The internet, TV and mobile company completely changed its marketing strategy in one day in response to the pandemic, brand manager Cilesta Van Doorn tells Alex Reeves
We’ve all found ourselves saying in the ‘strange and uncertain times’ since Covid-19 changed everything: “imagine how much worse this would be without the internet!”
For those under lockdown - particularly those in isolation or working from home - life is lived more online than in the real world now. That makes brands providing broadband like Virgin Media more vital than they’ve ever been. “In this situation, our services are critical. You rely on it even more. And it needs to work,” says Virgin Media UK’s brand and marketing director Cilesta Van Doorn.
Since the coronavirus pandemic really started to change life in the UK around a month ago, the internet provider has been working to support people around the country. For normal internet customers, Virgin Media’s removed caps on broadband, not just temporarily but for good, Virgin Mobile customers received an extra 10G of free data for one month, and to help entertain families cooped up at home, millions of Virgin Media customers are now getting extra TV channels.
Then there’s the support the company is giving to those people working to help us through this crisis. Virgin Media is providing NHS Trusts, key organisations and businesses that are delivering critical services at this time with additional bandwidth and availability as needed.
“Some of the hospitals reached out to us and said when people come in they don’t have chargers for their phones,” says Cilesta. “So we’ve donated chargers to make sure they can do their best.”
The Mayor of Bristol asked to have his mobile number to be changed to an 0800 number so that the people in his city could contact him for free. Normally this would take four to six weeks, says Cilesta, but the team made it happen in 24 hours.
She’s also very proud of the company’s engineers who are still out making sure people stay connected, although many people seem not to understand how essential their work is. “Sometimes it’s horrible to hear, we have engineers still out on the roads and people are shouting at them,” says Cilesta. “Do you know that those engineers are fixing NHS hospitals’ broadband? We are taking every precaution for them to do this safely.”
As director of the brand and marketing side of the business, Cilesta’s proud to see all of these tangible business changes ringing true with the brand purpose that she and her team put in place around over a year ago: ‘building connections that really matter’. “Right now this is the perfect way to showcase what we stand for as a company,” she says. “Everyone in our company puts connection at the heart of our thinking. So our purpose is coming to life in many different ways.”
In a pure marketing sense, coronavirus changed things for Virgin Media as fast as the zippiest fibre broadband. Only just over a month ago, Cilesta and her team were planning to shoot a new ad. They were ready to go, but the commercial set would have over 100 people in one place, including vulnerable and elderly cast members.
“At the time Boris Johnson’s advice was not mandatory. Which meant that if we would cancel the shoot, we would lose our money. Regardless of that we all said it was the right thing to do. We couldn’t go ahead. What if something happened? Would you be able to live with it? Would I willingly put those people at risk while I knew that coronavirus is out there? No.”
They cancelled the shoot, then they “took one day of crying and ‘what are we going to do now?’” And then they looked to the future.
“The moment you say we’re not going to do this shoot, you know that your whole plan for Q2 is going to change,” says Cilesta. “You need to plan for Q2 and even H2 in a way that is relevant for your brand and even more relevant to all the people in the UK.
“We have changed our whole brand strategy in one day.” Normally that’s a process that would take weeks of getting different parts of the business to rally behind one message, but this time it was simple. At the end of the day they had a new brief for all of their agencies to respond to: “The brief to our agencies was so clean and clear. This is the time for us to show who we really are as a brand. I said to the team, this is not about sticking out or beating our chest. This is a time for us to stick out our heart.”
Three days later adam&eveDDB had come back with a creative approach and seven days after that, a new, coronavirus-appropriate Virgin Media ad went live on TV. The spot cut together dozens of warm human moments from across YouTube and social media accounts, all of which wouldn’t have been possible to share without good connections, of course.
The process was smooth, says Cilesta, because everyone was aligned on what the brand needed to say at this time. “I would even argue this was the easiest one to get the tone right. Because we were all in the same place. We all felt this is what we need to do. We’re championing the ingenious, resilient ways the British people are dealing with it. And how they are connecting through these unprecedented times.
“Every time I see the video I cry. There are little things in there that make me feel so proud. The opening with the young doctor. When I look at his face I think he’s just a hero. Even the couple who were supposed to go on a cruise but did the cruise in front of the television. I love them! The little girl who says she misses ‘all of yous’. She warms me so much!”
The process was a collective effort, of course. The campaign rested on the various people who made these videos letting a big brand use them for advertising, but everyone was on board with the message. When they were offered money for their videos, some refused to take it and suggested Virgin Media donate the fees to the Red Cross. “It’s amazing to see how people join together and do the right thing for the nation,” says Cilesta.
Not all brands would be able to authentically convey a message of connected resilience like this, but Virgin Media has done its part to help people through this time. “The only way we could do this is if we had all the other things in place,” says Cilesta. “We’re taking care of our people, taking care of our customers, taking care of the critical workers, of the NHS staff. We’re even taking care of our competitors - when they can’t deliver something for the critical services they reach out to us and we help. We’re all united, we’re all bonding and doing the best we can.”