Marketing makes a heavyweight impact beyond boardroom walls

Marketing, believe it or not, isn’t always about selling. It might sound dramatic, but it can sometimes save lives.

Click here to see what happened when Virgin Media’s marketing head ran the HR department
Click here to read about how Sainsbury’s reduced plastic bag use while creating a desirable product

Click here to see how Shell used marketing to reduce accident numbers

The skills of gleaning a customer insight can be used beyond selling a product, and can help change how people behave. Marketing has the potential to solve bigger global problems, meaning that a new agenda for the industry is on the horizon.

Marketing Week editor Mark Choueke is calling for marketers to show leadership in their businesses (MW 5 August). But industry commentators argue that marketing itself can influence above and beyond the marketing department, into people’s lives.

Marketing expertise helped oil company Shell reduce the accident rate of its drivers in Pakistan (see Viewpoint, below), the NHS to reduce the number of women smoking when pregnant, and Sainsbury’s to more than halve the number of plastic bags given out in its supermarkets (see below). Significantly, none of these projects used paid-for media, rather the skills of marketers were enlisted to change behaviour.

Marketers have the opportunity to use their skills to influence throughout and beyond business. This will help them be seen as more than the department that spends money and it will encourage CEOs to use their skills more broadly. But further than this, they will be working for the benefit of society and not solely towards commercial gain.

Unilever and Virgin Media are two businesses that claim to use marketing in this broader sense. For example, Virgin Media’s executive director of brand and marketing ran the HR department to embed brand values further into the company (see below), while Unilever is using marketing to match the philanthropic vision of founder Lord Leverhulme to make its consumers’ lives simpler.

For Justin Basini, who has held senior marketing roles at Capital One and Deutsche Bank, marketing should focus on how business behaves in society, which he claims is a broader and more influential role than it currently is.

Basini left brand marketing to set up Conservation Economy, a website that brings together thinking from the marketing community on what it should be doing in an economy that is not based on consumption. He is also writing a book on trust and brands.

“We are entering a period of change where we have created unbelievable standards of living through consumption, and that model has run out of steam because of population growth and access to resources,” he says. He adds that this trend has led to an increase in negative societal trends, such as obesity, meaning there is a case for a new model of consumption.

Marketing has the chance to evangelise and ask: why don’t you look at this problem in a different way?

Raoul Pinnell, Strategic Investment Partners

Basini acknowledges that marketing directors face daily pressure to prove the return on investment of their spend, but says marketers’ roles must go beyond this.

The new agenda of marketing should be one that can actually help people to consume less while at the same time improving their trust in business, he states. This, in turn, contributes to the longer-term growth of brands.

“Businesses need to make a fair return on their activities, but they also have a responsibility to drive positive social outcomes as a byproduct of their activities. Through this they can act for the common good.”

Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed insists this is part of his company’s role, as stated by founder Lord Leverhulme in 1885. He says: “Leverhulme started this idea that you can do more for the world when he said ‘I want to lessen the burden of work for women’. That vision and [those] care qualities are in Unilever today. I believe it can make people’s lives better.”

Research carried out by the FMCG giant showed that women in some developing countries were rinsing clothes three times during the laundry process, to get rid of excess detergent. In response to this, Unilever developed Comfort Easy Rinse, which reduces the foam created by washing, making rinsing quicker and so reducing the amount of water used.

Weed also says that Unilever wants to double in size without increasing its environmental impact. “If we can do it in an environmentally responsible way, it will create a win-win situation,” he adds.

When Virgin Media’s marketing head ran the HR department

Marketing can raise its profile within a business by using its creativity to identify and fill a consumer need.

But marketers can also gain real influence in a company, and help other departments better understand the role marketing plays

in the business. So when Virgin Media merged with NTL and Telewest in 2007, marketer Ashley Stockwell made the unusual move of running the HR department for eight months, following “offline” conversations with the directors of customer care and James Kydd, who ran marketing for Virgin Media at the time.

He was also responsible for hiring current chief people officer Elisa Nardi and for setting recruitment criteria to make sure people that were hired were “a sort of Virgin character”, says Stockwell, who is now executive director of brand and marketing.

“What we do from a marketing and brand point of view has to be reflected from an internal brand and cultural perspective. If what you are trying to say and execute to [external] prospects and customers isn’t flowed through internally, in terms of how we act, behave and believe, then people will see that disconnect,” he says.

Stockwell wanted to get brand values embedded into the company. He explains: “It’s not just about your key performance indicators as an employee but how you are delivering those KPIs from a Virgin brand perspective. It’s trying to get the brand element into staff training and inductions.”

He took on Sir Richard Branson’s mission to put staff first, with the idea that if a brand makes its employees happy, then customers and shareholders will be happy. So he removed the dress code, to make people feel more relaxed.

Stockwell says: “It was about allowing people to wear what is appropriate. If they are in a call centre all day it doesn’t matter what they wear. Historically, there were rules for all those elements, which felt quite restrictive and controlling. It’s getting staff to do the best they can and giving them tools to deliver great customer service.

“That will make their lives easier and therefore the customers’ lives easier – whether the staff member is from a call centre, IT, finance or another team,” he says.

Following this experiment, other Virgin brands might integrate marketing and HR by having a staff change committee, such as the one run by Virgin Atlantic, where the brand team is represented.

“Getting the people team and the brand and marketing team working together is fundamental for any business. It is something that is a bit missed in larger businesses,” says Stockwell.

Raoul Pinnell
Raoul Pinnell

Viewpoint: Saving lives with marketing

Raoul Pinnell, former chair at Shell Brands International and now chairman of Strategic Investment Partners, explains how marketing helped to get Shell’s truck drivers in Pakistan to change their driving habits and reduce the accident rate in that country, which was higher than in other territories.

The issue in Pakistan was a combination of very challenging – poor and difficult – local roads, which meant there was a need to encourage tanker drivers to change their driving habits and better respond to these tougher conditions.

Marketing didn’t change the selling of a product or identify customer need, but it elicited an understanding of how to change an individual’s behaviour.

At Shell, we had meetings where the top 100 executives from around the world came together. That was where marketing had the chance to evangelise and ask: why don’t you look at this problem in a different way?

We thought drivers would be more careful on the road if they were given rest stops with cafés and prayer rooms, as well as fitting their cabs with seat belts, but that wasn’t changing their driving behaviour.

At the Top 100 meeting, I said: “Let’s not look at the problem as trying to fix the roads, the trucks or the drivers. Is there something we are missing here?”

It often isn’t the purchaser who marketing communications are aimed at, it is someone else. So we ran group discussions to understand and work out what the issue was about behaviour [and how the drivers were driving] and identify the target [for any behaviour-changing interventions].

One of the drivers in the group discussions said: “Why don’t you talk to my wife about this?” So we ran focus groups with the wives, who talked about the effect on the family, including loss of income, if someone loses their life. We used the wives to help influence their husbands and get them to drive more safely.

We took those insights from the wives and made them into something that changed behaviour, which in this case was a video that was played in the rest-stop cafés. We had the authenticity of people telling their story, their concerns and issues, and that is what starts to change people’s behaviour.

This brought the number of road traffic accidents in Pakistan down to a level that was not materially different from anywhere else in the world.

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