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Opinion and Insight

Brand Insight: British Gas, 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Head of Marketing Miriam Jordan Keane shares a client’s perspective on creative bravery at Kinsale Sharks

Brand Insight: British Gas

When Miriam Jordan Keane joined British Gas, the brand didn’t so much have a Facebook page as a ‘wall of abuse’. She was joining the utilities sector, which was more hated by the public than banks and politicians. Internally, she was dealing with a business that saw marketing and creativity as ‘the fluffies’. 

As the incoming Head of Marketing… she had a tough job ahead of her. 

Three-and-a-half years later, and things are starting to change for the brand. They’ve got an adorable mascot (Wilbur the penguin), a strategy that leverages emotion rather than bargain boilers and they’re creating useful products for customers (such as the recently launched Local Heroes platform, which connects people with vetted tradespeople). Miriam is speaking at the Kinsale Sharks Festival to share the journey that she and the brand have been on – and to talk about what ‘creative bravery’ means from a client perspective.

Everything clicked into place creatively when their agency CHI & Partners came up with associating the British Gas brand with that cosy feeling of being in a warm house on Christmas morning. That emotional insight led to the development of Wilbur the Penguin, a little explorer who likes to scout about snug homes in the middle of the night. Wilbur has proven a bit of a hit with the public – when people engage with the brand, they’re now more likely to ask whether or not Wilbur has a girlfriend than to complain. The cuddly Wilbur toys that came out are now going for about £50 on eBay. It’s taken what Miriam calls ‘baby steps’, but the previously utilitarian utilities brand has discovered the power of emotion.

If all that sounds smooth and easy, that’s not quite true. Miriam – a former agency person whose CV includes the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, Y&R, Grey, Publicis Focus – is well-versed in the importance of creativity and understands how to motivate and collaborate with agencies. However, she says, that’s only one part of the ‘creative bravery’ puzzle. Often heads of marketing then have to persuade the less creatively inclined parts of the business to share that ‘blind faith’.

Catching up with Miriam after her talk, she says that Wilbur is a great illustration of this. “The bizarre thing is what Wilbur has done internally because people get him. They didn’t at the beginning but now they do,” she says. She recalls a conversation with the MD of British Gas, who struggled to get his head around Wilbur – and the British obsession with animals. All that changed when he took a stuffed Wilbur toy home to his mother. At a family gathering, his small niece spotted the toy and ran towards it screaming ‘my penguin!’ Quick as a flash, his mother shook her head and put her hand on the box, protectively, and said, “No. He’s mine.”

“And at that point he got it,” laughs Miriam. “Real people who are part of our life are going ‘I want that penguin’. It sounds kind of silly, but internally, for people whose job is not about making the creative, he’s tangible. They can see why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Another key change Miriam has instituted is the way that her team interacts with the brand’s agencies CHI, Ogilvy and MediaCom.

“We have an absolutely open relationship as we do with Ogilvy and Mediacom. And it’s as much about giving them the space to tell me what I’m doing wrong. It’s not a one-way street. Why should I have permission, simply because we’re paying the cheque, to say everything we’re saying is right? I’m paying them for their expertise so I need to listen to that,” she says. With CHI’s CEO Sarah Golding – whom Miriam affectionately refers to as ‘Goldie’ – she says that they ‘absolutely have each others’ back’. 

As a former agency exec, Miriam also gets the practicalities and pressures of making great work. She’s keen to ensure that the rest of her team understands that too. “I think it’s a lot harder for people who have spent their whole life client side. We now do job swaps with the agency and we get some of the agency guys into our team and vice versa. Coming back to that relationship of trust, it helps to understand each other’s side. My teams, client teams, will often say to me ‘I don’t get it, why can’t they turn it around faster?’. Go in and sit with them, see what the reality of life is like. A creative idea is not something you go and get out of a coffee machine.”

When it comes to the creative temperament, Miriam is empathetic. That’s why, when the conversation gets onto the topic of awards, she says that she’s not a fan of the news of Publicis Groupe’s awards moratorium. Most clients, she says, don’t really care – but if they help inspire and motivate talent, then they still have value. “It’s a way to get the best creative people to still want to be in the business. I think if you were churning out your ideas, your creative all the time and no one took the time to say ‘well done’, or to put on events like this, it could be a bit soul destroying,” she says. “I used to work with P&G and 20 years ago no one would have thought that Procter and Gamble would be featuring in shortlists for bravery awards, although that company has marketing in its DNA. They’re starting to go Cannes and they’re investing in the awards and it’s another part of that relationship – if it matters to the agencies then it should matter to us too.”

Equally though, she thinks it’s important for the creative team to empathise with the politics and pressures that marketers face if they are to protect and push a great creative idea.

“It’s especially hard for the creative people who are a bit more removed, to understand that it’s [creative] not your whole day. It’s part of your life, and when you’re in marketing it’s the most important part of your life, but for the other people in the business - that you have to get onside - it’s not so. It’s so teeny to them and therefore to find ways to make them understand the value of buying brave, of taking a risk, of doing a little bit of ‘close your eyes and jump off a cliff’… and that’s why I keep coming back to the idea of trust.”

Ultimately, the brand is seeing the rewards of putting its faith in creativity. And Miriam’s deliberate nurturing of her team’s talent is starting to change the ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ mentality.  And they’ve now got some exciting projects on the go. Together with the Data Analytics and Insight team, the Customer Products and Propositions team, the marketing team is launching projects like the aforementioned Local Heroes and continuing to push and develop the brand’s IoT ‘connected home’ Hive platform. And then there’s Wilbur, who’s gearing up for a very cosy Christmas.
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Category: Gas , Utilities