To hell and back: How Habito gave its brand a kickstart

Taking consumers to hell sounds like a bad idea, but for online mortgage broker Habito double digit improvements in brand awareness suggests otherwise.

How do you stand out in the mortgage market?

Forget happy couples jumping out of moving vans and skipping down the garden path to their first home, keys in hand. For online mortgage broker Habito the answer is a thumping metal soundtrack and animated characters being ingested by piranhas, having their intestines ripped out and souls stolen – all in the quest of a mortgage.

The idea of ‘comedy mortgage death’ caught on, with the success of the ‘Hell or Habito’ campaign exceeding even CMO Abba Newbery’s wildest expectations.

Since going live on 24 September 2018, the Habito’s spontaneous brand awareness has doubled, customer volumes are up three and a half times, and advertising awareness has tripled. The startup’s acquisition costs are now 75% less than when the campaign kicked off.

‘Hell or Habito’ also marks a conscious decision within the business to focus solely on brand advertising and ditch the direct response campaigns.

During the last big burst of brand investment in May and June the team bought ad slots in Game of Thrones, Coronation Street and Love Island. Positioning itself alongside TV shows with five or six million viewers is a sign of Habito’s confidence, says Newbery, rather than following other startups by opting for smaller programmes with less than a million viewers.

To get to this point has been a process of trial and error. Having tweaked the marketing strategy every single month since Newbery started in September 2017, the team has now hit on a formula that works.

“We’re kind of a marketing team that acts like an engineering or a product team. Where we’ve got to is a pretty good understanding of what our levers are so we know if we really invest in our brand and become more famous that helps Google and Facebook work a lot harder,” she states.

“What we are now able to do is invest very intensely in a month of the year and then ride out the awareness that that month has delivered us to keep very effective acquisition costs across a longer period of time.”

The challenge for the next six months, Newbery explains, is to determine how many times Habito needs to invest in the brand and how long the window is between those investment points in order to maximise the conversion opportunities between brand awareness spikes.

Shaking up the category

The creative concept was positioned as a rejection of traditional financial services advertising. Aware that Habito didn’t have big enough budgets to create an advert people might ignore, the marketing team was up for taking some risks.

Newbery was clear that if Habito wanted to position itself as a “transformative brand” in the mortgage sector it needed to be confident, but she was also angry at how poorly customers were being served. This feeling had been at heart of the brand since it was founded by Dan Hegarty in 2015 as a free online mortgage broker aimed at disrupting a market bogged down by costs and delays.

She used the purpose statement to inspire the creative idea, her attitude being that the advertising should reflect this disruptive mission. However, the team could not shy away from the fact people typically don’t like talking about their mortgage, making this potentially “the hardest job you can get in marketing”, Newbery states.

Tapping into the real emotions people felt about their mortgage was key. When the marketers first researched the ‘Hell or Habito’ concept with consumers they kept hearing the same stories that applying for a mortgage was like being robbed blind or was so stressful that you thought you might “drown in your own sweat”.

“The consumers actually said to us, ‘go do Rick and Morty for mortgages’. If you’re going to drown in your own sweat, the guy also gets eaten by piranhas, which is what makes it funny and stretches us as far as we can,” Newbery explains.

To achieve this Habito teamed up with creative agency Uncommon and enlisted the skills of Strange Beast, an animation studio which includes the creative team behind the Rick and Morty cartoon series.

The campaign follows the ‘peak end rule’, a theory which suggests that when it comes to memory we tend to recall the worst thing and the last thing. As a result, the campaign invokes the emotion of how terrible it was getting your previous mortgage, but then shows how Habito can solve the problem.

While the TV campaign went live nationwide, Habito used a targeted strategy for its outdoor advertising based on land registry data which indicated the fastest moving property postcodes in the UK. As well as running the outdoor campaign in London, the team targeted Manchester, Bristol, Bath, Edinburgh and Birmingham.

Habito
The Habito outdoor campaign.

Newbery is convinced that the ‘Hell or Habito’ concept has legs, especially as brand founder Hegarty bought the idea because he felt it was a “proper brand platform” that could be built out for three, four or even five years.

“The next six to 12 months will show how much more successful we can be with this campaign, but I can see it being around in two years for sure,” she reflects.

“There’s a lot more still to come and there’s a lot more work that’s on the table that we haven’t released yet because we thought it was a brilliant idea, but we need to be focused as we’re still a scale-up.”

Learning lessons

When Newbery joined the business in September 2017, Habito was “quite a gentle brand” that described itself as “the little lift in getting people a mortgage”. This was what she wanted to change the most.

“A mortgage is the biggest single transaction you’re ever likely to make. It’s life changing and game changing. And we’re not a little lift, we’re an incredible accelerating process that will help you get the house of your dreams,” Newbery explains.

When she joined, the startup had also just gone live with its first TV ad campaign, which used an algorithm from Habito’s sorting code to visualise how the service sifts through thousands of mortgages to help source the right one.

The advert did not do what the team hoped, partly because they had made the “classic mistake” of creating an advert about a product or service.

“Most people in the UK have got no idea what an algorithm is, so in many ways it was a fintech making an ad for other people who work in fintech,” she explains.

“That said, the first thing I did was research it before we decided to kill it or keep it. It didn’t research as badly as maybe the return on investment showed, which made me think we can rescue this. In many ways, when you’re a startup you’re trying to change the engine in the plane while still flying it.”

The team spent six months optimising the ad, scheduling it to go live at different air times, putting the branding upfront and the call to action on screen for three seconds longer, as well as adjusting the voiceover to make it softer.

“We went from being, ‘what on earth are we going to do?’ to smashing our results. But I guess what we also realised is when you’ve optimised something that much it’s not going to take you to the next level. It was a great first ad, but we needed something bigger and bolder for our second version,” says Newbery.

The biggest lesson she took into the ‘Hell or Habito’ campaign was not to create an advert about the product, as it means you only convert people who are in the market at that moment in time and are therefore not really building the brand.

From a career perspective, the biggest lesson Newbery has learnt since leaving Google to join Habito is that everyone in a startup is an expert in their own job – and marketing.

This is why every iteration of the ‘Hell or Habito’ script – every storyboard, piece of animation and phase of character development – was shared with the entire organisation, including the investors, so everyone felt like they were on the same journey. Their input was taken on board and the vice president of engineering even chose the theme tune.

“Everyone had an input, because I think if I’d come to the business and the investors and said ‘I’m going to spend millions of pounds on this Rick and Morty comedy mortgage death ad’, they would probably have thought I was mad,” Newbery adds.

“But they’d been on the journey and were all fully invested in it and I think that is different from how you would do a brand campaign in a big organisation.”

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