In the UK, inflation and high interest rates combined with stagnating wages mean that consumers are watching the pennies throughout a euphemistically-named ‘cost of living crisis’. For marketers, that means being sensitive to people’s struggles and a focus on value for money - but with an added challenge. The country has been slogging through surging fuel and food prices for so long that the very mention of it is enough to get people’s backs up and turn them off. So. How do marketers address the cost of living crisis without talking about the cost of living crisis?
That’s something that telecomms giant Vodafone were tussling with ahead of their new campaign. The ad, created by agency partner Ogilvy Red and starring upbeat Eurovision runner-up Sam Ryder, sees a mother and daughter swap a glitching handset for a newly-refurbished model ahead of their trip to a concert. It’s been created to promote Vodafone EVO, the brand’s flexible interest free contract option and to highlight that refurbed handsets are now part of the cost effective offering. But while it’s an offering that combines the cost of living squeeze and a more sustainable option, the ad’s messaging deliberately avoids messaging around austerity, belt tightening or the piety of greener choices. Instead it’s an optimistic tale of cross-generational bonding, with a little help from the UK music scene’s equivalent of a human Labrador.
Vodafone’s brand and marketing director Maria Koutsoudakis explains that this whole offering came out of an attempt to create an offering that would be welcomed by consumers during straitened economic time.
“It did start off as a Q1 cost of living brief - strategically, internally, what we looked to communicate,” explains Maria. “We looked at all the propositions that we had within Vodafone and what we thought was the most appropriate. The flexibility of Vodafone Evo and the refurbished range came out as the two strongest, in this case,we’ve combined them.”
While Vodafone has offered refurbished handsets for some time, Maria says that the company was now confident it had build credibility in the space and had sufficient stock to push the message out there. Each recycled phone comes with a two-year warranty and 32-point quality check, reassuring customers on the condition of their purchase.
The team did extensive research into the customer mindset and the narrative of the ‘permacrisis’, a word that so potently describes the never-ending blur from Brexit to covid-19 to war in Ukraine to surging prices that it became Collins Dictionry’s word of 2022.
“Customers are telling us that they’re tired of hearing those words. There’s fatigue to the narrative of cost of living because it’s not a ‘crisis’ it just ‘is’. So therefore we sort of just need to get on with it,” says Maria.
Another insight was that while people were looking to spend more carefully on things like mobile phone contracts, it wasn’t necessarily the cost or bill that was worrying consumers most. Surging gas and electricity bills and mortgages have been commanding considerably more attention and causing more worry, and so the Vodafone team needed to “play true to the role that we play within their lives”.
Similarly, the team took a shrewd approach to how they handled the sustainability angle of expanding their offering to include refurbished handsets. The messaging steers clear of green cliches - while Vodafone has made progress on its sustainability credentials (it will reach net zero for its UK operations by 2027, its business and network is powered by 100% renewable electricity, and it has recently switched to SIM cards made from recycled plastic), Maria says the team didn’t want to overstate or greenwash the benefits of recycled handsets, and nor did they want to patronise customers by labouring the point that refurbed phones are cheaper.
What has happened is that attitudes towards recycled goods or circular models have changed and Vodafone’s breezy campaign slips into this normalisation.
Maria reflects that while green choices have been associated with a certain premium in some categories, in others, like fashion second hand has long been understood to be the cheaper option. “I think what’s happened is that categories enjoyed the benefit of always being understood to be great value but now also, on reflection, it’s better or kinder to the planet because we’re not generating new. We’re not claiming it is carbon neutral or has no impact but it is a kinder choice because it’s secondhand. That’s where we’ve ended up on the narrative: it’s kind to the planet and kind to the pocket - why wouldn’t you?”
Ultimately the whole campaign has been designed to strike a chord with families who are already experts at making smart choices to save money, who don’t want to be spoken down to and who prize quality time spent together above all else.
“We have an ambition to resonate with UK families. We’ve spent a lot of time really trying to understand them, and there is a ‘make it clear, make it relevant, make it simple, don’t overcomplicate it, don’t over-promise’ narrative that they’re asking for from industries like ours and that’s what we have tried to play into. Ultimately, I don’t have to tell you that a second hand phone is cheaper - you expect it to be! You’d be surprised if it wasn’t, but I’m just telling you it’s now available at Vodafone.”
The mother-daughter story hits the family brief, and the team knew they wanted create a musical connection with this campaign. “We know music plays such a huge part in British culture, these moments where families come together, suddenly we needed an artist that crossed the generations, it would be the kind of concert that a parent and child would go to together, it’s not necessarily one or the other. And we needed an artist with optimism - and Sam definitely has that in bundles.”
Sam Ryder, who came second in 2022’s Eurovision Song Contest with his soaring ballad Spaceman was the obvious choice. However, Maria counts herself fortunate that they were able to convince him to come onboard. Maria says that Sam is very careful about the brands that he partners with and he scrutinised Vodafone’s sustainability efforts as well as its efforts to bridge the UK’s digital divide, such as its work with the National Databank and the Trussel Trust. It all clicked into place and Maria says that at the shoot, Sam was full of his trademark optimism, energy and generosity, happily posing for selfies.
The end result is a campaign that’s sweet, happy and exuberant, which the Vodafone team hopes will prove to be helpful. “What we’re simply saying is, when you choose to do something, don’t let tech get in the way of you getting the most out of what you’ve chosen to do,” says Maria. “Because, actually, the tech you really want is much more accessible at Vodafone than you think.”