Lotto prize won’t mean an easy life

The National Lottery’s £24m advertising account is big enough to tempt any ad agency. But the winner of this pitch will have to turn around a struggling, fragmented brand – in the face of political interference. By David Benady

The &£24m advertising account for the National Lottery is out to pitch and agencies are straining to think up ways to add some excitement to the waning brand image of the nine-year-old institution.

WCRS, the incumbent of five years, has declined to repitch. Many ad industry observers have criticised its creative work for the brand as po-faced, worthy and unfunny. Even Phil Smith, commercial director of lottery operator Camelot, says: “We wouldn’t do this [call a review] if we didn’t think there was room for improvement.”

The National Lottery’s ad strategy has changed so many times that people could be excused if they were baffled about what the brand stands for. From the straggly beard of Billy Connolly and the “Lotto” rebranding, to ads linked with good causes and bizarre executions featuring supposed Camelot staff, it seems to be a confusing picture. But Smith disagrees. He says: “Changes in strategy have been put in place to address specific needs. This year’s launch was about creating a connection between the playing experience and the good causes. We did that because positive sentiment was slipping, but we go to agencies with an open brief. The job we set out to do at the beginning of this year has been achieved: we have seen a reverse of negative sentiment toward the lottery.”

Camelot has been trying to repair the damage done by media criticism last year over grants made by distribution body the Community Fund to an organisation that helps asylum seekers. Camelot chief executive Dianne Thompson blamed the bad press for causing a dip in sales, though some saw this as an attempt to divert attention from the operator’s poor marketing. Camelot has often complained that it is blamed for the way lottery funds are handed out, when in fact it has no responsibility for – or control over – distribution. But ads linking playing the lottery with good causes only seem to create more confusion.

Many observers feel the strategy that seeks to promote good causes rather than the prospect of winning the lottery, is misguided. After all, people play out of greed, and imagine how they would spend their winnings. But the Government seems embarrassed about promoting a “greed is good” message and wishes to make the lottery appear worthy and socially valid. Smith suggests that moves by culture secretary Tessa Jowell to ensure that plaques with the Lotto “crossed fingers” logo are put on lottery-funded projects will help people see the connection between play and good causes. But whether this will serve to increase sales is questionable.

One observer says: “The lottery has lost that sense of fun, excitement – the association with dreams that it had. The last three or four years’ advertising has been fairly dull. It takes itself very seriously. The strategy should not be driven by political pressure.”

Camelot points out that sales at launch were some &£48m a week, and now they are nearly double this, holding steady at about &£85m for the first nine months of this year – although this is a decline from highs of over &£90m a week. But whereas when it launched in 1994, people really were excited by the lottery and bought into the dream, today it is seen by many as an unbranded, Government-run service; a dull bureaucracy, similar to the Post Office.

Camelot’s view is that the experience of running lotteries repeats itself all over the world, and so lotteries can follow similar patterns for launching new games. Many onlookers, however, point out that there are big differences in various markets; slavishly following the global approach could be one of the reasons why the UK’s National Lottery seems so lacklustre.

An observer adds: “There are five different draws. The company has completely lost me in terms of the differentiation. The worldwide experience is that the only way to keep increasing sales is to launch more games, but I am not sure that is the right strategy in the UK.”

Another source feels that Camelot has focused too much on existing players. “In trying to deepen its relationship with heavy users, Camelot has made the product offerings too complex. This has alienated a lot of other users,” he says.

Others say Camelot has got its timing wrong in terms of games launches, failing to launch new games early enough, then overcompensating by launching too many, too quickly. This has made it difficult for the advertising to clarify the difference between the games and to explain who should play each one and under what circumstances.

Smith rejects the criticisms. He says: “We still have fewer games than the typical international lottery that has been running for a longer period. The proof of our success is in the sales figures.” He says that, when scratchcard sales are stripped out, there has been 21 per cent growth in sales of new games. And overall National Lottery sales are stabilising.

But coming up with games that have broad appeal, without attracting vulnerable groups such as children, is a tricky balancing act. The lottery needs to replace those players for whom the initial excitement has worn off with successive generations of young players. But targeting 16-year-olds is difficult, since any marketing may also appeal strongly to those who are under playing age.

Lottery regulator The National Lottery Commission (NLC) has ordered Camelot to take special measures to ensure some of its new scratchcard games – which have themes that are likely to appeal to children – do not attract underage players. Camelot has signed a deal to launch Lord Of The Rings-themed scratchcards (MW last week) and other recent scratchcards have been based on children’s games Connect 4 and Monopoly. One of its Instants cards has a picture of a grinning cartoon cat.

The NLC is concerned the themes of these games could appeal to children and has told Camelot to run extra checks. These include conducting additional research of at-risk groups, and reviewing the strategy of scratchcard tie-ins with films. Smith says: “The last thing we are trying to do is appeal to under-16s. These things are precautionary measures.”

It will be up to Camelot’s new ad agency to address many of the contradictions that lie within the National Lottery brand. Most of the contenders are talking about putting out a more strongly branded message, but political and regulatory considerations may prove to be more powerful forces in the advertising than creating the right brand image.

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