to a non-commercial enterprise like the BBC; and the second to establish the principle that the BBC is a single brand and to market it accordingly.

By that Duncan means neither corporate advertising, nor forcing Radio 1 to run messages in support of the licence fee. But he does want it made clear to Radio 1 listeners, for instance, that their network is part of the BBC, and he wants promotion even for the BBC’s strongest sub-brands (like EastEnders) to emphasise their connection with the parent. The BBC suffers “negative synergy”, he says: its image is worse than the sum of its parts and he wants that changed.

Duncan claims his department is involved in every important thing going on in the BBC. Marketing, he says, is one of two key functions (along with human resources) spearheading a culture change in the BBC – an organisation that’s endured more culture changes in the last 15 years than a Petri dish in a medical lab.

To the traditional Reithian trinity of BBC purposes (to inform, educate and entertain) he has added a fourth, “to connect”. When the BBC was in its infancy, people were used to being told what to do. These days, Duncan says, they expect two-way communication. The BBC should connect with its audiences, connect them with one another (especially online) and connect the nation with itself.

He speaks of customer-focus, and of the dangers to organisations (like M&S or Sainsbury’s) which lose touch with their customers.

It’s been the accepted wisdom at the BBC for a while that it is losing touch with important sections of its audience: the younger, poorer demographic, people in the North and ethnic minorities. The BBC’s core audience admires its quality and reliability, but lighter users see it as arrogant, out of touch, afraid to take risks and patronising in an “auntie knows best” way (no wonder Radio 1 downplays its connection).

Duncan wants to keep the best of the old brand values and add new ones, such as perceptions of being fast-moving, innovative and “relevant to me”. And he knows that to change the image means first changing the reality.

There’s nothing new about this. In television news (perhaps the last place on television where a man in a suit and tie still speaks directly at you) we’ve spent the past few years trying to get away from the traditional language and visual grammar of news programmes, which younger viewers especially see as ridiculously formal, alienating and irrelevant.

You can see the results most clearly on the Six O’Clock News, with a much wider range of production techniques, more emphasis on producing watchable television and on language designed to spell out why stories matter or are relevant to the audience, and more younger reporters, more women, more from ethnic minorities (a difficulty for those of us who are middle-aged, male and white).

The difficulty has been to make news less of an alien intrusion into the BBC1 schedule without sacrificing its authority or the range of stories it covers.

What seems to be new is the increasing role played by Duncan’s marketing department in these and other changes. He now talks of appointing the equivalent of advertising agency planners to programme departments’ “consumer-facing” folk, whose insights could inform the programme-making and development progress, just as the development of The Weakest Link was informed by an insight into the popularity of “penalty shoot-out” scenarios.

There are signs of strain. Talk of “customers” may discomfit those who prefer the less commercial “viewer and listener” or “licence payer”. And as the BBC focuses on giving customers what they want, it opens itself up to accusations of abandoning its public service traditions (Reith believed many broadcasting “customers” don’t know what they want until they get it, and benefit from serendipitous surprises.)

But if Duncan really succeeds in doing all he wants, it will be a culture change indeed.

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