BT is hoping to “do the opposite” of the strategy most brands are taking during the coronavirus pandemic by demonstrating its purpose through communications, rather than using advertising to tell people what its purpose is.

The telecoms firm has launched a campaign, created with Saatchi & Saatchi London, that aims to teach the nation vital digital skills. BT’s director of marketing communications, Peter Jeavons, says the brand didn’t want to create a series of adverts, but instead a content series that could serve as a “public service education exercise”.

“What we really wanted to do was take this position of almost being a public service communicator and that is certainly where we got the idea for the education films,” he tells Marketing Week.

“One of the things we were very mindful of is that what most brands are doing is telling people about what their purpose is, why [people] can trust them and that they are a good partner to have around at this time. What we wanted to do was almost the opposite to that – not tell people what our purpose is, but doing purposeful communications that demonstrate our purpose.”

The campaign, ‘Beyond Limits: Top Tips on Tech’, will see BT take over a series of 12 individual ad breaks on ITV during This Morning and the ITV Evening News. Each day, the slot features well-known celebrities teaching people digital skills in videos that last for around 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

The first ad shows Clare Balding hosting a step-by-step explanation of how to use WhatsApp – from how to download the app to how to set up a group chat – after Google Trend data showed an uptick in people searching for this type of information. Other films in the series include TV presenter Rylan Clark-Neal offering an introduction to podcasts and broadcaster Fearne Cotton sharing tips on using online services to help with physical and mental wellbeing.

Broadcaster Clare Balding showing how to download WhatsApp.

The TV spots will be hosted on an online hub that also includes PDF versions of the content that people can share with others who they think may need it. There is also advice and support from BT’s Skills for Tomorrow programme – an initiative that aims to help 10 million people and businesses improve their digital know-how.

“What I got excited about with the brief was that this not about us trying to communicate anything about a BT product or service. This is a public service education exercise on how technology and connectivity, through many different topics, can help people’s difficult lives at the moment become a little bit more bearable,” explains Jeavons.

“We didn’t want it to be an advert. These are purely pieces of hopefully fun, engaging, educational content. The idea of partnering with ITV was – because it’s not a series of adverts – we wanted the ability to have a consistent delivery of these educational bits of content, almost an appointment to view, making it feel like it’s part of the programming.”

Responding to the coronavirus pandemic

The campaign is step two of the first phase of BT’s response to coronavirus, which considers how the brand should react at the height of the crisis. The next two phases will look at recovery as lockdowns ease and then renewal.

The first step in phase one involved taking a more reactionary approach and working to ensure its business was set up to meet customer needs while safeguarding staff. That involved everything from reconfiguring call centres so staff could work safely and redeploying retail staff into other areas of the business, to removing caps on broadband and landline usage, and zero-rating calls and data to NHS 111.

We saw it as an amazing opportunity for a brand like BT to play an incredibly important role for the nation beyond trying to sell things.

Peter Jeavons, BT

“There was a huge amount of stuff we were doing from a reactionary point of view as soon as the lockdown happened,” says Jeavons.

“The first couple of weeks were spent getting to grips with all of that and making sure everyone who needed to know about those things were finding out about them – getting the right comms out to the right groups of people.”

With that work completed, his team took a step back to think more about how BT could help the nation bearing in mind its brand positioning of being a ‘national enabler’. It had already pulled a lot of its normal marketing activity around consideration and acquisition across both the BT and EE brands because it felt “inappropriate” to be trying to sell broadband and mobile, the team felt there was an opportunity beyond selling.

“We saw it as an amazing opportunity for a brand like BT to play an incredibly important role for the nation beyond trying to sell things. To really help with things that are top of mind, that are tech and connectivity related, in a public service delivery way,” Jeavons adds.

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He admits creating the campaign has been “intense”, with everyone working remotely to write scripts, find talent, film and edit. The team also struggled initially to get into the mindset of creating educational content rather than an ad, as well as worrying that the production value would not be up to normal standards – something they all soon realised just made the videos “more real and relatable”.

“It felt odd initially, an idea that was communicating things that actually weren’t really anything to do with BT, but was instead [sharing] useful information. For someone who is used to making ads and trying to make people buy things, it felt very alien,” Jeavons admits.

“It was interesting from a production point of view for all of us working on it – trying to get your mindset out of creating a piece of advertising communication and into a piece of educational communication was very difficult and took us a bit of time. We now have editorial meetings every morning where we sit down and ask what the topics are, what is hot on search, do we need to check plans, reviewing scripts and edits. It’s been a very different way of working.”

As such, the project’s success will be judged differently. Jeavons says if the videos help two or three people a day that will be “a win”, although of course there is hope this will cause an uptick in brand measures and people feeling that BT is relevant and has “struck the right chord”.

“I’d struggle to think of another brand that would be able to carry this and deliver it in such a credible way as BT can. It fits with everything we have been trying to do from a brand positioning job, it is amazing,” he adds.

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