The BBC is a national brand, or it is nothing

With the BBC under greater threat than ever of being dismantled, it needs to communicate why and how its brand serves the whole country.

Britain’s leading cultural organisation faces a gathering storm. High on the fumes of electoral glory, the government has let it be known that it intends to “whack” Britain’s greatest cultural institution.

The double-whammy of decriminalising non-payment of the license fee and threatening a subscription model is already underway. Number 10’s playbook appears to be lifted from a 2004 Dominic Cummings blog that cites the BBC as a “mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party, and sets out a plan to end it “in its current form”.

On top of an existential battle with government, the BBC has audience problems. The Pied Pipers of Amazon and Netflix have transfixed young audiences. Auntie is about to wade into an unwinnable PR battle with older audiences by charging 3.7 million over-75s for TV that was previously free. Elsewhere, just 44% of adults believe that BBC News journalists are fair and impartial, according to a YouGov survey.

While these are urgent problems for a new director general, they mask an issue that is even more damaging: the BBC’s growing disconnection with the public is draining equity from its once unifying brand.

Supporters of the BBC point to continued consumption at scale as evidence that the brand is in reasonable nick. By that criterion, they are right. According to Ofcom, 93% of adults consume some form of BBC content every week. While the bulk of that comes from radio and people aged 16 to 34 might be a different story, by any measure the BBC has overwhelming reach.

But is reach a convincing measure? Not really. The BBC’s brand equity comes from a shared understanding of what it does for everybody, not from the narrow focus on individual consumption.

Even combining reach with satisfaction measures across individual categories and touchpoints wouldn’t add up to the power of the BBC brand – or express what the BBC exists to do.

The BBC’s growing disconnection with the public is draining equity from its once unifying brand.

As Kevin Simler underlines in his essay ‘Ads Don’t Work That Way’, brands become strong when everyone understands what they stand for. Aston Martin is a great brand not only because people who own Aston Martins think they are amazing, but because everyone from nine to 99 has been emotionally primed to think of them as beautiful, sexy cars. Brand strength extends far beyond customer usage and experience.

It is difficult to judge the BBC’s internal view of brand without accessing its research. But external indicators are troubling. The BBC last won a recognisable ‘brand of the year’ award in 2012, when it won at Marketing Week’s own Engage Awards. Since that win, it has not even been shortlisted.

Elsewhere, performance is worse. The most globally recognisable British brand after the royal family doesn’t make the top 10 of YouGov’s 2019 UK BrandIndex ranking, it languishes at 33rd place in Kantar’s BrandZ list of most valuable British brands, and is number 22 in Brand Directory’s 2019 listing.

Tactical programme marketing diminishes the BBC brand

It is worth pointing out that over this period, programme marketing has enjoyed success. Who can forget the brilliantly spooky outdoor campaign for Dracula? Or the ‘Wasted On Some’ iPlayer promotion? BBC programmes continue to dominate awards, winning 15 of 29 Royal Television Society trophies. But those victories have not enhanced perception of brand.

The problem with individual programme or genre promotion is that it is transactional and short-term. As Les Binet and Peter Field demonstrated in their IPA effectiveness analysis, brand strength comes from long-term brand building, not successive activations.

Relying on short-term activations actually leaches value from the master brand. Going by Binet and Field’s rules on maximising effectiveness, around 60% of the BBC’s promotional activity should focus on communicating the master brand. The BBC does not do this.

Time and again, the BBC has proved its chops. It has survived dogfights with hostile governments, navigated technological and social change, and endured spectacular self-inflicted wounds (gender pay gap anyone?).

But if it cannot communicate that its mission is to exist for everyone, and explain clearly why that mission matters, then the BBC has no message at all. To deliver on that mission is a long-term project requiring brutal honesty and reflection. For the message to be truthful, the BBC will have to shed some central beliefs.

Around 60% of the BBC’s promotional activity should focus on communicating the master brand. The BBC does not do this.

Allies of the BBC may view Dominic Cummings as its leading bogeyman, but it’s worth reading his blog of 2004. Written from the wilderness of opposition, seven long years and two party leaders after the Tories were electorally annihilated by Tony Blair, Cummings puts forward an excoriating evaluation of the “intellectual and professional void” within the Conservative Party and lays out the “unpleasant truths” it has to confront if wants to win the public vote again.

“The Conservative Party’s current problems are the result of a long-term crisis in which its abdication of its historic role in being a national party or nothing is at the core of why it has failed.”

Well, in a comeback second only to Tyson Fury, the Conservative Party has returned to devastating form. Faced with the choice of being a national party or nothing, it chose to be a national party.

The BBC must now address its own long-term crisis and confront its own unpleasant truths. If it abdicates the historic role of being a truly national broadcaster, then it too risks becoming nothing.

Mimi Turner is a consultant, and was previously marketing director of LADBible and consulting CMO of Wireless Group.