Using advertising to communicate corporate responsibility

February 01, 1998

Since privatisation, BT has made huge strides in improving operational efficiency, investing heavily in technology and boosting customer service. Along the way, it has striven to be a good corporate citizen, with community involvement programmes which range from sponsorship of a national charity fund-raising Swimathon to developing Typetalk, a text-relay service enabling deaf and speech impaired people to communicate with hearing people anywhere in the world. BT is the UK’s largest corporate giver, investing at least ?15 million a year through its Community Partnership Programme.

Like many large organisations, however, BT was reluctant to make much of these initiatives. Community programmes were something you ‘just did’ – to create a song and dance about them was at best perceived to be not in keeping with the traditional reserve of British business, and at worst to be downright counter-productive.

Besides, BT’s reputation had been coming along nicely as it was. From being a much-maligned public utility, the company’s standing had improved along with its service record and levelled out during the mid-nineties. Nevertheless it was still below leading companies such as Marks & Spencer or the Post Office.

What tipped the balance in favour of a pro-active image building campaign was a communications review in March 1996. The move coincided with increased pressure to beat off competition, forge alliances, adapt to changing consumer trends and fight for room to manoeuvre within the UK’s tight regulatory framework. Against this background, ‘reputation’ was increasingly seen as the prime element which would differentiate BT from its competitors.

Identifying the issues

Research identified key factors which build a successful reputation. Internally it was nice to find that BT was already involved in a lot of these areas – the problem was people were not aware of the many ways in which the company played a role in society.

Although among its peers BT was well respected and admired, the average person in the street held ideas that were wildly out of date. To them, BT was just a supplier of goods and services – there was little sense of it helping the community or flying the flag for Britain.

In a sense BT had been the victim of its own success. Its constant stream of marketing messages about special offers and new services had overshadowed achievements abroad and in the community, and reinforced the image of it being a hard-nosed commercial entity whose main focus was to make money. BT believed that what was needed was a campaign which would educate people about ‘the bigger picture’.

BT appointed AMV (Abbot Mead Vickers) advertising agency to develop a campaign aimed at building on BT’s good reputation. To test their hypothesis, research groups were presented a series of hitherto little-known facts about BT, ranging from its technological successes abroad to the amounts it spent on community activities. The results were startling – subjects changed from being overtly cynical to being positive, or at least prepared to give the company the benefit of doubt.

It was recognised that BT needed to demonstrate its wider achievements so the company would not be seen as just a products and services supplier. But this led to a further problem – how to publicise the facts without making it look like an extreme case of corporate boasting?

The final strategy was “to demonstrate that BT benefits all kinds of people in all kinds of ways”. The public would be provided new and unexpected facts to support this claim – and the facts needed to span a whole series of activities, from global success to community involvement. It was vital, though, that the stories were communicated in a non-bombastic fashion.

From here the first set of advertisements were developed. These featured BT employees looking embarrassed as a voice over described what their company was doing for the greater good. The self-effacing approach was an attempt to overcome the ‘boasting’ problem. However, in the next round customer research, they failed to impress. Customers still felt the ads were a cynical attempt to cover up ‘trumpet blowing’.

Refining the treatment

This left an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, BT knew that when people were aware of the information, they moved from negative to positive; but on the other hand, if they were told directly, they seemed to come back full circle.

BT and AMV realised that they had to get the information across in an engaging and emotional way which “demonstrated the customer benefit” and played down the company role – allowing customers to draw their own conclusions.

This time the advertisements worked. The cinema and TV ads presented the viewer with an array of quirky images – a girl hoovering a lawn, a football team made up of pensioners, two businessmen on a fun ride – which set the scene by forcing a re-appraisal of everyday subjects. At the end, written in simple lettering and without recourse to any corporate typeface, there appeared a simple message – “every year BT spends ?15 million services for the elderly and disabled”, for example – informing the public about one manner in which the company “benefits all kinds of people in all kinds of ways”. And underpinning the whole sequence was the familiar sound of Elvis Presley’s classic hit Always on my mind, conveying a subliminal message about how the advertiser has always cared for its audience.

While screen advertising – comprising one 90-second and three 30-second commercials – was designed to build overall awareness and emphasise the emotional aspects of the campaign, press advertising provided support in terms of substantiation, and presented the rational arguments. These were placed as a series of double-page colour press ads, mainly in the review sections of Sunday newspapers and other quality publications.

One ad, featuring Paralympic gold medalist, Peter Hull, reads: “As a communications company, BT has always been committed to helping people with disabilities…. And as a corporate sponsor, we have been the major supporter of disability swimming in the UK for the past 10 years. Our involvement covers every level of the sport, from grass roots right up to sponsorship of the British Paralympic team.”

Pitching carefully

As any community affairs professional knows, messages like these have to be pitched very carefully if they are not to be seen as mere trumpet-blowing. It seems, however, that BT got it right.

Research revealed the campaign had a significant effect on getting people to reappraise the company. One out of four customers nationally said they were more favourably disposed towards BT as a result of seeing the advertising – especially younger audiences in higher socio-economic groups, who were traditionally less positive. Encouragingly, business customers tended to be even more receptive to the ads. And the campaign scored high on recall – up to 60 per cent.

But perhaps most important, BT’s corporate image monitor has started to show improvements, with key drivers of corporate reputation – such as technological innovation, putting things back in the community, and supporting charities and other worthy causes – all moving upwards.

Jackie Kavanagh is head of corporate communications programmes at BT. For more information, contact her on 0171 356 6348

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 38 – February, 1998