Resisting the temptation to ‘go dark’ and pull marketing spend during the coronavirus pandemic could help brands build a connection with consumers that will last well beyond the crisis.
That’s the philosophy at bookmaker Paddy Power, which believes it is crucial for brands to actively shape the experience for consumers during the outbreak and stay “in it with them” as the crisis unfolds.
“As a brand, if you don’t experience the pandemic in real-time with your customers, and appreciate how culture, society and brands shape-shift through this time, it’ll be very difficult for you to jump in later on in the year,” says Paddy Power’s UK and Ireland brand and marketing director Michelle Spillane.
Speaking as part of The Lowdown series of webinars being run by Marketing Week’s parent company Xeim, Spillane urged brands to stay active and engaged not just from a communications perspective but from a brand experience point of view. She credits her team with pivoting quickly at the onset of the crisis when all live sport was cancelled – a huge blow for a gambling brand that thrives off the sporting calendar.
Spillane’s team recognised early on that live sport was going to leave a massive void in people’s lives and that consumers would be looking for an escape from the wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage.
With this in mind, Paddy Power threw itself full-throttle into content. From the release of scripted comedy series The Mascot to content celebrating the wonder of Zoom video calls and all-star darts matches, Paddy Power is positioning itself as a mainstream entertainment brand.
Spillane is adamant that during the crisis brands should seek growth and engage existing customers. The Mascot, for example, is seen as a growth vehicle for Paddy Power, expanding the brand’s reach into new audiences, while its From the Horse’s Mouth podcast is still airing despite all horse racing being in lockdown in a bid to keep in contact with audiences. The fact listener numbers have been maintained suggests this is working.
“If you are serious about content as an asset for your customers and brand you have to keep it going. People will remember that. If you lose people now to other platforms, other brands and other channels, you’ll find it very difficult to win them back,” said Spillane.
“Go for growth, keep the lights on, keep investing in what you have, but be ambitious. It’s a great time for content right now.”
This focus on content appears to be paying off. Paddy Power’s all-star darts matches have been viewed upwards of 20 million times across 20 different countries, while year on year Paddy Power’s volume of video content has risen by 300%.
In March, the brand’s share of voice among gambling brands on Twitter rose from 36% a year ago to 62%, and increased from 30% to 53% on Facebook. During the first 20 days of April, Paddy Power’s share of voice had risen to 74% on Twitter and 65% on Facebook.
The content is proving successful because the team are leaning into the cultural context and “reflecting back the new normal”, which people can relate to, explained Spillane.
“We’re not connecting with people via traditional advertising around sports because it’s just not there. We have pivoted and leaned into content more than ever before to keep the brand relevant and salient, and provide people with a true value exchange at this time. To provide them with entertainment,” she stated.
This focus on what’s happening in wider culture has helped Paddy Power connect with consumers beyond the core betting audience. The Mascot series has, for example, reached a much broader audience and has even attracted interest from TV production companies.
The decision to “lean into” relatable cultural moments had also helped Paddy Power grow its female audience. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the engagement split for content was typically 70% male to 30% female. But during the pandemic the brand is seeing a much higher female engagement rate.
Nailing the tone of voice
Famous for its cheeky tone of voice, Paddy Power is very careful about ensuring that it retains its identity by offering consumers escapism and light relief, while still being respectful of the crisis.
“We put a huge amount of planning, effort, thought and consideration into our content and comms,” Spillane explained. “It takes a huge amount of planning to look this casual and off-the-cuff.”
It is all about pulling on the different brand pillars to bring a Paddy Power point of view to every situation. There are four pillars, starting with ‘be daring and be brave’, a characteristic the team attempt to infuse into all content and communications.
Next is ‘on the ball’, which Spillane described as the “most expensive brand pillar”, because it requires the brand and its agencies to operate in real-time.
Go for growth, keep the lights on, keep investing in what you have, but be ambitious. It’s a great time for content right now.
Michelle Spillane, Paddy Power
An example would be the 2018 FIFA Football World Cup. While other gambling brands were planning their campaigns 18 months out, Spillane’s team wanted to jump on a talking point closer to the start of tournament. Paddy Power held firm and identified VAR as a defining theme of the World Cup, then advertised on ITV during the matches, parodying the use of the new tech.
“Being ‘on the ball’ is super important for us, it gives us massive currency. It’s expensive, high risk and a bit of rollercoaster, but it pays dividends,” said Spillane.
“The third brand pillar is being ‘sharp witted’, never slapstick. It’s about being clever and well-observed in the moment and it’s hard to get right. It takes an awful lot of planning and consideration to nail that. The last pillar is being ‘one of your mates’, so people feel like we’re on the side of the punter and we’re in it like everyone else.”
These brand pillars have acted as the “North Star” for Paddy Power during the coronavirus crisis and in a wider sense this strategy has helped build consistency over the past three years, which Spillane believes has contributed to the growth trajectory.
“Even now through Covid-19 it just reinforces the need for sticking to your brand strategy, knowing what your brand drivers are, staying true to them and your brand being unshakable during these times,” she explained.
Collaboration has been key to moving at pace and Paddy Power has benefitted from an existing culture of developing ideas remotely and sharing them via Zoom with both internal teams and agencies located in Dublin, London and Madrid.
What was new, however, was individuals creating and editing content at home, although Spillane thinks having a low-fi style worked in the brand’s favour.
“We ask our consumers ‘who is Paddy Power and what is Paddy Power to you?’ They always say ‘It’s like one of my friends down the pub’ or ‘It’s like loads of lads running around making up loads of shit and having the best craic’. We lean into that, we perpetuate that and as a result we are quite low-fi, which makes us accessible,’” she explained.
“All content is quite low-fi [now], that’s one of the new norms that we’re seeing and because it’s true to who we are it’s played in our favour.”
Spillane describes her team as being “very connected” and encouraging an open dialogue, which constantly asks what Paddy Power can produce next. When it comes to trends going forward, she believes consumers are communicating more than ever as the outside world has essentially ground to a halt.
The team are tapping into this trend on the games side of the business by hosting poker tournaments with Paddy and his friends, reflecting the way groups of friends are gaming together on Zoom.
The content and entertainment strategy, and continuing popularity of the gaming business, are guiding Paddy Power through the near-term. However, in parallel the team are developing an emergence strategy with the aim of bringing the brand out of the situation “bigger, stronger and more mischievous than ever.” They are planning for multiple different scenarios, readying themselves for when live sport is switched back on.
Spillane is adamant that Paddy Power has to take a long-term view because, while the brand may only be 32 years old, it plans on getting to 132 years old. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is, she wants her team to be ready.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a line in the sand that says, ‘This was pandemic life and this is now the new normal and this is how brands are going to be’. It’s going to be an iterative process as consumers and society evolve through this pandemic,” Spillane added.
“The brands that are in touch with their customers and helping to shape the brand experience through these times are the ones that will win out.”
Michelle Spillane will be appearing at the 2020 Festival of Marketing (7-8 October), where she will discuss how to measure marketing effectiveness.