Q&A: Ben Rhodes, Royal Mail

Ruth Mortimer talks to Royal Mail’s head of marketing and commercial strategy Ben Rhodes about his strategy for the deregulated delivery brand.

Ben Rhodes

RM: Can you explain why you are introducing the new ‘Delivered by Royal Mail’ mark on your products?

Ben Rhodes (BR): ‘Delivered by Royal Mail’ will appear on around 80% of envelopes going through the network. We are inserting the branding on the postage. But we are giving customers a while to run down their existing stock without the new branding, to January next year.

RM: Is this just a design strategy or something more?

BR: We’re in an increasingly competitive market following deregulation [of the postal industry]. It’s a very open market now. So the vast majority of consumers told us that they want to know who delivers their mail. If there is any problem with their delivery or they want to get in touch, they need to know who to talk to. Before regulation, it would always have been Royal Mail delivering that mail so the brand was largely invisible. With increased competition, we have to establish that it is our brand behind a delivery. We have to re-establish the role of Royal Mail and be a bit bolder.

RM: How does this new strategy differ from what you’ve done in the past?

BR: The old Royal Mail strategy was about having enormous reach, then it evolved more recently into serving business and growth. Now we are saying “what we are about is enabling trade”. As I said, on our best day, we are entirely invisible; thanks to our extraordinary infrastructure, the post simply turns up.

But it is now central to our success to have a strong brand proposition as well as good products. When you are regulated, you don’t need to have such a strong brand proposition as there is no choice.

There is an amazing social purpose at the heart of the brand. There is a social mission about connecting people and so there is a challenge to do that in a commercial way. So we think we have reached the stage now where we’re able to build a commercial strategy using the brand as our lever.

RM: How does this differ from what your competitors are doing?

Our competitors tend to be very sector-specific in their communications. So in the delivery space, they may talk about logistics. We have such a broad range of services that something needs to tie it all together.

We’ve been shy about communicating in the past. We’ve been in a heavily regulated environment, but things are very different now. Around 80% of our products are now deregulated, so we need to communicate them clearly.

RM: So what do your business customers want to hear from your communications?

BR: Our customers want us to be more commercial, which is about being more flexible in what we do. Take an example – one problem we always faced previously was that we traditionally had one price for everyone for a particular service. To be fair, we would publish prices a whole three months before we applied them to our services. This gave our competitors, who do not have one price for everyone, time to cherrypick our customers and offer them cheaper rates.

So I think in general we are becoming less inward and operationally focused. For example, we have appointed a chief customer officer. That’s a real step forward.

RM: So how has that helped you define your brand?

BR: We were defined previously by our category, which traditionally was physical mail. That’s the wrong way to think about it really, because physical mail is in structural decline. So we had to do a lot of work about how we want to operate around the idea of trade and commerce. After all, it isn’t just physical mail or delivery companies that we compete against, in some areas it can be Google or even Facebook.

What sets us apart in my mind is our attitude, which is ‘whatever it takes’. If you talk to people in the Royal Mail, they often say their best days are when it snows, which sounds a bit counter-intuitive. But it’s the challenge of going that extra mile to try and deliver, no matter what. I think our people will ultimately make the real difference to our brand strategy.

RM: How do you get your Royal Mail staff – traditionally very unionised – to buy into that vision?

BR: I think this ‘whatever it takes’ attitude actually plays to the strengths of what is true about Royal Mail. The way our postmen go to lengths to deliver to customers is something we are trying to harness and bring more clearly into the business-to-business side of Royal Mail too. I suppose our focus could be called business-to-business-to-consumer in a way.

RM: What else do you have on your marketing agenda at the moment?

BR: We are massively transforming our delivery network. We are using a system that brands like Toyota use in Japan called ‘world class’ which for us is about world-class mail. If you go into a delivery centre, 70% of the mail will come out of our machine in the correct order that the postman walks down the street. So our mail centres are now very high-tech and I’m not sure we’ve communicated all those investments very well so far.

Our business is also changing a lot because as we have a different mix of items to deliver, the way we actually do this has to change. For example, if we are carrying more packages, that’s not so easy to do on foot. That may mean we need to deliver more by van or change routes. We are constantly changing operationally because of how our service evolves. So we always have to look at how we communicate that too.

We’re also streamlining our services more effectively. For example, we used to have around 1000 choices for sending bulk mail, which we have now refined down to three core product sets. That is about making things simple for our customers.

We have a lot going on at Royal Mail at the moment. We are trying to play to our strengths in our service and what is really true. Being the UK’s most trusted delivery company is vital because that reputation is a huge enabler for business.

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