Virgin Media sees the coronavirus pandemic, and associated lockdown in the UK, as a time to show “who it really is as a brand” through the actions it takes and the messaging it puts out.

The telecoms company had a shoot for a new campaign planned for the middle of March, before the UK went into lockdown but as the situation was worsening. Despite the government not yet advising strict rules around working from home or limiting big gatherings, Virgin Media’s brand and marketing director, Cilesta Van Doorn, did not feel it would have been right to go ahead with the shoot.

“I felt it wasn’t safe for us to do this,” she tells Marketing Week. “The shoot would have had older people, more than 100 people on set. Even though it wasn’t mandatory, we cancelled it that Monday evening. I just thought, ‘would I ever be able to live with myself if something happened on that shoot?’ It meant we had to accept the cost [of the late cancellation]. But as a brand we had to stand up and focus.”

However, Virgin Media still had airtime booked and so just two days later Van Doorn was briefing its agency, Adam&eveDDB on a new campaign. This needed to fit into Virgin Media’s wider brand positioning of ‘building connections that really matter’, but also reflect the reality of the situation in the UK with the pandemic worsening and a lockdown imminent.

“I gave a brief to the agency where all I said was, ‘this is the time for us as a brand to show who we really are. Who we are is building connections that matter, and I want us to help lift the spirit of the nation and give them a little bit of our love’. That was basically the brief. It was so simple.”

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With no way of shooting new creative, brand and agency hit on the idea of using content the public was creating. The idea was to “champion people, show how resilient and resourceful they are, and how they are staying connected through unprecedented times,” says Van Doorn.

The campaign, which launched last week, shows footage of people coping in the crisis, including neighbours clapping a nurse as she heads off to work, elderly people in a care home social distancing while playing ‘hungry hippos’ and a couple whose cruise was cancelled recreating the experience at home. It ends with the lines, ‘Stay home. Stay safe. Stay connected’.

Everyone in the ad was asked if they wanted to be involved and offered a financial benefit, although many asked for theirs to be donated to The Red Cross.

“I can’t watch it myself without crying because this is what it is all about, all of us globally staying in and keeping everyone safe and healthy,” says Van Doorn.

I only dared to do [this campaign] because of all the measures we have put in place to support our customers.

Cilesta Van Doorn, Virgin Media

While Virgin had the TV slots booked the airtime was for 40 seconds, while its new ad was 60 seconds long. Keen to show the full film, Virgin Media spoke to the broadcasters about how to accommodate the full ad.

“We worked relentlessly and eight days later we were ready. Amazing!” she exclaims.

The campaign was also created with everyone working remotely. Van Doorn admits this threw up challenges, particularly around communicating edits which is “easier to do when you are all together in a room”.

However, she also believes the clear brief also made it easier to pull together than most campaigns. “There was no ambiguity,” she recalls. “When you see the ending there is no call to action, no talk of ‘because of our network’. No, this is not about us, this is about celebrating the UK, giving back to the UK. This has nothing to do with us trying to sell in something, not at all.”

With no attempt to sell, the campaign is purely about brand building. That means Virgin Media is tracking brand KPIs and NPS to ascertain its success. NPS is particularly important as alongside the campaign Virgin Media has put in place a number of initiatives to support its customers and colleagues.

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These include offering mobile customers 10GB of data and unlimited minutes at no extra cost, removing the data cap for broadband customers that still had one, and offering TV customers free kids channels and free or discounted access to the latest film releases. For employees, meanwhile, it has updated the ways it works to ensure engineers are safe and given staff laptops so they can work from home.

Elsewhere, it has also been helping NHS staff by, for example, donating phone chargers so they can stay connected while working.

“I only dared to do [this campaign] because of all the measures we have put in place to support our customers,” says Van Doorn. “If you do all of that then you feel you are in the right place to say we can rally the nation. That’s what we wanted to do here.”

Van Doorn is not sure how long the current campaign will air on TV for, saying that with the situation and mood of the nation constantly changing, the company is having to constantly monitor whether its message and tone are still right. However, it does have more in the pipeline, including social media activations and more initiatives “to really help people”.

“We want to tune into where the nation is at. We will be closely monitoring when we feel it is the right thing to do or when we should be changing. We are looking at the opportunities and what will be the next phase – what can we do now, how long is it ok to be there? These are questions we ask ourselves every day right now,” she concludes.

“The way we feel right now might change in two days or tonight. We are taking it one day at a time, planning one day at a time.”

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